When Murtaza Majeed learned that the international health organization Doctors of the World planned to open Afghanistan’s first needle-exchange operation, the idea seemed preposterous. The Islamic nation suffers a heroin epidemic of horrific proportions in large part because addicts are treated as utter pariahs.
“There was nothing that existed to help drug addicts,” Majeed, a Kabul resident and former staff member in Doctors of the World’s harm-reduction program, told VICE News. “The concept of our government was, unfortunately, either you use drugs or you don’t use drugs.”
Despite the cultural disdain for addiction, Doctors of the World began handing out free, clean needles in 2005 and started offering methadone to Kabul’s junkies a few years later. It helped that Majeed and others administering the program had the support of the World Health Organization, the Global Fund, and other influential non-governmental organizations. But Majeed also developed a strong argument to sway skeptics.
“We had to convince them it was something that could help drug users and help the society,” he said. “Everyone, at the end of the day, wants to cure drug addiction. For me, harm reduction was a step in between. By having harm reduction, we can talk with drug users and try to make them addiction-free.”
Yet the introduction of those services has ultimately done little to curb the insatiable demand for drugs in Afghanistan. The United Nations estimates that 1.6 million Afghans — more than 5 percent of the population — are addicted.
Majeed, who is 27, has now plotted an audacious response to the growing crisis. It involves a hallucinogenic drug from Africa, a self-proclaimed shaman, and the rapper Immortal Technique.
The idea is to open Afghanistan’s first rehab clinic specializing in ibogaine treatment. Ibogaine is an alkaloid extracted from the root bark of a rainforest shrub native to western Central Africa. It has been used for centuries as a vision-inducing sacrament in religious ceremonies, and has become increasingly popular as an alternative method of kicking heroin addiction. Proponents claim that the intense, dreamlike state prompts junkies to re-evaluate their lives, and scientific research has found evidence suggesting that ibogaine blocks withdrawal symptoms and suppresses drug cravings.
According to Tom Kingsley Brown, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego, who works closely with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, there is no scientific consensus on how ibogaine works in the body, but its effects on recovering addicts are often dramatic.
“You get this interruption of the addiction where you don’t get the withdrawal symptoms,” Brown said. “It also has been shown to reduce the kind of cravings you get for heroin and other kinds of opiates. That cessation of the cravings can last for months for many people.”
The problem with ibogaine is that it can produce a variety of harsh side effects, including severe nausea and vertigo. It occasionally even kills people. Since 1990, at least 19 people have died after taking it, mostly due to preexisting medical conditions or because it was combined with other drugs. Ibogaine is a Schedule I substance in the United States, a designation reserved for heroin, MDMA, marijuana, and other drugs the government believes have a high potential of abuse and no accepted medical application. Ibogaine is largely unregulated elsewhere, however, and clinics — many of which charge thousands of dollars per visit — treat patients in dozens of countries around the globe, including in Canada and Mexico.
The drug’s most prominent evangelist is Dimitri “Mobengo” Mugianis, a 51-year-old recovered heroin addict turned New York ibogaine shaman. Mugianis underwent ibogaine treatment in the Netherlands and eventually studied Bwiti, an African religion that uses the drug ritualistically. He performed illicit ibogaine ceremonies on recovering opiate addicts in the US until he was targeted by a DEA sting operation in 2011 that ended with a misdemeanor drug possession charge, a small fine, and a brief period of house arrest. Mugianis now performs the ceremonies in Costa Rica and works at the non-profit New York Harm Reduction Educators in East Harlem and the Bronx. An episode of VICE on HBO featured him conducting an ibogaine ceremony with a heroin addict in Tijuana.
Majeed met Mugianis in 2009 at a harm reduction conference in Bangkok, and today refers to the shaman as “one of my greatest advisors.” Mugianis told VICE News that he hopes to create “a circle of healing” by treating Afghan junkies and American war vets suffering from addiction and PTSD.
“It’s about working both sides of the conflict and bringing healing to both sides,” Mugianis said. “But the thing about doing this is, you know, it’s Afghanistan. You can end up with some bodies on your hands very quickly unless you’re very, very careful.”
