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How Ibogaine Emerged as an Addiction Treatment in the West

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How Ibogaine Emerged as an Addiction Treatment in the West

In 1962, Howard Lotsof, a 19 year-old New Yorker with a daily heroin dependency, tried a mysterious substance extracted from a West African shrub given to him by a chemist friend. Within 30 hours, after a long and intense trip, his desire for heroin was gone. 

Lotsof was astounded. A day and a half went by without using, yet he had zero withdrawal symptoms. The experience itself was illuminating too. “Ibogaine showed him that heroin was something that emulated death,” says anthropologist and ibogaine researcher Thomas Kingsley Brown, PhD. “Before taking ibogaine, he regarded heroin as something that gave him comfort.” 

Curious to see if the effects could be duplicated, Lotsof gave it to seven friends who were also addicted to heroin. After the experience, five immediately quit. “The other two said they could have stopped but they just didn’t want to. They liked using,” says Brown. 

Ibogaine is the potent psychedelic compound with anti-addictive properties found in the shrub Tabernanthe iboga. It was first isolated in 1901 by J. Dybowski and Ed. Landrin, and introduced to the Western public in France in the 1930s, where a diluted preparation of it was marketed as a mental and physical stimulant. Lotsof sparked its association with treating opioid-dependency, going on to advocate for further research into it, and inspiring many medical practitioners to administer this treatment. 

But the history of its usage goes far beyond the west, to the jungles of West and Central Africa, where its steward communities use it as a ceremonial sacrament to this day. 

Ibogaine’s Ritual History in West Africa 

Tabernanthe iboga grows primarily in Gabon, along with surrounding areas like the Congo and Cameroon, where the Pygmy people originally resided. The ritual use of iboga can be traced back to the Pygmies, who introduced it to the Bantu people in the late 1800s, when French colonizers pushed the Bantus out of their coastal villages towards Gabon. The Pygmies initial use of iboga is unknown, likely dating back hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, says Brown. 

From this cultural mixing emerged Bwiti, a spiritual tradition which incorporates animism and ancestor worship. Iboga plays a central role in Bwiti as a sacrament for spiritual growth and community bonding, used in healing rituals and initiation rites.

Gabon has at least forty different ethnic groups, resulting in a myriad of Bwiti branches. Most ceremonies involve music (participants play a number of traditional instruments, including percussion, harp and mouth bow) and dance to induce a prolonged trance state, lasting up to five days. 

Although the majority of the Gabon population is Christian, most Bwiti practitioners have not adopted Christianity into their practice, with the exception of the Fang people, whose syncretic practice incorporates Christian elements. Bwiti has been persecuted by Christians since its inception, and faces condemnation by missionaries to this day. Aside from the church, Bwiti is well-accepted in Gabon, and a number of government officials and members of the police and army can be found among its initiates.

Ibogaine’s Emergence in the West as a Treatment for Opioid Addiction

After his experience, Lotsof was single-mindedly dedicated to lobbying for ibogaine to be taken seriously as a treatment for addiction. His widow, Nora Lotsof, remembers him as “a real gentleman who believed whole-heartedly that anyone with a substance abuse problem should have the right to choose when, and by what means, to stop self-medicating.”

In the 1980s, by which point ibogaine had already been added to the list of forbidden Schedule 1 substances during the War on Drugs, Lotsof founded the NDA International, an organization that promoted research into ibogaine. 

In 1986, Lotsof developed a patent for ibogaine as an addiction treatment, and through NDA, co-sponsored human studies on ibogaine in the Netherlands and Panama with other addiction treatment groups in the early 90s. 

With the results of these studies, Lotsof was able to persuade the National Institute on Drug Abuse to conduct further research into ibogaine, eventually leading to F.D.A. approval of a Phase 1 clinical trial. Unfortunately, the trial was never completed, in part due to lack of funding and criticism from pharmaceutical companies. 

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Despite this setback, Lotsof continued to advocate for ibogaine with other researchers and doctors, and work with independent ibogaine clinics in Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

Ibogaine in the Modern Day 

The psychedelic renaissance, which is ushering in a new wave of acceptance for these substances, has raised awareness about ibogaine in psychedelic communities, among newcomers and veterans alike. However, ibogaine remains a Schedule 1 drug which, unlike other psychedelic substances, like psilocybin, has no significant research that could bring it towards FDA approval on the horizon. 

Still, ibogaine clinics have been administering this treatment in places where it’s legal or unregulated since the 1990s by physicians and advocates who, like Lotsof, fervently stand by ibogaine’s potential. The Mexico-based ibogaine clinic Beond is staffed with physicians like Dr. Jeffrey Kamlet and Dr. Felipe Malacara, who’ve been successfully using ibogaine to treat addiction for decades in various clinics outside the U.S.

Recent developments have been made around the cultivation and exportation of ibogaine, which has been illegally harvested in Gabon for use in the West. Since the Nagoya Protocol, an international treaty established in 2014 that calls for the fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources, a number of ibogaine organizations are teaming up with Gabonese officials to develop a legal distribution channel for ibogaine that will allow Gabonese communities to benefit. 

Among the groups participating is Beond, who will buy Nagoya-compliant iboga when it becomes available, and contribute a portion of their clinic’s proceeds towards projects that support Gabonese communities and indigenous leaders. 

Image: Nicki Adams with adapted photo by Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures

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