Ibogaine, The Powerful Psychedelic That Holds Promise For Treating Opioid Addiction

Published May 10, 2018
Updated February 16, 2020

Though Ibogaine is illegal in the United States, many claim that the drug could be incredibly helpful for opioid addiction.

Ibogaine Powder

Wikimedia CommonsThe powdered root of the iboga tree, which is where ibogaine comes from.

An herbal psychedelic with a rich history, ibogaine was first used by the Pygmy tribes of Central Africa for spiritual rituals. Then, French explorers brought it back home, introducing ibogaine to the rest of the world.

Given its hallucinogenic properties, it would see that ibogaine would forever be destined to be an illegal, recreational substance, much like LSD.

That was until one individual unwittingly discovered that it could help with opioid addiction, substantially reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings for heroin and other opioid drugs.

Today, the battle over the medical use of ibogaine continues. Where does ibogaine come from? Is it safe? And why haven’t we heard more about it?

Ibogaine’s African Origins

Tabernanthe Iboga

Wikimedia CommonsTabernanthe iboga tree.

Ibogaine is a natural compound found in the roots of Iboga and other plants of the Apocynaceae family that grows in the western portion of Central Africa.

It was first used by the Pygmy tribes of Central Africa for spiritual rituals. The Pygmies would pull the roots and bark from the tree, and chew on them to achieve a psychedelic state ideal for spiritual ceremonies.

The Pygmies later taught the practice to the Bwiti people of Gabon, a country on the western coast of Central Africa. This is how French explorers first learned of ibogaine when they reached Gabon in the late 19th century.

They noticed that the drug had powerful psychedelic effects that caused users to lose control of their bodily functions and wondered what else this herb was capable of. As the story goes, they brought the Iboga plant back to France for further study.

Ibogaine Reaches The West

Ibogaine Molecule

Wikimedia CommonsIbogaine molecule.

French scientists first isolated ibogaine from the Iboga plant in 1901. They soon discovered that when used in low doses, the psychedelic effectively reduced fatigue without producing significant hallucinogenic effects.

As a result, the French began to market ibogaine as a stimulant under the name Lambarène in the 1930s. Unsurprisingly, the drug became especially popular among athletes as it allowed them to reduce fatigue from working out.

Lambarène stayed on shelves until being pulled in the 1960s when doctors realized long-term use could lead to cardiac arrest. By this point, ibogaine was becoming illegal in many countries because of its hallucinogenic and heart-related side effects.

MKUltra: Psychedelic Mind Control?

Mkultra Documents

Wikimedia Commons

One of the most interesting rumors surrounding ibogaine is that it was used in the infamous MKUltra experiments conducted by the CIA between 1953 and 1973.

The goal of this top-secret project was to use psychedelic drugs (such as LSD) and other controversial methods for mind control, intelligence gathering, and psychological torture.

As the theory goes, ibogaine (and other psychedelics) made it easier to influence someone, which is why the CIA was interested in using them against America’s Cold War enemies.

There may be some merit to this line of thinking. According to research, when a person is under the effects of ibogaine, they go through three stages.

In the first, known as the “acute” phase (0-1 hours), the user’s visual and physical perception begins to change. Meanwhile, during phase two (1-7 hours), the subject closes their eyes and experiences vivid hallucinations akin to a lucid dream.

During this stage, people report intense hallucinations, feelings, and changes in perception of time and space. Common hallucinations include meeting with transcendent beings and reliving past memories.

Finally, stage three (8-36 hours) involves a deep state of introspection where a person re-evaluates their life and past choices.

During these last two phases, the subject is believed to be more “pliable” and easier to influence, which may explain why the CIA thought it could be used for mind control.

Whatever the case, we’ll never know for sure since most of the MKULTRA documents were destroyed or redacted.

Howard Lotsof And Opioid Addiction

Howard Lotsoff

YouTubeHoward Lotsof.

MKUltra rumors aside, ibogaine’s true shining moment came in 1962, when a 19-year-old heroin addict from New York accidentally discovered that there may be more to its effects than previously thought.

The teenager, Howard Lotsof, took the drug recreationally with six of his friends after hearing of its psychedelic properties.

As he enjoyed a psychedelic trip on ibogaine, Lotsof noticed that his cravings for heroin had subsided.

His friends echoed his feelings and additionally noted that they weren’t feeling withdrawal symptoms either. In fact, five of Lotsof’s friends quit heroin after trying ibogaine.

The amazing discovery would go on to define Lotsof’s life. For the next five decades, he would do everything in his power to promote ibogaine’s medical use and research into its anti-addictive properties.

In the mid-1980s, Lotsof signed a contract with a Belgian company to produce ibogaine in capsule form, distributing it to addicts and spurring promising clinical trials in the Netherlands.

He also created a U.S. patent for the use of ibogaine in treating opioid addiction, which was awarded to him in 1985, with several more patents approved in later years.

At one point, Lotsof even traveled to Gabon, where the country’s president presented him the Iboga plant, announcing that “This is Gabon’s gift to the world.”

Thanks to Lotsof’s work, doctors and addiction centers around Europe and the rest of the world began to use ibogaine to help with heroin and cocaine addiction.

However, despite funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the early 1990s, American research into ibogaine halted and the drug remained a controlled, schedule 1 substance.

Miracle Cure Or Dangerous Drug?

Despite the positive results of Lotsof’s work, ibogaine has remained a controversial substance. One obvious problem is the hallucinations, which can be mentally disturbing for patients.

But the bigger issue is that susceptible individuals have passed away from cardiac arrest and related heart problems after taking high doses of the drug.

According to an article by the Guardian, “It’s estimated that one in 400 people die from taking ibogaine, because they have pre-existing heart conditions, from seizures due to acute withdrawal from alcohol or other drugs not recommended for treatment with ibogaine, or else from taking opioids while under the influence of ibogaine.”

Although ibogaine is illegal in the U.S. and some other countries, it remains unregulated in many other places.

As a result, it’s possible to find some underground rehab clinics and retreats offering ibogaine treatment in Europe, Africa, Mexico, and other locations, most of which operate in a legal gray area.

Psychedelic-Based Medicines: The Way Of The Future?

It would seem that ibogaine has been relegated to the fringes of the medical world, deemed too unsafe to be used in a controlled, clinical setting.

However, not all is lost. One potential solution is 18-MC: a derivative of ibogaine that maintains its anti-addictive properties without causing hallucinations and other unwanted side effects.

The drug has shown some promise in early research and might even help with non-opioid substances such as alcohol.

A Canadian company called MindMed is currently working on clinical trials of 18-MC and other psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine to treat mental health and addiction problems.

With any luck, we may see these kinds of safer psychedelic medicines appear on shelves in the near future, much like CBD has allowed people to enjoy the benefits of cannabis without the unwanted intoxication.

After learning about Ibogaine, check out another psychedelic drug, peyote. Then, read about the study that proves psychedelic drugs create elevated levels of consciousness.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.