The Iboga Insurrection (Pt.2)


A traditional Bwiti medicine ceremony at Iboga Life in NYC

This is the second of a two-part series. Go here if you missed part one. 

 

Before Clare gives me the ibogaine she has me write out my intention for my journey, what I hope to get from the experience, and whatever questions I may want to ask the iboga spirits. She takes my intention and places it on a small altar she has built with candles and feathers. She runs my body over with burning sage and then spreads the smoke around the room, clearing spiritual energy and opening up the space for the iboga spirits to enter and do their work.

She has me lie down on the bed. Next to me on the pillow are a set of headphones hooked up to an ipod, and a special kind of visor allegedly designed by Alex Grey that improves psychedelic visions. Clare takes my hand into hers.

“As part of the treatment plan here, I make a life contract with all of my clients. Sometimes the medicine will open a door to the other side and it will tell you you can go into it if you want. I make my clients promise me they’ll stay here in this life. They came here to live, and that’s exactly what they’re going to do. I know you’re not in that place, but I gotta say it anyway. Who knows what you may want to do once you’re up there.”

“No problem,” I laugh, “I’ve got a lot to live for,” and was warmed by the truth of it. It was the perfect last thought before I began.

“Good,” she replied. “Here’s your test dose to get things started.”

She hands me two large yellow and green capsules containing an 85% pure mixture of ibogaine hydrochloride and alkaloid extract, In total I would be administered 1.42 grams in three doses between 11:15 pm and 2:15 am for a 17mg/kg overall dose, substantial for iboga. Clare puts on some ethereal music with elegant and comforting female voices and then turns off the lights in the room and leaves Joaquin, Jeff and I in candlelight to await the onset.

The first sign that ibogaine is working is generally a loud buzzing or ringing in the ears, which for me begins within the hour. Soon after that I begin to feel warm and things take on a light golden glow. I begin to see tracers following any movement, and it grows increasingly difficult to focus my eyes on anything. That’s when I decide it’s time to put on the visor and headphones and settle into the journey.

The shift to inner space almost immediately kickstarts a visionary phase. The blackness that is enveloping me suddenly forms depth and texture, morphing into a paisley-like tapestry that floats backwards, forming a three dimensional space that looks like I can reach out and touch it. The tapestry floats up and to the right, and then sails away out of my vision like the magic carpet of Aladdin. This pantomime, repeated over and over, would become the transitional metaphor for each new vision I would have as the journey unfolded, as if the floating tapestry was the stage curtain between acts of a play, or the title card between scenes of a film.

I begin to see kaleidoscopic fireworks, bursts of color and light, geometric patterns casting across the inner transom. They look almost like neurons and synapses firing, like molecules passing back and forth, valent energies interweaving. Then they begin to take on more animation and I sense—have an intuitive understanding—that the lights and patterns each have individual consciousness, that they are alive.

When Clare returns with my second dose, I remove the visor and see elongated grey spirits resembling the paint splotches of Jackson Pollack rapidly circling the room behind Clare’s head. Floating suspended in the same space are glowing blue orbs like energetic jellyfish. The spirits would plow through the blue orbs, separating them into droplets like oil in water. Just outside the sliding glass doors on either side of the room are pools of spirits and blue energy that cannot enter my room. In the background, massive spirit shapes bigger than city buses pass by. I relate this information to Clare, pointing out where I am seeing the shapes. She smiles and nods, knowingly.

“They are busy,” she says. “Not all of them have time to stop in.”

Clare changes the music and puts on a compilation of traditional African tribal music that has beautiful, acrobatic vocalizations and harmonies mixed in with powerful sounds of nature: water flowing, thunderclaps and lightning, fire, rain and wind. This begins a new phase of the journey that is not visual, but rather, emotional. I understand the stories behind the songs, not through the words, but though the emotions in the words, the tones, timbre, and energy of the voices. I feel the loss of death, the joy of love, the fear of displacement and hatred, the love of the land, the cries of freedom. This is our land, this is our medicine, these are our spirits, we welcome you, do you welcome us? What have you to offer?

Then the tapestries return, but instead of flying away they fold back to form what looks to me like a space under my blanket, like a bed fort a child would build with pillows and a flashlight. This “bed fort,” however, has the feel of an opium den, with Persian rugs and glowing lamps.

It was about then I realize that I no longer have any fear about the journey, that I feel comfortable and right. I am eager to go deeper, to see more. I want to see what my vast and uncharted shadow has in store for me. I feel confident I can handle anything now. Almost as if it was waiting for me to think that, a voice says, not vast and uncharted! Known!

