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HOT TOPICS: Drug and Alcohol Treatment  Heroin

Inside the Ibogaine Underground

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The Ibogaine shrub photo via

By Matt Harvey

12/14/12

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Whether or not Lotsof was eventually able to wean himself off methadone remains murky. But the logical question is, if the Ibogaine actually reversed his heroin addiction, why didn’t he “re-cure” himself with the drug when he relapsed? (The fact that Lotsof’s company, NDA International, theoretically owned the US patent to Ibogaine in the 1990s, when he was busy lobbying for clinical trials on the way to FDA approval, raises additional questions.)

•••

The hours limped by, only punctuated by Seth periodically popping out of the door to take his pills “as prescribed,” or me going to check on him. Mostly he stared towards the candle-lit wall and listened to surprisingly syrupy ballads on repeat. The visual patterns he was seeing on the wall consisted of “lots of lights,” reminding him of “a giant game of Tetris.”

A while later, still straight on his back, he voiced his first complaint: “It feels like these light trails will never end."

Seth had gotten through most of the dose when his motor coordination went completely haywire. He needed help being guided into the bathroom. When he staggered out he worried that his pupils “looked really strange.” He asked me to take his pulse, which was still steady. With an edge in his voice, he said, “I hope this doesn’t just keep getting worse.”

I fed Seth a combination of Xanax and Seroquel that he had brought along in case the trip got too hairy. An hour later, somewhat sedated and steady, Seth took his last scheduled dose. He had taken 32 pills in less than eight hours.

A few hours later: “Arggghhhh!”—a long groan from my room. I rushed inside. “What’s the matter, man?” I asked. “I feel like my legs are on fire,” he said. Now that the Ibogaine was wearing off, Seth’s withdrawals seemed to be coming back twofold.

Some advocates liken underground Ibogaine providers to those rebels who ran the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.

It was 8 p.m. when Steve half-crawled out of my room—a pale, weak specimen—plunked himself down on a chair and said what had probably been on his mind for hours: “Dude, if I don’t get some dope I’m going to be stuck here. I have absolutely no energy, I can’t move, my legs hurt so much.” I was a little pissed off. “You’re not even going to give the Ibogaine—this great miracle—another chance?” I asked.

As an ex-junkie, I had heard plenty of talk like that, mainly from my own mouth. Besides, I was worried that with the sedatives in his system, and a reduced tolerance via the Ibogaine, there was a real chance he could OD. “We’ll just have to make sure I’m extra careful,” he said.

Soon a white middle-aged dealer from Bushwick was ringing my bell. Barely raising his head from the pillow, Seth snorted one of the bags and almost instantly went into a deep sleep. After checking his pulse, I took the remaining two he had bought and put them in his bag in the front closet.

Two hours later he was up and eating oatmeal, talking about the election results. He was packed up and gone soon after.

•••

Ibogaine does have allies in the medical establishment, even in the US, where it is usually dismissed. The prime American defender is NYU-affiliated psychiatrist Dr. Kenneth Alper, who frequently collaborated with Lotsof on academic studies of the drug’s usage and fatalities. In Lotsof’s Times obituary, Alper advocated Ibogaine treatment for opiate-dependent populations, even if the users had to go it alone.

Online literature from the Dora Weiner Foundation, a group dedicated to the continuation of Lotsof’s legacy, likens underground Ibogaine providers to those rebels who ran the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Such high-minded—if seductive—rhetoric notwithstanding, the question of just how far patients should go to make decisions about their own healthcare—even to the point of breaking the law—is a serious one.

During the early years of the AIDS crisis, when neither the government nor private industry was bothering to look for treatments, desperate gay men—watching themselves and their partners waste away—imported experimental treatments from outside the country and distributed them via a network of “buyers clubs.” Doctors sympathetic to the community sometimes risked their careers to administer these promising (or not), mostly untested compounds, some of which were dangerous. Although operating outside the law, the buyers clubs were tolerated by the FDA because of pressure from the community.

The idea that people with a life-threatening illness have the right to access unapproved treatments—even risky ones—has gained credibility, although it remains controversial. Doctors, for one, are split on it. Addicts currently cannot become members of this special club. But should they, especially given the lamentable absence of effective drug treatments? The answer may depend on the answer to the question, is addiction a life-threatening illness? There is a slow trend among experts toward yes. But to force the issue, addicts would have to turn their despair into action. And that may require a turnaround that leads to recovery anyway.

As for Seth, he called me last week from Maui to thank me and tell me that so far, he was still clean. "The Ibogaine was the best thing I've ever done," he said.

Matt Harvey is an award-winning freelance journalist whose writing has appeared on AnimalNY.comBlack Book, the New York Post and the New York Press among other publications. He lives in Manhattan.

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