The Role of Psychedelic Plant Medicines in Addiction Treatment

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Psychedelic plant medicines have the potential to help many people who are in recovery from substance use disorder dig deep into the roots of their addiction and come out of the other side. Plant medicines like psilocybin, ayahuasca, and particularly ibogaine, have demonstrated unprecedented results for those who use them as a tool on their recovery journey.

While the legal status of many of these substances is still murky (depending on where you consume them), the ongoing research, decriminalization efforts, and shift in public narrative is promising. Hope lies on the horizon for wider access to these medicines, but right now, what’s needed is raising awareness and informed decision-making around their consumption.

Here is how psychedelic plant medicines can help those that struggle with addiction and what people should consider before choosing this path.

Ancient healing practices reconcile with modern science

Psychedelic plant medicines have been used for healing purposes by indigenous cultures for thousands of years, and there is mounting evidence that shows their ability to integrate with modern addiction therapy. 

Research around the potential of ibogaine to treat opiate addiction is still in its infancy, but shows promising results. Ibogaine, which comes from the Iboga shrub, has been used historically in ceremonies in West Africa by practitioners of the Bwiti spiritual tradition since the late nineteenth century. The roots and bark of the tree are consumed ceremoniously in large doses to provoke a near-death experience, and in smaller doses during rituals and tribal dances. It is not considered a recreational substance by users, yet is classified as a Schedule 1 drug in the US.

One 2017 study funded by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) observed opiate addiction treatment delivered by two independent ibogaine clinics in Mexico. One month after the study, half of participants reported using no opiates in the month following the study. The researchers found that “ibogaine was associated with substantive effects on opioid withdrawal symptoms and drug use in subjects for whom other treatments had been unsuccessful.” 

Another study on the long-term efficacy of ibogaine-assisted therapy in New Zealand found that a single ibogaine treatment reduced opioid symptoms and resulted in no opioid use or reduced use in dependent individuals over 12 months. 

Healing that gets to the root

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive Amazonian brew traditionally used in the indigenous communities of South America. Research on the brew is grounded in its potential to support healing by allowing for a deeper connection to oneself and due to the spiritual context in which it is taken. 

One 2017 study published in the International Journal on Drug Policy used qualitative analysis through long-term field work and participant observation in ayahuasca communities, as well as conducting interviews with participants with problems of substance abuse.

The study found that “ayahuasca’s efficacy in the treatment of addiction blends somatic, symbolic, and collective dimensions. The layering of these effects, and the direction given to them through ritual, circumscribes the experience and provides tools to render it meaningful.”

Researchers from a 2013 Canadian study, sponsored by MAPS, concluded that ayahuasca-assisted therapy for stress and addiction was correlated with improved mindfulness, empowerment, hopefulness, and quality of life-outlook and quality of life-meaning. The same study found that ayahuasca, when administered in a ceremonial setting, may have contributed to reduction in cocaine use in dependent participants.

There have also been studies that show the benefit of psilocybin mushrooms in allowing people to overcome addictive or damaging behavior. A 2014 study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research found that 80% of previously addicted smokers abstained from smoking six months after they were administered psilocybin. Remarkably, 60% continued to abstain two and a half years after the study.

“Institutions like MAPS and the Imperial College London are pioneering the way forward with this evidence-based approach to psychedelic medicine—a necessary effort if these compounds are to be integrated into the mainstream,” said Gaurav Dubey, clinical biologist and content editor at Microdose Psychedelic Insights.

“Though, we have a lot of catching up to do,” said Dubey. “We need to do better in understanding the psychotherapeutic mechanisms of these incredibly unique compounds and the only way to uncover that is through science and research.

“The clinical data that strongly supports the therapeutic use of these compounds in addiction treatment will be fundamental in making them accessible to recovering addicts around the globe,” he added.

Journeys to an addiction-free life, supported by plant medicines

Kat Courtney is the founder of AfterLife Coaching, a trained ayahuasquera, and has been working with the plant medicine ayahuasca for over a decade. Courtney first began her journey with ayahuasca in Peru in 2006, while suffering with alcoholism and bulimia.

“Not only did ayahuasca help me face and deal with the traumas and programming that created these destructive behaviors, she helped me access an authentic space of self love and gave me tools to work with in lieu of the addictions,” said Courtney.

“They fast-track the healing and awakening process and ground us into our bodies so we can move past stages of self-destruction. They help us to move the trauma that is stored in the body through crying, purging, and all kinds of different forms of release.”

But Courtney stresses that the act of taking these medicines is only part of the deal: “We absolutely have to be committed to integrating these experiences and making the life changes that support sobriety,” explained Courtney. “Otherwise, plant medicine ceremonies can become distant memories.”

Alternative approaches offer a chance for healing

Aeden Smith-Ahearn is the founder of Experience Ibogaine Clinic, based in Mexico. Aeden first tried ibogaine in an effort to overcome his dependency on multiple substances, including heroin. 

“Ibogaine got me comfortably off opiates,” said Smith-Ahearn. “I had almost no withdrawal symptoms, and I had a very profound experience which helped give me a motivational boost in the right direction.

