A Psychedelic Trip to the End of Addiction

Copyright 1993 Newsweek



LOAD-DATE-MDC: August 25, 1993


LENGTH: 601 words

HEADLINE: A Psychedelic Trip to the End of Addiction


HIGHLIGHT: Can a tribal potion block cravings?

BODY: BACK AROUND THE BEGINNING OF time, an African creator god hacked up a Pygmy and scattered his remains in the forest. When the man’s widow found flowering plants growing from his flesh, the god gave her a useful bit of advice. Eat the root, he said. It will open doors to the supernatural world and help you communicate with your dead husband. The story comes from western Africa’s Bwiti religion, whose adherents use the iboga plant to induce visions and aid in the hunt. But researchers now suspect that the plant’s active ingredient, a hallucinogen called ibogaine, may have other uses as well. Anecdotal reports suggest it can free cocaine and heroin addicts from their cravings. No one knows just why a psychedelic drug would combat drug addiction, but animal studies support they claim, and federal officials could move as early as next week to approve the first formal trials in humans.

Yippies, junkies and AIDS activists have been touting ibogaine for years (Hunter Thompson joked that the drug might account for Edmund Muskie’s disastrous performance in the 1972 Democratic primaries). But only recently have scientists shown any interest. Howard Lotsof, the New York entrepreneur who hopes to market the compound under the brand name Endabuse, stumbled onto it in 1962, when he was addicted to heroin and taking hallucinogens for fun. Lotsof popped a few ibogaine capsules and, after a 30-hour trip, found that his heroin craving had vanished — even though he hadn’t gone through withdrawal. The government outlawed ibogaine in the late ’60s, fearing its potential for abuse, but Lotsof never forgot his experience. In 1989, he started shuttling heroin and cocaine addicts to the Netherlands (where ibogaine was still legal) to try it as therapy. Though hardly a scientific study, that exercise yielded a number of stories like his own. He claims that 20 of 30 clients lost their cravings, and that 12 stayed drug-free for at least six months.

On the strength of his anecdotes, Lotsof persuaded several labs to embark on animal experiments. “At first I thought he was a crackpot,” says pharmacologist Stanley Glick of Albany Medical College, “but the drug had more interesting effects than I expected.” Glick and others found that ibogaine freed rats from morphine and cocaine addictions, and by 1991 the National Institute on Drug Abuse had established its own research program. NIDA planned to start human trials within a year, but when scientists in Baltimore dissected the brains of ibogaine-treated rats, they detected nerve damage in the cerebellum, a brain region concerned mainly with balance and posture. That could be an important discovery, for it suggests that the cerebellum plays some role in addiction — and that ibogaine may work by disabling the culpable cells. Even so, cautious federal officials decided to postpone human trials in favor of dog and monkey studies.

Researchers at the University of Miami have now tested the drug in monkeys, and they’re ready to forge ahead. Next week the Miami team, led by pharmacologist Deborah Mash, will ask a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee to approve ibogaine for experimental use in a small group of cocaine addicts. Because addicts are so prone to AIDS (needle sharing and the barter of sex for drugs both spread HIV), activists scoff at the drug’s potential hazards. “Say it has some neurotoxicity,” says Dana Beal of ACT UP. “Would you want to live 50 years with a few burnt receptors, or would you rather die?” If ibogaine fulfills its promise, addicts may soon have the option.

GRAPHIC: Picture, no caption, DAVID POHL

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