Giving a heroin addict one of the most powerful psychedelic drugs seems like a bad idea. Yet that’s exactly what a group of scientists will do this month. Ibogaine, they say, might be the best way to break drug addicts of their habit.
Ibogaine, a brown powder derived from the African Tabernathe iboga plant, has intrigued researchers since 1962, when Howard Lotsof, a student at New York University and an opiate addict, found that a single dose erased his drug cravings without causing any withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, the hallucinogen can increase the risk of cardiac arrest, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency lists it as a Schedule 1 substance, a classification for drugs like ecstasy and LSD with “no known medical value” and “high potential for abuse,” making it difficult to get federal funding to run clinical trials.
Animal tests, however, have shown the drug’s medicinal promise. “Rats addicted to morphine will quit for weeks after receiving ibogaine,” says Stanley Glick, the director of the Center for Neuropharmacology and Neuroscience at Albany Medical College. And addicts have reported positive effects in Mexico and Europe, where ibogaine therapy is legal. “Going cold turkey is horrible. There’s vomiting and diarrhea and pain and a constant drug craving,” says Randy Hencken, a drug user who was treated in Mexico. “After ibogaine, I didn’t feel any symptoms or cravings. I’ve been clean for nine years. Heroin and cocaine no longer have any power over me.”