Special Report: Drugs in Britain

Hallucinogen ‘cure’ for addicts linked to deaths

by: Tony Thompson

The Observer, Sunday January 7, 2001

A powerful hallucinogenic drug that has been linked to dozens of deaths around the world is becoming increasingly popular among Britain’s heroin and crack users, who believe it can offer an instant, painless cure for their addictions.

Extracted from the root bark of a west African plant, ibogaine has been used in spiritual rituals in parts of Gabon, where it is said to open up ancestral memories and enable people to re-evaluate life experiences. It is banned in the US, Belgium and Switzerland but legal in the UK where it is classified as an unlicensed, experimental medicine. Concerns over its safety and high price have prevented it from growing in popularity.

But Observer investigations reveal an increasing number of mail-order outlets supplying British addicts with an extract of ibogaine at ?20 a gram. Tourists are also bringing it back from Amsterdam, where it is openly available.

Only a few countries, including Panama, Costa Rica and Italy, have clinics that administer ibogaine under scientific conditions in treatment programmes costing several thousand pounds. In Britain, many users are now taking the drug in their own homes under the supervision of friends or other addicts.

On Wednesday an inquest opens into the case of a London man who died after ingesting ibogaine in an attempt to cure his heroin addiction. His may be the first death in the UK related to the use of the substance and represents a setback to those who want it used more widely.

‘People say it is like having 10 therapy sessions all at once,’ says Chris Sanders of the Ibogaine Project, a UK-based initiative campaigning for more research to be carried out into ibogaine’s potential benefits to drug addicts.

‘It’s often called a wonder drug but the reality is that it’s not a total cure in itself, just a way of giving an addict a fresh start. It has a powerful effect on the body – you need to be fit to be treated with it. I can’t say I’m happy about people using it on their own.’

Sanders believes deaths linked with ibogaine have occurred when users ‘cured’ of their addiction return to using drugs. Because ibogaine ‘resets’ many brain functions relating to drug use, users who take their usual dosage soon after treatment risk overdosing. The only major clinical trial of ibogaine, which took place in Amsterdam in the early Nineties, was abandoned after an addict died of an overdose after being treated.

While even ibogaine’s strongest supporters admit there are dangers, those who have been treated with it are almost evangelical in their desire to enable others to benefit. As well as curing addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, they claim it can have a positive effect on other psychological disorders.

The effect of the drug varies according to the dosage. Less than one gram produces stimulant and aphrodisiac effects. Up to three produces a mellow euphoric trip during which the user may experience various hallucinations. Up to six grams, the maximum safe dosage, produces powerful near-death and other deep spiritual experiences. Those taking the highest doses of ibogaine report that they first enter a dream-like phase that lasts several hours and consists of vivid visions of past memories, almost as if they were watching a film of their own lives. The second phase consists of high levels of analytical mental activity during which users are frequently reported to comprehend for the first time the reasons why they drifted into drug-using.

Dr Colin Brewer who runs a specialist addition clinic in London, the Stapleford Centre, is sceptical about whether the drug is beneficial.

‘It has an enormous placebo effect and in that sense has more to do with voodoo than pharmacology. In order to evaluate it, you would have to conduct experiments alongside another drug like LSD, which no one is going to risk because of the harm it can do.’