Extracted from the rootbark of an African plant used in tribal rituals, ibogaine takes users on a mind-altering journey in which they face their own fears. Paul Willis reports on a radical new treatment for drug addiction.
(DARLINGTON, England) ALTHOUGH the details of Louise Young’s life make for shocking reading, for those used to working with drug addicts, they have a depressingly familiar ring.
Louise, from Brotton, near Saltburn, was just 12 years old when she started using heroin. Beset by family problems and caught up in a relationship with a drug dealer boyfriend five years her senior, Louise was a lost soul. Between bouts of pickpocketing and shoplifting to feed her £50 a day habit, Louise hardly found time for school or her family.
Before long she was living in crack houses in Middlesbrough, stealing, doing whatever she had to in order to survive and, by her own admission, out of control.
“Through the drugs I was more violent than anything else,” she says. “I think I was very angry at the world and that came out when I was on heroin.”
A short stint in prison for an assault on a girl in a children’s home and a move to London didn’t change things and, as Louise drifted from hostels to crashing on friend’s floors, she seemed destined to become just another statistic.
But then, two years ago, something extraordinary happened. At a friend’s health shop in London she bumped into Edward Conn. The pair soon started seeing one another and Edward, who had had his own issues with drugs in the past, heard about Louise’s heroin habit.
He told her about a treatment clinic for drug addiction he had set up using an unlicensed drug called ibogaine. Ibogaine is a psychoactive alkaloid derived from the rootbark of an African plant called iboga.
Iboga has been used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by tribes in The Gabon, in central Africa, as part of their social and religious rituals.
In recent years, it has been adopted in the West as a radical, if largely unknown, treatment for drug and alcohol dependency.
But for Louise, her own immediate concerns and the destructive cycle of addiction she was caught in meant that, at first, she was not much interested in a cure, let alone one as crackpot-sounding as an African tribal drug.
She says: “My over-riding concern at the time was getting a roof over my head and my next fix. I think I was afraid of getting better. For nearly ten years heroin had been my life and it was really scary to imagine what I’d do without the drug.”
Not long after meeting Edward, Louise’s needle use led to an abscess which needed 12 operations and nearly resulted in her losing her hand.
“I was in hospital a long time and not well at all through the drugs,” she says. “I was very wary of trusting anyone, but Edward came to visit me a lot and little by little he began to win me over.”
Despite continued reservations, Louise, who is now 22, decided to try ibogaine. Edward, however, was reluctant about giving the treatment to his girlfriend.
The few scientific studies conducted with the drug appear to suggest that a single dose has the ability to remove the symptoms of drug withdrawal and reduce drug-craving for a period of time after it has been taken. Taken in large doses it produces a dream-like state lasting for hours and, during these trances, users often describe witnessing scenes from their own past.
It is widely believed the drug’s psychoactive properties help people understand and resolve the issues behind their addictive behaviour.
Last year, Edward was featured in a BBC documentary helping film maker David Scott get off methadone. He has been treating people with ibogaine for four years.
But this was the first time he considered administering the treatment to someone so close to him.
Edward, 34, says: “I had a lot of resistance to it because of my emotional involvement with Louise. Here was someone I was in a very rich relationship with and who I was starting to get to know, and the idea of unlocking her psyche actually scared me quite a lot.”
Louise’s first treatment with ibogaine was unsuccessful. Her father had recently died and, after taking the drug, she was confronted with images of him. “I saw his eyes vividly in front of me,” she says. “I couldn’t really deal with that emotionally so I went back to heroin, probably to block out the pain.”
Despite this setback, a few months later Louise plucked up the courage to give the treatment a second chance and, under the watchful eye of Edward, she spent 24 hours under the effects of the drug.
Many of the accounts of those who have taken ibogaine include seeing vivid hallucinations involving real scenes from the person’s past. Tribal members taking part in rituals involving the iboga plant often describe being visited by spirits from the forest.
“It was like watching an old movie reel of your past,” Louise says. “I saw lots of scenes from my childhood, scenes where I was abused. And, for the first time, I could make sense of them. That is, I understood what had happened to me and I understood why those people had done it. I wasn’t afraid because I could talk about it with Edward as I was seeing it.”
Later, during the treatment, Louise vomited, a common side-effect. “I was sick, but I didn’t feel nauseous. It was more like I was getting rid of all the negative emotions.”
That was 18 months ago and Louise hasn’t touched heroin since. After spending half her life under the control of the drug she has finally been able to reclaim her life. And though she says the ibogaine hasn’t taken away the temptation to use heroin, it has helped put her drug use into context.
Edward, too, is careful to explain that ibogaine is not a one-hit cure for addiction, but is only effective as part of a long-term course of treatment which also includes counselling and therapy.
He says: “Ibogaine takes away your need for the drug for a few months but when it comes to examining the cause of your addictive behaviour, you’re talking about a lot of therapy. I think what ibogaine does as much as anything is provide addicts with the will to get better.”
Despite the apparently miraculous results that ibogaine seems to offer, health authorities around the world are stalling over its development as a licensed drug. Although it was licensed for trials in the US in the early 1990s, these were discontinued. In the UK it is classed as an unlicensed experimental medication. It is not an offence to possess ibogaine, but distributing it may be breaking the law, although this is a grey area.
Edward’s own treatment centre is one of only three in the UK and is the only one to provide a full holistic service. The main stumbling block seems to be the hallucinogenic properties of the drug.
“It is a totally revolutionary way of treating addiction and I think governments have a lot of difficulty getting their minds round that,” he says.
Many in the West wrongly assume that the use of mind-altering drugs is a modern trend. In fact, right back to the ancients, civilisations from as far apart as Siberia and South America have been experimenting with drugs.
It is not inconceivable that, at the same time as cultures in Asia were first learning to get high on the opium flower (from which heroin is produced), the shamans of Africa were themselves beginning to understand the unique effects of the iboga plant.
It is ironic that our desire to seek out mind-altering states provides both the cause and a potential solution to the blight of drug addiction.
For Louise at least this seems to ring true. She is now taking the first tentative steps towards putting her life back together, including enroling on a college course.
She says: “It’s great to just wake up in the morning and feel happy. That’s enough for me at the moment.”
First published in Britain’s Northern Echo newspaper on April 14, 2005