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Ron Price needs his milk shake. It's ten o'clock on a Monday morning and the baldheaded, 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 employed as 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 Price 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 40-year-old director of Pangea Biomedics, pops the lid of the blender to check the consistency of the concoction Price craves: peanut butter, soymilk, 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.
Now she pours the thick, chocolaty liquid into a mason jar, but agrees to hand it over 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 to 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 neurology professor at the University of California-San Francisco. "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 non-hallucinogenic. The trouble, say Wilkins and others who have used ibogaine, 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, "an exotic brand of speed" that "nobody in the press corps had ever heard of."
"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 Ed 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 Hunter Thompson brought ibogaine into popular parlance, credit for discovering the drug's medicinal potential is widely attributed to a man named Howard Lotsof. Ten years before the events that gave rise to Fear and Loathing, Lotsof was a junkie living in New York. Having bought some ibogaine for recreational use, Lotsof 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.