In what sounds like a parallel of the “hair of the dog” expression, a subculture of scientists think they may be able to liberate addicts from their cravings for heroin, cocaine and alcohol using a hallucinogen, namely ibogaine.
Ibogaine occurs naturally in some African plants and was used for centuries by the Bwiti tribe for ritualistic purposes. Although the drug was studied by the CIA in the 1950s, the potentially remarkable effects described were not discovered until 1962 when a man called Howard Lotsof took it recreationally. Lotsof was a heroin addict but after the trip on ibogaine he found that his addiction had abruptly disappeared. He went on to establish a medical clinic to promote ibogaine and to treat other addicts.
Other scientists who learned of this decided to study ibogaine in order to determine whether it really could have such an effect and if so, how it worked.
Dr. Stanley Glick managed to get lab rats addicted to morphine, the metabolite of heroin commonly used as a painkiller.
He did this by allowing the rats to give themselves morphine whenever they wanted using a tube. Once he treated them with ibogaine however, the rats no longer took the painkiller.
Ibogaine appears to reduce cravings by creating a protein which blocks the NMDA receptors in the brain responsible for those cravings. Importantly, ibogaine enters fatty tissue in the body where it is stored whilst being released gradually. This allows one dose of the drug to continually be present in the bloodstream for half a year, effectively achieving in one treatment what would otherwise take months of detox.
Undoubtedly, more inquiry and analysis is essential. David Nutt, head of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, believes that a definitive answer could be obtained by a single blind study where one group of addicts would take a pre-determined dose of ibogaine and another group would take a placebo. Both would then complete a full 12-step detox treatment plan. A single blind study is one where the participants do not know whether they are taking the drug or the placebo but the experimenters do.
Unfortunately, further research on ibogaine has not been forthcoming due to risks associated with it.
One study found that ibogaine could damage the brains of rats when given at high doses, admittedly much higher than would ever be used to treat addictions in humans.
Furthermore, ibogaine has been classified in the US as a Schedule 1 drug which means that it is defined as having a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
This makes it extremely difficult for researchers to obtain funding for the necessary clinical trials.
Pharmaceutical companies have been dissuaded from studying ibogaine for two reasons.
Firstly, unlike methadone which has to be given over a lengthy period of time when weaning patients off of heroin, ibogaine may only need to be given once if treatment is accompanied with psychosocial care.
Secondly, ibogaine is found naturally in nature so companies are unable to patent it.
These two factors remove the profit incentive, leaving ibogaine research in limbo.
Now though, the environment may finally be changing. Some scientists believe that they can develop a molecule with the same effects as ibogaine but which is just different enough to allow it to be patented. Additionally, recent studies on ecstasy as a treatment for trauma suggest that funding may soon be more available for research on drugs that have a potential for abuse.
It is of course possible that the studies find that ibogaine is not effective or is unsafe.
As disappointing as that would be, it would be much more disappointing if the status quo continues and ibogaine remains as a tantalising unknown.