Australian Heroin Addicts Can't Use Ibogaine to Kick the Habit

Many swear by the addiction-ridding powers of the controversial psychotropic plant, but it remains banned in Australia.

by Chris Shearer
Feb 25 2015, 12:00am

Tabernanthe iboga bark powder. Image via Wikicommons user Kgjerstad

Tabernanthe iboga bark powder. Image via Wikicommons user Kgjerstad

As Trainspotting probably taught you, the hardest part of quitting heroin is getting through the withdrawals. That's why doctors prescribe methadone to users—the idea is to placate's the body's intense physiological need for heroin. Of course, methadone is an opiate itself, so it doesn't actually nullify the cravings. It simply takes the body much longer to metabolize than heroin so users can enjoy a functioning life between hits. There is however, a drug that has been shown to kill both cravings and withdrawals and isn't an opiate. It's just that the drug is a highly controversial, illegal, and psychotropic plant.

The Tabernanthe Iboga shrub. Image via Jasen

Ibogaine, which has been covered by VICE before, is a drug extracted from the root bark of a West African shrub called Tabernanthe Iboga. Its exact effects still poorly understood, save for the fact that it drastically reduces heroin cravings while sending users on a dissociative trip that lasts up to 72 hours. This last aspect is why ibogaine has gained a new age following much as peyote has.

A number of underground rehab clinics offering ibogaine treatment operate internationally, but Australia's only one closed in 2010. This was when the proprietor, a man known only as Jasen, left to work in New Zealand, where ibogaine is less stringently regulated. He returned to Australia in 2013 and is again offering treatment advice here.

"The success rate is amazing," Jasen exclaims over the phone. He explains that at the age of 38 ibogaine helped him to overcome heroin after living as an addict for most of his life. This put him on the path of advocacy so today, he continues to provide ibogaine to addicts. "People can call me and I'll put it all on the table for them," he says. "But what they're about to take is a very serious medicine. It's not to be taken lightly."

Jasen describes ibogaine as "tough but wonderful" and tells me that after a single dose his patients won't sleep for days.

Often confused with a hallucinogen, people in ethno-chemistry circles refer to ibogaine as an oneirogenic—a substance that causes lucid dreams. The experience is reputed to be extremely intense and forces long, often painful, periods of self-reflection. Jasen describes taking ibogaine as "tough but wonderful" and tells me that after a single dose his patients won't sleep for days and will be exhausted for several weeks. Indeed, it's the experience's intensity and associated health complications that make it so controversial.

In Australia, ibogaine is classified as a schedule 4 drug, meaning it can't be imported or administered without a license granted by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Currently Australians have to illegally import ibogaine or travel to Central America or Thailand where its distribution is unregulated and treatment can cost upwards of $10,000.

A renewed international interest in ibogaine during mid 1990s proved its adeptness as an addiction killer, but it has also been linked to deaths. In October last year an Australian man died in Thailand while undergoing ibogaine therapy. His girlfriend described watching him thrash about on a hotel bed until he suffocated. " He was short of breath," she told Fairfax, "and then he stopped breathing. He was staring at me with his eyes wide open." An American expat who owned the clinic said the man had died of a methamphetamine overdose, a claim that his girlfriend denied.

Ibogaine extract used in rehab treatment. Image via Dr. Steven Bright

This was not an isolated case. As a 2006 German study into ibogaine noted, "The cerebellar nucleus responds to small doses with a stimulation of the sympathetic system, leading to a fight or flight reaction. High doses, however, lead to a vagal dominance, or a 'feigned death.'" In other words, the ibogaine trip is so intense that it places your body under the same stress as nearly dying does.

Dr. Steven Bright, a psychologist and coordinator of Addiction Studies at Curtain University, acknowledges these dangers but believes they're outweighed by the benefits. According to him, the only real reason ibogaine is banned in Australia is a lack of research into controversial drugs. "We're really on the back burner when it comes to psychedelic research," he says. "There's a good 12, 15 studies worldwide now, and we haven't got one clinical trail started in Australia."

Brights says it's this lack of trials that locks ibogaine into a catch-22 situation. Without research he says, the only information on the drug is anecdotal from the unregulated market. These horror stories neither further the case for trials nor provide any useful data on their own. As he says, "pharmaceutical companies run clinical trials to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of their drugs, but without the clinical trials, there's no evidence to utilize it as a therapeutic product."

Jasen recommends those who call him a list of overseas clinics that he knows have minimum safety standards. On top of this he's hoping to get a license to import and administer ibogaine in the future. "We don't care if it's legal or illegal," he says. "We would just like a license to import and administer the drug, even if it all has to be done by doctors. We don't mind, as long as it's available for Australians."

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