By Tony Thompson
A powerful hallucinogenic drug that has been linked to dozens of deaths around the world is becoming increasingly popular among Britain's heroin and crack users, who believe it can offer an instant, painless cure for their addictions.
Extracted from the root bark of a west African plant, ibogaine has been used in spiritual rituals in parts of Gabon, where it is said to open up ancestral memories and enable people to re-evaluate life experiences. It is banned in the US, Belgium and Switzerland but legal in the UK, where it is classified as an unlicensed, experimental medicine. Concerns over its safety and high price have limited its popularity.
But Observer investigations reveal an increasing number of mail-order outlets supplying British addicts with an extract of ibogaine at $US30 a gram. Tourists are also bringing it back from Amsterdam, where it is openly available.
Only a few countries, including Panama, Costa Rica and Italy, have clinics that administer ibogaine under scientific conditions. In Britain, many users are taking the drug in their own homes under the supervision of friends or other addicts.
Earlier this month an inquest opened into the case of a London man who died after ingesting ibogaine. His may be the first death in the UK related to the use of the substance and represents a setback to those who want it used more widely.
"People say it is like having 10 therapy sessions all at once," says Chris Sanders of the Ibogaine Project, a UK-based initiative campaigning for more research into ibogaine's potential benefits.
"It's often called a wonder drug but the reality is that it's not a total cure in itself, just a way of giving an addict a fresh start. It has a powerful effect on the body - you need to be fit to be treated with it. I can't say I'm happy about people using it on their own." Sanders believes deaths linked with ibogaine have occurred when users "cured" of their addiction return to using drugs. Because ibogaine "resets" many brain functions relating to drug use, users who take their usual dosage soon after treatment risk overdosing. The only major clinical trial of ibogaine, in Amsterdam in the early '90s, was abandoned after an addict died of an overdose after being treated.
While even ibogaine's strongest supporters admit there are dangers, those who have been treated with it are almost evangelical about it. They claim that, as well as curing addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, it can ameliorate other psychological disorders.
The effect of the drug varies according to the dose. Less than 1g produces stimulant and aphrodisiac effects. Up to 3g produces a euphoric trip, during which the user may experience hallucinations. Up to 6g, the maximum safe dosage, produces powerful near-death and other deep spiritual experiences. Those taking the highest doses report that they first enter a dream-like phase that consists of vivid visions of past memories, almost as if they were watching a film of their own lives. A second phase consists of high levels of analytical mental activity. Many users report that, during this phase, they comprehend for the first time why they drifted into drug-using.
Dr Colin Brewer, who runs a specialist addition clinic in London, the Stapleford Centre, is sceptical about the drug. "It has an enormous placebo effect and, in that sense, has more to do with voodoo than pharmacology. In order to evaluate it, you would have to conduct experiments alongside another drug like LSD, which no-one is going to risk because of the harm it can do." - The Observer