A psychedelic drug with the potential to cure addiction is set to undergo human trials in America next year.
Psychedelics have long been known to inhibit cravings and help fight addiction, but a litany of ethical, health and legal issues have made them unsuitable as a treatment.
18-MC is made from an intense African shrub called ibogaine which can induce intense trips – including hallucinations and visions – lasting several days.
But the version being used in labs has been adapted to not produce hallucinations or comedowns, offering the tantalising possibility of a treatment without side-effects.
Micro-dosing is a growing phenomenon that sees people use tiny amounts of drugs such as LSD to keep their addictions at bay during day-to-day life.
This is illegal and can often lead to inadvertent trips.
But the developers of 18-MC claim the modified drug has the ability to manipulate a person’s brain into hitting the reset button and turning off the sections responsible for cravings without these side-effects.
Private funding and animal testing has revealed it has the potential to offer hope for people battling with addiction to opiates, alcohol and nicotine.
MindMed, a US-based startup, has bought the rights to 18-MC after the previous developer ran out of funding, and is bankrolling next year’s tests.
Advocates of micro-dosing, the practice of taking small amounts of drugs throughout the day, believe psychedelics help manage addiction.
It has become a borderline epidemic in Silicon Valley, with many addicts propagating the stereotype of tech people taking LSD or MDMA to recover from an Adderall or Ritalin addiction.
Addiction, particularly to prescribed opioids, costs the US an estimated $78.5 billion annually.
People keen to try ibogaine have travelled to Western Africa in pursuit of the elusive root to take part in the sacred ancient ritual of the Bwiti people in Gabon and Cameroon.
Online users self-report intense hallucinations and visions as well as eureka moments, allowing them to overcome their cravings.
When it was tested by Stan Glick, a retired professor at Albany Medical Center, on rats, it was found that after a day of twitching due to hallucinations, their morphine dependency was alleviated.
‘I was the first one, for better or worse, whose curiosity was piqued enough,’ Professor Glick told FastCompany as part of an in-depth feature.
‘I thought we’d give it to a few rats, they’d do something weird, I’d satisfy my curiosity, and that would be the end of the story.’
The major flaw with ibogaine was the side effects, including a slowed heart rate which, in extreme cases, led to death and vomiting.
After promising early results, Professor Glick partnered with Martin Kuehne, a medicinal chemist from the University of Vermont, and refined the active compounds to negate these adverse side-effects.
This led to the creation of 18-MC, and the first piece of formal research on the chemical was published in 1996.
But bureaucratic, funding and logistical issues saw further research and development stall.
Earlier this year, MindMed bought the rights, the chemical , and the research team in a comprehensive takeover bid and is now pushing for the next stage of trials.
The firm outlined plans to begin safety trials in 2020, and see how effective it is in humans by the end of next year.
Researchers believe there is no hallucinogenic impact of 18-MC, and therefore no nasty comedown.
Although this remains, for now, unproved in humans.
Some steadfast advocates of the benefits of micro-dosing believe the drug will not work, as it is the high itself and the visions that help overcome addiction.
Roland Griffiths, lead researcher on a study at Johns Hopkins Center on Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, said: ‘They come to a profound shift of worldview, essentially a shift in a sense of self.
‘Their worldview changes and they are less identified with this self narrative—people might use the term ego—and that creates a sense of freedom.’
The research faces significant scientific hurdles before a potential treatment for addiction is found in the world of psychedelics but there are considerable legal barriers in place, too.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently labelled psilocybin (from mushrooms) and MDMA (known on club dance floors as molly) as ‘breakthrough’ drugs for research.
These are increasingly being used to treat drug-resistant depression and PTSD.
But despite the FDA’s enthusiasm, the drugs themselves are still illegal.
But 18-MC is not yet classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and may be able to circumvent the laws restricting its use.
Its developers are hopeful the FDA and DEA will grant a favourable label, but if it does not, it could leave the entire project dead in the water.
Shark Tank host Kevin O’Leary, who was part of a a $6 million round investment in MindMed, told FastCompany: ‘This is one of these binary investments.
‘Extraordinary returns, or zero.’