A natural psychoactive drug used to treat heroin, methadone, cocaine and alcohol addiction faces a UK ban depsite clinical research showing it has reduced deadly cravings in scores of patients.
Extracted from the root bark of an African plant, ibogaine is used by indigenous people to combat fatigue and in spiritual rituals and was first used to treat drug addicts in America in the 1960s.
The most comprehensive study into ibogaine to date is now being carried out with 32 heroin addicts on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. Conducted by neurology expert Dr Deborah Mash from Miami University, the research has so far revealed the drug “has significantly reduced craving for opiates” for all patients.
But an inquest resuming this week into the death of a 40-year-old hepatitus C-infected heroin addict, who died in London early last year, could result in the drug being banned. Ibogaine, taken by the man 40 hours before his death, was probably to blame, according to doctors.
The pathologist’s report stated the rare drug was “by far the most likely explanation” for his death. During the initial stages of the inquest – adjourned last month pending data on the effect of ibogaine from Dr Mash – the coroner said the drug should be banned if it is deemed to be the cause of death.
The coroner’s verdict could be a world-first. Records show three people have died after taking ibogaine, according to Dr Kenneth Alper, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the New York School of Medicine. Yet in each case, says Alper, ibogaine was not named as cause of death.
Supporters of ibogaine point out current government-funded addiction treatments are far from safe. Heroin addicts are prescribed methadone – itself highly addictive and implicated in the deaths of more than 200 people in the UK each year.
With ibogaine, the drug works by ‘resetting’ brain functions which relate to addiction, enabling patients to avoid powerful withdrawal symptoms – the major barrier to giving up.
Dr Mash, who admits the drug should only be taken under medical supervision, said ibogaine’s potential as a safer and more effective alternative to present treatments is suffering from a lack of support from authorities in the US and Europe. “Addicts desperate for an effective treatment will try to get help in any way possible,” she said.
“The lack of government-sanctioned studies has forced this effective treatment into underground settings. Many accepted treatments for opiate detoxification have led to deaths. With medical supervision, ibogaine is a safe drug.”
A series of informal trials among more than 300 addicts in Denmark, Holland, the Czech Republic and the Caribbean over 10 years produced similar findings. Ibogaine is legal in Britain but is classified as an ‘unlicensed experimental medicine’. It is a restricted substance in the US, Switzerland, Sweden and Belgium.
Shane Collins, of the Green Party drugs group said: “This drug is a plant medicine which requires serious research. It offers the potential of treating one of the greater ills of society.”