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Further complicating matters is the fact that 18-MC has proven difficult to manufacture. Obiter Research, a company based in Champaign, Ill., which specializes in synthesizing experimental chemicals, spent nearly two years refining the process before successfully creating about 200 grams of the substance — just enough to send to Brazil to be administered to human subjects.
"Imagine a Tinkertoy Ferris wheel," says Bill Boulanger, Obiter's CEO and a former chemistry professor at the University of Illinois. "It's like taking that apart, then trying to using half of the parts to build a fire engine. Ibogaine is a natural product, and sometimes Mother Nature does a better job than the lab."
Boulanger is convinced there's money to be made from 18-MC. With Obiter, he plans to patent the manufacturing and secure intellectual-property rights. He and two partners also created a separate company, Savant HWP, in hopes of eventually opening addiction clinics across the United States that administer 18-MC in conjunction with conventional rehab techniques such as 12-step programs. "One part is resetting the trigger that's saying, 'Oh, I've got to have it,'" he says. "That's helping the people fight withdrawal, and that would be part of the whole operation. But it's just one facet. It's got to be holistic. Just handing out a pill and sending them on their way is a bad idea."
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The notion of hallucination-free ibogaine, however, annoys the drug's diehard supporters. "With methadone, they just removed euphoria from opiates," says Dimitri "Mobengo" Mugianis. "This is the same process they're doing now — removing psychedelic and visionary experience. Ibogaine works. What are they trying to improve or fix? It's not broken, and they're spending great amount of time and money to fix it."
A former heroin addict, Mugianis is an underground ibogaine-treatment provider. He kicked his habit with the help of ibogaine administered at Lotsof's clinic in the Netherlands. The experience was so extraordinary that Mugianis was inspired to travel to Gabon to be initiated into the native Bwiti religion and trained by local shamans. He says he has performed more than 400 ritualistic ceremonies on addicts, most of them in New York City hotel rooms, using ibogaine and iboga root bark.
Despite his strong belief in the power of ibogaine, Mugianis does not see it as a miracle cure for addiction. "The twelve-step approach really helped in combination with ibogaine," he says. "I say it interrupts the physical dependency, because that's what it does. There's no cure. It's not a cure. It allows you a window of opportunity, particularly with opiate users."
Efforts are afoot to legalize — or at least legitimize — ibogaine in the United States. Persuading doctors and elected officials to support a potent, occasionally lethal hallucinogen can be a tough sell. That pitch becomes doubly difficult when some of the ibogaine enthusiasts themselves inspire skepticism.
One of ibogaine's most outspoken advocates is Dana Beal. An eccentric character who helped found the Youth International Party (more commonly known as the Yippies) in the 1960s, Beal sports a bushy white mustache that inspired a New York Times reporter to liken him to "a Civil War–era cavalry colonel." Beal travels the country giving PowerPoint presentations touting the benefits of ibogaine and medical marijuana.
In June 2008 he was arrested by police in Mattoon, Ill., and charged with money laundering. He was carrying $150,000 in cash in two duffel bags, money he claims was going to finance an ibogaine clinic and research center in Mexico. Beal maintains his innocence and is free on bail as the case heads to trial.
It's folks like Beal, Glick says, who keep ibogaine and 18-MC from being embraced by the medical mainstream. "Some of my colleagues, as well as funding agencies, lump us together without really considering the data," he says. "There's a lot of baggage that comes with ibogaine, some of it warranted, some of it unwarranted. It's really a stigma. Drug abuse itself has a stigma, and unfortunately so does ibogaine. It has really hurt the science."
Beal shrugs off the criticism, arguing that grassroots activism is the only way to ensure that politicians will endorse ibogaine. Besides, he adds, the government stopped funding ibogaine research long before he was arrested.
Scientists "think if they stay away from us activists, NIDA will bless them," the self-styled rabble-rouser says. "NIDA is not blessing them. They're washed up and on a strange beach. How will they get they get FDA-approved clinical trials without activists? Explain to me a way that works, and I will do it."
Earlier this year, Beal contacted the legislative offices of Missouri U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan. The St. Louis Democrat is the sponsor of the Universal Access to Methamphetamine Treatment Act, and Beal aimed to persuade him to earmark federal dollars for ibogaine research. Asked about Beal's proposal, Carnahan spokeswoman Sara Howard explains that the legislator thought it unadvisable to specify any substance, particularly an illegal one. "It's Schedule I, so it falls outside the categories" included in the bill, she says.
Ibogaine's effectiveness against meth has already helped it gain acceptance abroad. Lawmakers in New Zealand, where methamphetamine use has skyrocketed in recent years, recently tweaked the nation's laws to allow physicians to prescribe ibogaine. Gavin Cape, an addiction specialist at New Zealand's Dunedin School of Medicine, says the nation's doctors are so far reluctant to wield their new antimeth weapon.