“The medicine put me in my place, and that’s exactly where I needed to be. I got a fresh start, on top of a head start into my recovery,” he explained.

Prior to his ibogaine experience, Smith-Ahearn had tried several programs in an attempt to break free from his addictions, which he describes as “cold turkey, three meals a day, and a therapist once a week.”

“These programs work for many people, but they didn’t do the job for me. The problem was that I did not want to change, and was therefore unwilling to work towards something I didn’t want,” he said.

Smith-Ahearn credits ibogaine with huge potential for recovering opiate addicts specifically because of how it interacts with the brain’s receptors. “The hardest part about breaking out of opiate addiction is getting over withdrawals,” he said. “The medicine alleviates withdrawal symptoms [for some patients], which is a godsend for someone who is in over their head with opiate addiction.”

Like Courtney, Smith-Ahearn stresses that ibogaine is not a cure-all. “It’s crucial that patients of the treatment put their effort into a quality aftercare plan.”

Charles Johnston, director of client success at Clear Sky Recovery, has also historically struggled with opiate addiction and subsequently used ibogaine as a tool to help him overcome his dependency.

“Ibogaine was the medicine that interrupted my addiction, and for the first time let me fully witness the root cause of my addiction: self-hatred. It provided me with a path, purpose, and mission to support others and see that addiction is a blessing of self-discovery,” explained Johnston.

“Ibogaine allows the individual to feel how they would after months of detox with conventional methods and if supported properly, encourages a whole new paradigm of accountability and acceptance,” he continued.

With these and other accounts of personal transformation, it’s clear that ayahuasca and ibogaine have potential to assist people struggling with addiction on a path to recovery. However, these treatments should not be treated lightly and come with a number of risks to the patient if not administered responsibly.

What you need to consider before trying psychedelic therapy

Psychedelics generally have very little risk of abuse, but when taken in the wrong setting, or without proper guidance or structured preparation and integration, they can result in negative consequences.

There are some short term health risks which are important to consider. “Using ibogaine comes with risks to your physical health, such as seizures, gastrointestinal issues, heart complications, and ataxia,” says board-certified psychiatrist and addiction specialist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov. “There have also been unexplained fatalities in people who have ingested ibogaine, which may be linked to the treatment.”

Charles Johnston of Clear Sky Recovery explained that “if someone has heart issues, liver problems, other major health complications, serious psychological issues, or are expecting a quick fix, ibogaine may not be the right path.”

The same largely goes for users of other plant medicines, including ayahuasca. Users of SSRI antidepressant medication have run into an adverse reaction while drinking the medicine with the drugs still in their system.

“People need to do careful research and not fall foul of misleading things that they see on the internet. A lot of people have expectations that the medicine may not offer, like profound psychedelic experiences guaranteed to change them or no withdrawal whatsoever,” said Aeden Smith-Ahearn of Experience Ibogaine.

Those seeking treatment with psychedelic plant medicines should make sure they go to a reliable and reputable center. In recent years, the number of tourists flocking to Peru to drink ayahuasca has boomed, resulting in illegitimate retreats run by people lacking in the experience required to administer the medicine.

In many countries, including the US, these substances are illegal to consume. Many people do however seek out treatment in countries where the medicines are not outlawed, such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, and Colombia. In the US, ayahuasca is legal within specific religious groups, such as the Santo Daime.

A path to accessibility

Looking ahead to the future of psychedelic treatment, progress is being made on the legalization front, with Oakland and Santa Cruz, California, and Denver, Colorado, voting for decriminalization of psilocybin-containing mushrooms in 2019 and 2020. Oregon and Washington D.C. also have votes ahead on the decriminalization of psychedelic-containing plants and fungi.

Meanwhile, Canada is seeing a number of legal ayahuasca centers open up, on the part of religious groups who have special permission from the government to use the medicine. However, ultimately, it will be a continuation of the scientific research that paves the way for increased access to psychedelic therapy.

“We need more large scale, gold-standard clinical trials examining these compounds in the context of addiction treatment, such that their impact can no longer be ignored—even by the most stubborn of policymakers and world leaders,” said Dubey.

“There needs to be a shift in global drug policy so these powerful medicines can be reclassified and reintegrated into our society in an effort to heal the masses.”

In essence, psychedelics need to go mainstream and lose the stigma that they have held for decades so that the public appetite can develop and further drive policy changes. In addition to research, diverse voices and experiences, along with mainstream support, will be key in the psychedelic renaissance maintaining its momentum.

The value of psychedelic plant medicines for addiction recovery is difficult to overstate, but is a path that should be explored carefully, mindfully, and while armed with the right information and support. And there’s hope that a future where accessibility isn’t an issue is on the horizon: The ongoing research and changing societal attitudes towards psychedelic plant medicines demonstrate promise. Education around these medicines and their proper use is vital for this renaissance to continue.

By shining a light on the potential of psychedelic plant medicines to help and heal, we can contribute to forming more pathways to change and legitimate channels for people to benefit from their treatment.

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