Going on a 36-hour trip may reverse a lifelong drug addiction. This proves problematic when the psychoactive that induces the trip — ibogaine — has been classified as a Schedule I substance. Ibogaine: Rite of Passage is a documentary that explores the drug’s medicinal potential.
“The irony is, the definition of a Schedule I substance is something that has absolutely no medicinal value,” says Patrick Kroupa, a former heroin addict and ibogaine activist, in the film. “Now I’d say that something that let’s you completely step out of heroin addiction, or move away from crack — or an entire variety of substance abuse disorders — has a whole hell of a lot of medicinal value.”
Ibogaine is an extract of Tabernanthe iboga, a perennial rainforest shrub with psychoactive properties found primarily in Gabon. Bwiti practitioners in Gabon and Cameroon traditionally use iboga roots to cure illness.
The film begins with Massavou ‘Bandzi’, a 22-year-old Gabonese woman who turns to iboga after struggling with a mysterious illness for a year. In traditional contexts, initiates consume the revolting-tasting iboga root over a period of a few days.
According to the traditional iboga practitioner featured in the film, Mallendi Nzamba, an iboga experience is concrete and visionary. In the beginning, practitioners place a mirror before Massavou so she can access her inner self. Answers don’t come from hallucinations, but from the concrete image staring back at her.
In Western contexts, traditional Bwiti medicine has been taken out of its community setting and adapted to mimic Western medicinal practices.
Cy Kobey, an interviewee in the film, was seeking ibogaine treatment to end his heroin addiction. His and Massavou’s treatment ordeals are dramatically juxtaposed in several montages throughout the film.
While Cy lies in bed alone or talks one-on-one with white-coated professionals in a clinical setting, Massavou is surrounded by members of a Bwiti community who dance and drum around her, chant, or simply sit nearby. While Cy is separated from his children during his treatment, Massavou holds her infant child several times throughout her initiation. The disconnect between the cultural practices surrounding the use of iboga in either context remains apparent throughout the film.
The Drug that Ends Drug Addictions
Howard Lotsof, a leading advocate for ibogaine in the United States, who passed away in 2010, first became aware of the drug’s potential to treat addiction in the early 1960s. At the time, he was 19-years-old and addicted to heroin. A friend of his, a chemist, recommended he try ibogaine. He took the drug and embarked on the 36-hour trip.
“33 hours later, I thought to myself, I’m exhausted, I’m going to sleep for a week, and I’m never going to take this drug again,” said Lotsof in the film. “I got dressed, I walked out of the house, and that’s when I realized that I was not in narcotic withdrawal.”
Classified in the United States as a Schedule I substance, recovering addicts have trouble legally accessing ibogaine. However, Lotsof’s experience with ibogaine sparked a lifelong campaign to make the drug available in safe, clinical contexts. He co-authored a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology about the ibogaine subculture that arose in response to widespread demand for the drug in recent decades.
“The subculture is to a significant extent an innovation by its participants in response to a demand for a treatment that is unavailable in the conventional medical setting,” write the authors. “Although it involves alternative means, the ibogaine subculture shares with the conventional medical culture the common goal of providing treatment, which it emulates in the medical model type, or the utilization by lay treatment providers of medical tests for pretreatment evaluation.”
Ibogaine is legal in Mexico — among other countries around the world — and several clinics in Baja offer recovering addicts ibogaine treatment. The documentary follows Cy, a 34-year-old father of three from San Diego, as he undergoes ibogaine treatment for his heroin addiction at a clinic in Rosarito.
After an intense and emotional 36-hour trip, Cy comes out of the recovery center free of withdrawal symptoms, albeit exhausted.
“I feel like I’m totally drug free,” Cy says in the film, before noting that he felt exhausted by the work the substance had forced him to do.
Patrick Kroupa, who also suffered from a heroin addiction, had a similar experience.
“It blocks opiate withdrawal cravings,” he said. “It works. Nothing else does. You’re not going to withdrawal.”
Interviewees in the documentary stressed that while ibogaine curbs withdrawal symptoms, it won’t work unless the individual wants to end their drug addiction.
“Ibogaine is not a magic bullet,” says Randy Hencken, who works for the Ibogaine Association in Rosarito. “It’s not a cure for addiction. It’s an addiction interrupter. It will give many people a chance they would not have without it. I like to say ibogaine is a catalyst for change.”
The Vast Uncontrolled Experiment
While the film is full of success testimonials such as Cy’s and Kroupa’s, it does little to address the specific neurobiological mechanisms by which ibogaine cures drug addiction. This is in part due to the drug’s classification as Schedule I, which has limited research exploring its effects.
“What exactly does it do?” Kroupa said. “We don’t know.”
The necessity of practicing ibogaine treatment in non-legal contexts has spawned what the 2008 Journal of Ethnopharmacology study authors call a “vast uncontrolled experiment” wherein off-the-grid practitioners are doing most of the “research.”
In non-conventional contexts, ibogaine fatalities are correlated with cardiac or pulmonary disease, according to the authors of the paper. The authors speculate the 11 known deaths that occurred as a result of ibogaine use between 1990 and 2006, however, resulted more from inexperienced practitioners than pre-existing medical conditions.
Few peer-reviewed experiments have been published. One 1996 study published in Brain Research showed larger doses of ibogaine can be neurotoxic to rats. According to the authors of the 2008 Journal of Ethnopharmacology study, there is no evidence suggesting ibogaine is neurotoxic to humans.
According to Lotsof, there is little incentive on the part of pharmaceutical companies to legalize ibogaine for two reasons. First, notes Lotsof in the film, ibogaine is in highest demand among recovering drug addicts. This specific demographic has a high fatality rate, which creates a liability for pharmaceutical companies marketing the drug.
Second, Lotsof said, pharmaceutical companies have loyalties to shareholders who want to see companies spend their money in the most profitable way possible. Catering to the highly stigmatized community of individuals with severe opioid dependence does not “look good,” in this sense.
“The pharmaceutical industry is not there to develop medications to cure disease,” said Lotsof in the film. “It’s there to develop medications to increase the profits of shareholders.”
As seen with Massavou, iboga has many psychotherapeutic and health benefits in addition to curing drug addiction. Massavou turned to iboga to cure an illness that wasn’t related to substance abuse, and after her iboga initiation she said she felt better.
While the film follows Massavou through her iboga treatment, it does little to explain the iboga root’s potential to treat illness and disease other than substance abuse. At most, the Western experts interviewed suggest it has untapped psychotherapeutic potential.
“I think ibogaine is the most dramatic drug that can be used in psychotherapy,” said Lotsof in the film. “It just allows a complete review by the individual of the issues they consider most important to themselves.”
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is currently conducting studies on ibogaine in Mexico and New Zealand, according to the MAPS website. At present, these studies are aimed at ibogaine’s potential to curb drug addiction and do not address its other therapeutic benefits.
A team at Columbia University is currently conducting experiments to show whether ibogaine is a viable treatment for those suffering from Parkison’s Disease. Results are forthcoming.
Watch Ibogaine: Rite of Passage below.