Another vision begins. Before me are caricatures of myself, jerky low-res avatars like in a video game or graffiti art. These caricatures communicate various aspects of my personality to me, not through words or even scenes, but through symbolic movements, repetitive motions somewhat similar to the “tape loops” others have described, but significantly more symbolic in nature.

In this loop, I /the caricature of me begins with my hands folded together in prayer, and I am still. Perpendicular to me is a long row of what looks like giant playing cards as tall as me. Like any deck of cards, there are number cards and face cards, except the face cards are people in my life, and the number cards represent “situations, consequences and outcomes.” From the praying position I then suddenly flail my arms backward and shake my head. Each time I do this I knock down these cards like a row of dominoes. They race around in a big loop until they come back full circle and knock me over.

The message is clear to me the entire time. This scene represents the ongoing ebb and flow between my ego self and my higher self. When I am in the praying position, it symbolizes the times when I am coming from a place of humility and grounding, and as such, nothing is disturbed. Each time I flail my arms wildly it represents me falling back into ego, and invariably starting a chain reaction, symbolized by the cards falling over like dominoes, which eventually come back to bite me in the ass.

It was such a painfully simple representation of one of the hardest personal lessons of my life, and yet, as I’m watching it, a voice says, you know this…you’ve known this for a while, your only challenge is to be vigilant and remember it. I kept expecting this stern, paternalistic, tough-love, brutal assault on my character. What I got was kind frankness instead.

You were afraid that you would come in here and see painful things about yourself that you weren’t ready to handle, but you’ve already done all that work, and you didn’t need us to do it. You know yourself, because you took the time to get to know yourself, honestly and critically, because you didn’t want anymore pain. You wanted us to show you how to be a better man, and yet, you already know. The question is, will you BE that man? You’ve got everything you ever asked for. You are lucky and loved and can speak to many. How will you honor this every day? Will you help those who need it, who suffered as you once suffered? How will you remind yourself that it’s not about you, that you are just a messenger? Go enjoy what you have built, but always remember to spread that love and fortune, and always be kind to yourself.

The true believers will tell you that the iboga spirits are speaking to us every day through messengers and mediums, signs and symbols, and all we need do is seek and we shall find. As if to reinforce this from beyond the grave, the distinctive voice of Howard Lotsof (he was missing many teeth) periodically comes through the headphones in short clips that Clare had interspersed on the playlist. The plants are alive and their speaking to us all the time, we just need to find a way to listen to them. That’s good medicine!

I describe all of this to Clare when she returns for the last time before my session officially ends. She is flummoxed by my ability to coherently describe the depth and breadth of my visions.

“You are the single most coherent person I have ever witnessed on ibogaine. Most people can’t speak or think clearly for a couple days, much less move around.”

When I tell her I am hungry too, she looks at me like I am from Mars. Aside from some ataxia (a loss of balance and motor control), which causes me to crack my forehead on some marble in the bathroom, I feel great, but worn out. Unfortunately, I will not be able to sleep until the following night, and I can’t focus my vision for a whole day. I would still be seeing trailers and auras a week later.

Removing me from the pulse/ox monitor, Clare tells me she’s been in constant contact with my partner in San Francisco, who also works with plant medicine, giving her updates on my session. This tiny personal gesture touches me deeply, and reveals so much about Clare’s true nature: evangelistically inquisitive and inclusive. I feel much gratitude, which is what I tell Clare when she asks me how I’m doing.

“I get it, now” I say. “Remarkable plant. And you guys are incredible at what you do.”

She laughs. “Good. And to think that we’ve been called a ‘back-alley abortion’ ibogaine clinic.”

“What?”

“Oh you haven’t heard that? Hmpf. Deborah Mash said that.”

“Deborah Mash? Really?”

“You know Deborah Mash?”

“I know of her,” I say, and can’t believe she would say such a thing.

The Academic

“Absolutely I said that,” Dr. Deborah Mash tells me when I contact her at the University of Miami. “I think that addicts deserve the best. I couldn’t live with myself if I ever hurt someone. I didn’t take this cause forward to put others in harms way.”

Mash is one of my heroes. Back in the Nineties she discovered coca-ethylene, a chemical that is formed in the human body by the liver when both cocaine and alcohol are ingested. Coca-ethylene is longer acting, more potent, and substantially more addictive then cocaine itself. I can tell you first hand about that one. No matter how hard I tried to quit, alcohol always led to a relapse, and her discovery helped me realize that to quit cocaine, and to stay quit, I had to stop drinking for a while too.

