In West Africa, the roots of a native shrub contain a psychoactive substance called ibogaine. In small doses, ibogaine produces a mild euphoric effect somewhat comparable to other stimulant plants, like khat in the Horn of Africa or piri piri in the Amazon. But in large doses, its psychedelic effects are extraordinary.

Ibogaine’s closest analog is ayahuasca, a drug used for shamanic purposes in South America and increasingly appropriated by foreigners chasing its promise of fantastical hallucinations and inner clarity. Ibogaine takes all that and doubles down. With the exception of the colorful visual patterns associated with ayahuasca, pretty much everything about ibogaine is more extreme — more profound. An ayahuasca trip lasts around four hours; a trip on ibogaine can last more than a day. Ayahuasca facilitates lucid dreaming; ibogaine facilitates way more intense lucid dreaming. The effects are so literally flooring that people typically remain horizontal for the duration, trying not to move, lest they vomit. They see God. They talk to the dead. Paralyzing forks in the road of their personal lives melt smoothly into a single path forward.

“With ibogaine, it’s much more intense,” Bruno Gomes, a Brazil-based psychologist who’s been working with ibogaine for drug dependency since 2010, tells Inverse by phone. “People have a lot of memories — about deceased parents, about moments in their lives, meaningful moments or sometimes not meaningful.”

With ayahuasca, it’s common to feel calmer, less depressed, and more present and engaged with life for a week or so after the initial trip. The afterglow from ibogaine, however, can last for months. Substance addiction simply vanishes, according to some, with no symptoms of withdrawal.

Why, in an age when nearly every party drug is being pushed into federal trials for addiction and mental illness, when drug tourists who fetishize the mysticism associated with indigenous hallucinogens are in the market for ever-bigger thrills, and when the opioid epidemic is killing tens of thousands each year, have so few Americans heard of ibogaine?

The iboga tree.
The iboga tree.

Ibogaine is an active substance derived from the bark of the iboga tree. It’s commonly used for religious purposes by people indigenous to Cameroon and Gabon, who ingest it by stripping the root bark and eating it. Unlike the traditionally ritualistic use of ayahuasca, it’s traditional for a person to take a high dose of ibogaine just once in their life.

In 1962, a teenage heroin addict from The Bronx named Howard Lotsof happened upon an extract of the substance in powder form. He took it searching for a high, found one, and also found that when it wore off, it took his desire for heroin with it. Six friends who were also junkies tried it; five went clean immediately, with none of the painful withdrawal for which heroin is notorious. Lotsof became a lifelong activist for the research of ibogaine for drug dependency.

Ibogaine had been studied at low doses for its stimulant effect in western cultures before, including by the CIA in the 1950s. But Lotsoff was the first to realize its high-dose potential for addiction recovery, and in the wake of his discovery a subculture of heroin and cocaine users seeking it to help with cravings and withdrawal spread across the United States, as well as other countries like the Netherlands.

story continues below

It’s most common for Americans seeking ibogaine these days to try Mexico or the Bahamas. A few will make the trip to Gabon, but it’s not exactly the most time- or cost-effective way to indulge a curiosity, even a potentially life-saving one. (Gomes also says that, from what he’s heard, people in Gabon don’t tend to be thrilled with the arrival of strangers at their door, bringing some combination of heroin addiction and/or misguided expectation of mysticism.) The most important thing is to just make sure the practitioner overseeing its administration is a legit one. Taken properly, ibogaine is generally very safe. Taken improperly, without clearing any number of pre-existing medical issues, you can die.

Other countries like New Zealand and Canada have recently begun to legislate therapeutic uses, and it’s a de facto national treasure in Gabon, where members of the Bwiti religion use it in coming-of-age ceremonies. But the sparse body of controlled research, coupled with the very real risk of death, has kept it from making any real headway in the States. The Multidisciplinary Associate for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has had some success introducing clinical trials in other countries, but FDA regulation still seems a ways off for any U.S.-based research. It remains a Schedule I drug, even as the opioid crisis continues to grow.

In Brazil, which has no such crisis, Gomes and his colleagues work with patients addicted to (predominately) crack cocaine. Though they’ll meet with their patients a number of times, they’ll administer ibogaine to each person only once. Speaking at the MAPS Psychedelic Science Conference in California late last month, Gomes said most people he sees are addicts for whom traditional therapy and the various Anonymous programs have failed. They tend to be impatient with the precursor meetings and adherence to controlled settings, wanting mostly to get the drug, take it, and leave cured.

Ibogaine’s place in the global consciousness is such that most people in most cultures still haven’t heard of it, but that the ones who have tend to view it as sort of no-strings-attached miracle drug. Part of Gomes’s work is to install a more comprehensive and less reductive understanding of ibogaine’s usage — it’s a tool, possibly a singular one, but it’s not magic. The effects might not wear off for months, but they do wear off, and so addicts seeking treatment will still need to implement some lifestyle changes going forward.

The reasons why ibogaine remains comparatively anonymous in the West despite its sleeping-giant potential as a psychedelic powerhouse aren’t completely quantifiable, but probably have something to do with the geographical distance to its traditional usage — compared to, for instance, peyote in the Southwest — and the fact that it’s also just a hard substance to physically procure. Ibogaine may be lesser-known outside Gabon than its peers, but that doesn’t mean that increased demand hasn’t hiked the prices dramatically over the last decade or so. Iboga trees also need eight years to mature before the bark is ripe, so to speak, for harvesting, and in order to harvest the plants you do need to kill them. Labs have begun to produce a sort of synthetic ibogaine from the plant Voacanga africana in an effort to make the drug more environmentally and economically sustainable, but it’s still very much a nascent field.

Gomes took ibogaine four years ago. He’d already been treating patients with it for another four years before that and admitted that seeing them before and after, coupled with their descriptions of extraordinary experiences, led him to some preconceived expectations that didn’t end up bearing out. But what he did experience changed him profoundly; his description of it is also pretty close to what hordes of drug tourists and New Agers will be chasing when they decide they want, the next time, something beyond peyote or ayahuasca.

story continues below

“It didn’t even seem to be my thinking, you know?” Gomes recalls. “It was like a very intense flood of thoughts, a river of thoughts from my head, and with this river … I got three very important things that I needed to deal with, in three situations in my life — concerning my job, concerning my studies, and concerning my personal life with my girlfriend — and I got a way to go [forward], and since the last four years I have been taking this trail. And it helped all of those things to make sense.”

Photos via Psychedelic Times, Psyklon