Majeed’s safety is a particular concern. He left Afghanistan three years ago because he had “some political issues with the government,” as well as personal problems that he declined to discuss. He now lives in Sweden and feels safe enough to have scheduled a return to Kabul in September, when he plans to begin the bureaucratic process of getting ibogaine approved as medicine. If all goes smoothly, an ibogaine specialist from South Africa will supply the drug and travel to Afghanistan to help launch the program and train local doctors — but that is hardly a sure thing.
The Afghan Ministry of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment about ibogaine and the country’s drug policy. Majeed said that ibogaine currently occupies a legal gray area in Afghanistan, were it is not specifically banned or sanctioned. The main obstacle is that it is frowned upon by American health officials who have considerable influence over their Afghan counterparts.
“We are quite influenced by American drug policies,” Majeed said. “The focus is always on drug cultivation. The government’s main focus is, ‘We're producing more than 90 percent of heroin in the world, so we should eradicate everything.’ But nobody is caring about the drug users.”
It took years of campaigning just to get a mainstream treatment like methadone into the country. Olivier Maguet, who headed the Doctors of the World harm reduction effort in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2013, told VICE News that public health officials supported the organization’s project in Kabul, but noted that the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics was “more than reluctant” to embrace methadone. He added that the government has yet to expand the program.
There’s also the difficulty of convincing officials in a devoutly Islamic nation to embrace a potent hallucinogenic drug. Anwar Jeewa, the South African ibogaine specialist who hopes eventually to join Majeed’s enterprise in Afghanistan, told VICE News that he has treated over 1,500 patients in his country with no interference from religious leaders.
“We have a very conservative Muslim community here, and nobody has objected,” Jeewa said. “The majority of the patients I’ve treated are Muslims. They understand this is a plant material that is natural, it is not contradicting Islam in any way.”
In addition to Mugianis, two charismatic New Yorkers are helping Majeed raise money to cover his travel expenses and fund the ibogaine project. The first is Felipe Coronel, better known by his stage name Immortal Technique. The respected indie rapper supports a variety of international aid ventures, including an orphanage in Afghanistan and Majeed’s effort to bring an ibogaine clinic to Kabul.
“I thought at least I could give [ibogaine] a chance and have a conversation about it and force that conversation into the halls of American government,” Immortal Technique told VICE News. “Ibogaine does what the US military and all its might tried to do, which is stop heroin addiction. The poppy situation is one reason we’re there. This takes away from the excuses America has to be there.”
The rapper was recruited to the cause by Dana Beal, a 67-year-old New York political activist with a bushy white handlebar mustache, who is known for supporting medical marijuana and ibogaine. Beal landed in trouble with the law in 2008 when he was caught in Illinois with two duffel bags stuffed with $150,000, cash he planned to use to fund an ibogaine research clinic. He was also arrested with two companions in 2009 after a traffic stop in Nebraska turned up 150 pounds of pot in their van, and again in 2010 after Wisconsin police found 186 pounds of pot in another van. Beal was paroled in February after serving prison sentences in Nebraska and Wisconsin.
He told VICE News that he had raised more than $5,000 on Majeed’s behalf, including several thousand dollars at a fundraiser last month that featured a performance by Immortal Technique. Beal said that his goal is to help establish ibogaine treatment in Afghanistan as a way to raise the profile of the drug in the US.
“The road to ibogaine goes through Kabul,” Beal says. “When rich Americans here read that they can’t be treated with this but the poorest people in Kabul are getting treated, they’ll say, ‘Hey, why can’t we get that here?’ ”
Majeed, however, cautions that it might be a long time before the first Afghan junkie receives a dose of ibogaine. His short-term goal is to create a small pilot project, which will require securing approval from officials with the country’s Ministries of Public Health, Justice, and Counter Narcotics. Drawing on his previous experience advocating harm reduction in Afghanistan, Majeed has already perfected his pitch.
“In the Qur’an it says for every disease we have a medicine on Earth, and it’s the responsibility of humans to search for it,” Majeed said. “That’s my opening line when I talk about ibogaine. Maybe this is the treatment God has created for us.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton
Photo via Wikimedia Commons