One of the world's foremost scientific experts on ibogaine, Mash also identified the active metabolite, noribogaine, that is credited with the ability to detoxify and sustain a newly recovering addict (for the record, she says “noribogaine” is a misnomer and that the metabolite should be called “decmethylibogaine”). Mash also opened an off-shore healing center on the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts, which she used for research and development, gathering data on over 286 ibogaine treatments.

“This was the only study conducted to my knowledge that had qualified professionals associated with it,” she adds.

This not-so-subtle dig at the underground begins to touch on where Mash and the rest part ways. As ibogaine was forced underground, Mash’s biggest concern became lay-providers and activist types, like Polanco, Dana Beal, Eric Taub, Mark Emery, and, of course, Howard Lotsof, who administer treatments in what she considers to be unsafe conditions.

“What you have got are people who don't know what they’re doing. They think they do, but they don’t. And things can go wrong. Very, very wrong. People have died in their care. I take that very seriously.”

Mash is coming from a very different place than the addicts and the ibogistas. She believes that addiction is a neurological disorder in the same way as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's or cancer or diabetes, and that addiction needs to be corrected medically. More importantly, addicts need to be viewed with the same compassion as people suffering from any of those other illnesses.

“It’s in their genes, it’s not their fault. They couldn’t help getting sick, they’re not morally defective. We first have to humanize them. These are sick people!” she says.

Here you start to see what really makes Mash tick. Despite her gruff manner and her corrosive distrust of the underground, she really cares about curing addiction. Addicts aren’t lab rats to her, they’re suffering people. She’s a doctor. You do the math.

“I would love to be able to give young addicts an ibogaine dose and then stick them in treatment. As an adjutant to treatment, its perfect, but its not the treatment itself. Think about if we could help just a third of the people addicted to drugs, wouldn’t that be absolutely amazing? Well, we had a chance once, and we blew it.”

Mash has certainly made her fair share of enemies in the ibogaine underground. If the “back-alley abortion” comments didn’t exactly ingratiate her to her colleagues, her relationship with Howard Lotsof is what sealed the deal. Lotsof is beloved by this community, a sacred cow, yet Mash believes, ironically enough, that he’s the one ultimately responsible for ibogaine never going mainstream.

Back in the mid Nineties when she first discovered noribogaine, Mash claims she offered Lotsof, who held the legal patents, a 50/50 partnership to move forward with research and get a study funded by the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA). This could have led to FDA approval of the drug and a pharmaceutical contract, which could have reaped billions. Lotsof refused the offer and in turn “sicked his lawyers” on Mash to prevent her from, as she puts it, “taking away his baby.” Lotsof then cut off her access to ibogaine, a move which she took personally.

“Howard shot an arrow into the heart of the only scientific team to ever get behind him,” she says, the pain and frustration still evident in her voice.

The net result was that NIDA refused to fund a formal study, Mash’s research was forced off-shore, and they did not get the millions in R & D money that it takes to get a drug to market before Lotsof’s patents expired in 2003. Eventually, their feud spilled over into the underground, and would end up polarizing along ideological lines.

“We were trying to get the medical community on board, and instead, we got totally derailed,” Mash laments. “The medical community wasn’t too crazy about the psychedelic aspects of ibogaine, and I felt (and still feel) that the data supports that we can isolate that part of the drug and have the metabolite without the psychotropic effects. Crazy left-wing Howard and his buddies didn’t go for that.”

She says that the “obsession” the underground has with the visionary aspect of the drug is at the expense of all those people they could be helping. She still believes, however, in the potential of iboga-related metabolites to revolutionize the field of addiction treatment, even if she’s given up hope on ibogaine itself. The problem, she points out, is the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to develop a new drug.

“Who’s going to pay for that? Dana Beal? Eric Taub? Marc Emery?”

The Activists

Unfortunately, as far as public relations goes, the underground hasn’t done itself any favors, that’s for sure. The most visible leaders of the movement are mired in public controversy involving drug allegations. Howard Lotsof ends up being the cleanest of the lot. These include Polanco, Beal, Taub, and Emery.

Dana Beal is a suspected marijuana trafficker who was busted twice between June of 2008 and September of 2009. He is currently free on $500,000 bond facing a case in Nebraska in which he was caught with 150 pounds of weed, shortly after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in an Illinois case in which he was caught with $150,000 in suspected drug money.

