In the July, 1986 issue of High Times magazine, writer Spencer Rumsey investigated ibogaine as an emerging therapy for a variety of conditions. In an accompanying piece in the same issue, Dean Latimer took a closer look at what it’s like to trip on the drug.
Ibogaine is not a euphoric hallucinogen, which helps explain why Timothy Leary doesn’t like the drug. The first noticeable effects are a numbing sensation and a feeling of weariness. Typically, a subject lies down to rest. Without warning, the fireworks begin. “It’s like watching a motion picture,” Howard Lotsof, founder of the Dora Weiner Foundation, told Sandy McCroskey of Overthrow magazine. “I don’t mean a vision here or there. It’s more like going to the movies for three or four hours, only in this case the ‘movies’ is your subconscious. The first hallucination I went through was an Oedipal one. The first thing I saw was a pulsating yellow screwdriver, which disappeared abruptly. The next thing I knew I was walking up a ladder leading to a ten-foot diving board over a pool. As I was walking up the diving board, my bathing suit disappeared and I was naked. As I dived into the pool, my mother appeared beneath me with her legs open and I was diving into her vagina. As I got closer she changed into my sister, who changed into an infant. I went into the water and that was it. The vision changed to a new one.” Visions come in seemingly unrelated waves, each one lasting several minutes. After this initial hallucinatory phase is over, things get even more dramatic. “The first reaction generally is, what happened? I thought this was supposed to last for 36 hours,” says Lotsof. “Then all of a sudden you realize that is hasn’t stopped, it’s just changed. You’re no longer watching this motion picture, but there are giant lightning flashes and movements of light all over the place. There’s no waviness, things don’t lose their normal form.” This high-energy period typically last from six to twelve hours and is followed by a quieter, secondary phase, which lasts between 24 and 30 hours, after which the subject falls asleep.
Ibogaine briefly attracted attention in the so-called civilized world in the 1960s, after Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld of California witnessed its ceremonial use among the tribal peoples of West Africa. Herbal physicians there administer a drinkable preparation of the Tabernanthe iboga shrub to people with various common emotional disorders: depression, impotence, phobias, or plain chronic bad luck. The hallucinogenic brew renders the patient intensely suggestible for as long as three days, during which all the people in the tribe collaborate in the therapy, putting the patient through a series of vigorous psycho-ceremonies which, as one observer has described it, “take the guy back to earliest infancy and then into the womb itself, and then out the other side again, a whole new person.” According to Schoenfeld, it may be months or years after that experience before the patient’s neurotic symptoms begin to gradually manifest themselves again.
For a while then, around 20 years ago, several psychiatric theorists speculated that ibogaine might be helpful in formal Western headshrinkery. The most extensive work with the drug was done in France where eventually the drug came to be merchandised in tablet form as a mild antidepressant. Virtually no work was done with ibogaine in America before the federal government here put it on Schedule One: defined forever in law as a drug with “no medical value” and “a high liability for abuse.” Not that the drug had ever been systematically researched (outside of France) to determine whether or not it might have any medical value: nor had ibogaine ever shown up on the street, anywhere, to be abused at all by anyone. The enlightened drug-schedulers of the Nixon War on Drugs administration simply noted that this drug was being described in very much the same language as LSD-25: a “hallucinogen” promoting “death-and-rebirth experiences,” and so on. Since Nixon’s inspired drug warriors—people like Gordon Liddy and John Mitchell—were hell-bent to permanently ban LSD and anything that might even sound like it, ibogaine went on Schedule One, and remains there to this day.
Any endeavor to employ ibogaine with detoxifying heroin or coke habitués, then, would encounter formidable legal objections. On the other hand, it might work just as well, or better, than any other drug ever used for the purpose. Over the years, detox researchers have consistently reported that out of any sizable group of addicts treated with any sort of “addiction cure”—even if the “cure” is just placebo sugar pills—about one-third invariably kick clean, and stay clean for months and years. “As long as you tell them, firmly and confidently, that the stuff will help them, they’ll help themselves with it,” explains one researcher. “What the drug is, exactly, really doesn’t matter much at all.”