Ron Price needs his milkshake. It's 10 o'clock on a Monday morning, and the bald-headed, barrel-chested former bodybuilder is shuffling around the kitchen of a posh rehab clinic in Tijuana, wearing slippers and a blue Gold's Gym T-shirt. Price had been a stockbroker in New Mexico until his training regimen left him with debilitating injuries that forced him to undergo 33 surgeries in less than a decade. His doctor prescribed OxyContin, and he quickly became dependent on the potent painkiller. More recently he started snorting cocaine and chugging booze to numb the pain. Now, 53 years old and three weeks into rehab, all he wants is a milkshake and to crawl back into bed.
Clare Wilkins, the vivacious director of Pangea Biomedics, pops the lid of the blender to check the consistency of the concoction Price craves: peanut butter, soy milk, agave syrup, hemp protein powder, and a few scoops of chocolate-flavored Green SuperFood.
Oh, and a half-teaspoon of root bark from the Tabernanthe iboga plant.
Taken in sufficient quantity, the substance triggers a psychedelic experience that users say is more intense than LSD or psilocybin mushrooms. Practitioners of the Bwiti religion in the West African nation of Gabon use iboga root bark as a sacrament to induce visions in tribal ceremonies, similar to the way natives of South and Central America use ayahuasca and peyote. Wilkins is one of a few dozen therapists worldwide who specialize in the use of iboga (more specifically, a potent extract called ibogaine) to treat drug addiction.
She pours the thick, chocolaty liquid into a mason jar, but agrees to hand it to Price only on the condition that he'll stay awake and out of bed and interact with his fellow residents and the staff. Price grudgingly agrees and takes a seat at the dining room table. Sunlight pours in through a sliding-glass door that opens onto a terrace with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean and the San Diego skyline in the distance.
"Ron, I remember when you called me [three weeks ago], you were crying on the phone. You were so devastated you couldn't leave the house," Wilkins says gently. "When you use, you end up alone in a bathroom or something. You need a community. As weird and misfits as we are, we need this sense of community. You need to learn to deal with being in your body each day instead of relying on the fucking ibogaine."
Ibogaine and iboga root bark are illegal in the United States but unregulated in many countries, including Canada and Mexico. Wilkins, though, is hardly alone in her belief that iboga-based substances can be used as a legitimate treatment for drug addiction. Researchers at respected institutions have conducted experiments and ended up with hard evidence that the compound works — as long as you don't mind the mindfuck.
"All drugs have side effects, but ibogaine is unique for the severity of its side effects," says Dorit Ron, a UC San Francisco neurology professor. "I think ibogaine is a nasty drug. But if you can disassociate the side effects from the good effects, there is a mechanism of action in ibogaine that reduces relapse in humans."
Now, using chemical variations, scientists have devised ways to make ibogaine nonhallucinogenic. The trouble, Wilkins and others who have used ibogaine say, is that the psychedelic journey carries the secret to the drug's success.
It was Hunter S. Thompson who introduced ibogaine to a wide audience in the pages of Rolling Stone. The gonzo journalist was covering the 1972 presidential election, reporting what would eventually become Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. When Democratic contender Edmund Muskie acted strangely during a campaign stop in Florida, Thompson suggested that the candidate was taking ibogaine.
"It is entirely conceivable — given the known effects of ibogaine — that Muskie's brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations," Thompson wrote. "He looked out at that crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people ... his mind snapped completely when he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs."
The notion of Muskie on an ibogaine bender was absurd, and Thompson knew it. Most experienced users say the drug is extremely unpleasant when ingested in large doses, causing severe nausea, vertigo, sleeplessness, and visions that can be nightmarish. The effects last up to 36 hours, and the strain can be so great that some users are bedridden for days after.
"I only took one capsule of extract. It was very weak, but it was still strong enough to make me puke for six hours," says Dana Beal, a New York–based activist and longtime lobbyist for ibogaine legalization. "I had my head in a wastebasket or sink or toilet the entire time. It's aversive. I can tell you from personal experience that I don't ever want to take it again."
While Thompson brought ibogaine into popular parlance, credit for discovering the drug's medicinal potential is widely attributed to a man named Howard Lotsof. A decade before the events that gave rise to Fear and Loathing, Lotsof was a junkie living in New York City. Having bought some ibogaine for recreational use, he was astounded to find that when the hallucinogen wore off, he no longer craved heroin. Days passed, and he didn't experience any of the excruciating withdrawal symptoms associated with kicking a dope habit.
Lotsof, who died earlier this year of liver cancer at age 66, devoted his life to making ibogaine available as an addiction treatment. He experienced a significant setback in 1967, when the U.S. government banned the drug, along with several other psychedelics. In 1970, officials categorized ibogaine as a Schedule I substance — on par with heroin, marijuana, and other drugs that by definition have "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."
Eventually Lotsof shifted his focus and began using ibogaine to treat heroin addicts at a rehab clinic in the Netherlands. In 1985, he obtained a U.S. patent for the use of ibogaine to treat substance abuse. By the late '80s, doctors and scientists were confirming what Lotsof knew: Ibogaine blocks cravings and withdrawal symptoms for many types of drugs, and opiates in particular.