Eric Taub is considered, along with Lotsof and Mash, to be one of the three main luminaries of the ibogaine movement. He is also what Deborah Mash calls the prototypical “dangerous evangelizing lay-provider.” Taub has come under fire for allegedly running laissez-faire clinics in places like Costa Rica and Italy, and even more so for setting up a mail-order business so that anyone who wants to obtain iboga can. He’s also got something of a god complex, according to sources close to him who prefer to remain anonymous.


And then of course there’s Marc Emery, the Canadian marijuana activist/entrepreneur who was arrested in 2005 for “Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana and Seeds” in a controversial cross-border raid by the D.E.A. who used the Vancouver police to do their dirty work. Emery’s defiant stance, and the widely held public view that he has committed no crime and is the target of harassment, has earned him folk hero status and the nickname, “The Prince of Pot.”

In 2002 Emery opened the Iboga Therapy House outside Vancouver and for the next three years funded dozens of free treatments for addicts and those seeking “psycho-spiritual therapy.” When he was arrested in 2005 he handed over ownership of the house to a not-for-profit organization, and longtime therapist Sandra Karpetas assumed much of the day-to-day operations. Karpetas, who along with Valerie Mojieko is responsible for initiatiing the MAPS study which began in Canada, is another autodidact with no formal training in addiction like Clare Wilkins, except Karpetas was turned on to ibogaine by Marc Emery “for purely initiatory purposes,” she says.

Karpetas used a grant from the Women’s Entheongen Fund, an offshoot of the Woman’s Visionary Congress, to reopen the Iboga Therapy House. She went on to treat 65 patients between 2006 and 2008 before financial constraints forced her to close it down. She is just now preparing to reopen, with 700 people on her waiting list, and a renewed focus on getting a formal study funded through Health Canada, the Canadian health care system.

“Here in Canada we consider ‘treatment’ a much longer focused program, so we define ibogaine use as ‘therapy,’ because its mostly a detox program. We don’t call iboga ‘medicine’ or a ‘drug’ or ‘psychedelic.’ We want to legitimize it here as a natural health product, an herbal detoxification program. Its an important distinction we make.”

Karpetas relates how everyone who has had the iboga experience now feels that they are part of an amazing global phenomenon, a movement of compassion, of one helping another.

“The plants are urging us on. They are incredibly evolved life forms. Look at the genome of a human compared to that of a simple plant, and the plant wins. There is more to life than meets the eye, they are telling us.”


The Shaman

When I finally speak to him on the phone, after connecting on Facebook, Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis tells me he’s in a hotel room in New Jersey on day three of detoxing a young male heroin addict. Dimitri is part of the neotribal wing of the ibogaine underground. He’s what’s known as a “ritual/spiritual provider” who administers iboga in its traditional root bark form in a Bwiti ritual. His New York City based company, Iboga Life, conducts traditional Bwiti medicine ceremonies, mostly for addicts, although, there are psycho-spiritual clients.

He’s no dilettante; this is a cat who’s been around. He has undergone several Bwiti iboga initiations in Gabon, and now refers to himself euphemistically as a member of “Bwiti USA.” He’s also the cofounder of the New York City Drug Users Union, and the subject of a new documentary called “I’m Dangerous with Love,” by acclaimed filmmaker Michel Negroponte, director of Methadonia. The point is that this man understands addiction. He has a serious, no bullshit New York frankness to him.

“My role as a Bwiti is to detox junkies. That’s what I do. And junkies are very spiritual people and they’re looking for this kind of thing. What we’re lacking is community and ceremony and a rite of passage, a way to frame our lives.  Bwiti is a system of plant medicine where people can find healing and purpose. In particular, it offers a way to help men reclaim their manhood.”

Dimitri argues that addicts and indigenous peoples have a common bond because they are both dislocated and disenfranchised, two of the last social groups where it is still acceptable to portray them with vicious stereotypes.

“Colonization and addiction are about infantilization, desexualization, dehumanization, imprisonment, enslavement, and expropriation, whether its land, family, your body or your will. We help people reclaim all of it.”

I ask him if he thinks the treatment will ever go above ground.

“Here’s where I separate myself from most of the iboga community. Most want this to be a pharmaceutical drug administered in hospitals, right?  But prescription, by definition, is not about access, its about limiting access.”

But what about safety? What about the people who have died?

“I don’t give a fuck about that shit. Iboga has been around for 3900 years! It’s fucking safe. I’ve seen babies eat it, I've seen pregnant and breastfeeding woman eat it, dogs, old people, you name it. The shit is safe! And if we can eat a natural bark or drink a vine that cures our illness, we won’t need the goddam people in the white coats anymore. If we could drop the price and train thousands of lay providers, than we’ve really got something going on.”

His strategy, and critique, is simple. The psychedelic medicine community, the “entheogen movement,” as he calls it, is almost exclusively made up of upper middle class, white male academics. But the medicine comes from poor people in Africa, and yet it is unknown to poor people in America, particularly African-Americans. This focus on this racial and economic aspects of iboga has made Dimitri “the red headed stepchild of the movement.”

“Ibogaine gives us a real chance to bridge that socioeconomic gap, but the medical establishment is afraid of who we are and the people we are bringing in. So, really, this is the most revolutionary aspect of this movement. It’s turning on the Puerto Rican gang banger who would otherwise never have taken this stuff that really inspires me. I wanna make that happen.”

Dimitri has deep love for Howard Lotsof, calling him “my father.” He tells me how Howard wanted to go into the African-American community and throw open the doors to ibogaine for them, but the reception was not what he expected.

“In the beginning we would stand out on 125th street in front of the methadone clinics handing out fliers. You can probably guess hardly anyone responded. But slowly those folks are starting to come to us. Yeah…they’ll get there.”

He laughs and clears his throat, and then settles on a final thought.

“Look, we don’t need to be here to help people. We just need to be here for people who want to help themselves. How we do that is we meet them where they are at.”

It’s all part of the vision

You hear those words uttered by nearly everyone iboga has touched, we meet them where they are at. It’s the mantra of this remarkable collection of passionate, difficult people who come from the perspective that the addicts are the real healers and iboga is merely the catalyst, the inspiration. It’s here, in the humanization, and in many respects, elevation of these former scourges of society that we see the real revolution, and why the medical establishment is simply not interested in ibogaine. The underground’s existence is a natural consequence of that repudiation.

There’s a philosophy known as “Dual-Power Strategy” that espouses the creation of alternative institutions that embody the beliefs and practices of breakaway, sub- or countercultures, a sort of positive antidote to trying to change a system from inside that is hopelessly ineffective and corrupt. The fundamental idea is to channel transformative energy not into changing existing institutions but rather into building viable alternatives.  As these alternative structures grow, like the cooperative movements in Argentina, eventually they take on more and more of the functions of a larger social system. Eventually they grow into an alternative infrastructure that fulfills economic, political, social, and cultural needs, like we have seen develop in America’s evangelical community.

This is precisely what we see happening with alternative medicine, whether its the burgeoning natural health industry, the integration of eastern medicine, organic nutrition, addiction, or even the movement against vaccines, the response to the Western model of medicine has been profound. It is not surprising then that this alternative philosophy is attractive to those in the ”exile nation” who feel oppressed, disempowered or disenfranchised within the greater society. Addicts inhabit ground zero of this realm. So if an addict can be treated with respect, have their spiritual pain acknowledged, and feel the support of people around them who do not judge them, then they not only have a chance at healing themselves, but also bringing that healing to others. The ripple effect could change the world.

This became clear in the weeks following my experience with ibogaine, when I realized that now I too was part of this revolutionary underground. People who followed along on my Facebook and Twitter pages began contacting me. One friend told me just he returned from a traditional Bwiti initiation ritual in Costa Rica. Most people told me about their friends, brothers cousins, mothers, who were addicted to heroin, nicotine, crack, meth, K, alcohol. They need help, they didn’t know what else to do, they’ve run out of options, should they try ibogaine? It becomes abundantly clear that there will never be a shortage of people wanting it, so does it really matter whether this medicine is ever sanctioned by the medical establishment? It’s clear already that people who need it will find it anyway, when they’ve had enough.

I spoke with Clare over Skype a few weeks later to check some facts. I had asked her to give me more information on the short recordings of Howard that she had interspersed on the playlist she set up for my journey.

“I went through fifty gigabytes of music and I have no recordings of Howard Lotsof talking about iboga. It sounds like it was part of your vision.”

“That’s impossible,” I replied. I know what I heard.”

I was dumbfounded. She could see it in my face.  But she smiled, and I thought I saw a tear form, but it could have been the light reflecting off her glasses.

“Looks like Howard made it after all,” I said.

 

Charles Shaw is the author of Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, appearing exclusively on Reality Sandwich.