Following the publication of a wildly innaccurate article about ibogaine, we took issue with the paper and got a result
(The following article appeared in The Observer newspaper on Jan 7th 2001. It is also online at www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4113556,00.html.)
Hallucinogen ‘cure’ for addicts linked to deaths
by Tony Thompson, crime correspondent
Sunday January 7, 2001
A powerful hallucinogenic drug that has been linked to dozens of deaths around the world is becoming increasingly popular among Britain’s heroin and crack users, who believe it can offer an instant, painless cure for their addictions.
Extracted from the root bark of a west African plant, ibogaine has been used in spiritual rituals in parts of Gabon, where it is said to open up ancestral memories and enable people to re-evaluate life experiences. It is banned in the US, Belgium and Switzerland but legal in the UK where it is classified as an unlicensed, experimental medicine. Concerns over its safety and high price have prevented it from growing in popularity.
But Observer investigations reveal an increasing number of mail-order outlets supplying British addicts with an extract of ibogaine at £20 a gram. Tourists are also bringing it back from Amsterdam, where it is openly available.
Only a few countries, including Panama, Costa Rica and Italy, have clinics that administer ibogaine under scientific conditions in treatment programmes costing several thousand pounds. In Britain, many users are now taking the drug in their own homes under the supervision of friends or other addicts.
On Wednesday an inquest opens into the case of a London man who died after ingesting ibogaine in an attempt to cure his heroin addiction. His may be the first death in the UK related to the use of the substance and represents a setback to those who want it used more widely.
‘People say it is like having 10 therapy sessions all at once,’ says Chris Sanders of the Ibogaine Project, a UK-based initiative campaigning for more research to be carried out into ibogaine’s potential benefits to drug addicts.
‘It’s often called a wonder drug but the reality is that it’s not a total cure in itself, just a way of giving an addict a fresh start. It has a powerful effect on the body – you need to be fit to be treated with it. I can’t say I’m happy about people using it on their own.’
Sanders believes deaths linked with ibogaine have occurred when users ‘cured’ of their addiction return to using drugs. Because ibogaine ‘resets’ many brain functions relating to drug use, users who take their usual dosage soon after treatment risk overdosing. The only major clinical trial of ibogaine, which took place in Amsterdam in the early Nineties, was abandoned after an addict died of an overdose after being treated.
While even ibogaine’s strongest supporters admit there are dangers, those who have been treated with it are almost evangelical in their desire to enable others to benefit. As well as curing addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, they claim it can have a positive effect on other psychological disorders.
The effect of the drug varies according to the dosage. Less than one gram produces stimulant and aphrodisiac effects. Up to three produces a mellow euphoric trip during which the user may experience various hallucinations. Up to six grams, the maximum safe dosage, produces powerful near-death and other deep spiritual experiences. Those taking the highest doses of ibogaine report that they first enter a dream-like phase that lasts several hours and consists of vivid visions of past memories, almost as if they were watching a film of their own lives. The second phase consists of high levels of analytical mental activity during which users are frequently reported to comprehend for the first time the reasons why they drifted into drug-using.
Dr Colin Brewer who runs a specialist addition clinic in London, the Stapleford Centre, is sceptical about whether the drug is beneficial.
‘It has an enormous placebo effect and in that sense has more to do with voodoo than pharmacology. In order to evaluate it, you would have to conduct experiments alongside another drug like LSD, which no one is going to risk because of the harm it can do.’
Our reply to the article
In order to get some expert opinion on this article, I spoke to the two leading scientific researchers into ibogaine in the world – Dr Deborah Mash, professor of neurology and cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of Miami School of Medicine; and Dr Kenneth Alper, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and Director of the 1999 Ibogaine Conference in New York. Both strongly refuted many points, particularly relating to the deaths and to Dr Brewer’s so-called expert opinion.
I then contacted both the editor of The Observer and the journalist who wrote the article, expressing my disappointment. The editor did not respond but Tony Thompson contacted me, saying he that they would not print a retraction, but that they would print a letter, which would be longer and more prominent anyway.
I constructed the letter, copied below, and forwarded it to The Observer for publishing in the Jan 21 edition.
As the owner of a website making available information on the “anti-addiction” treatment, ibogaine, I feel I really must write to you protesting several points you make in your recent article, “Hallucinogen ‘cure’ for addicts linked to deaths”, (Observer, Jan 7 2001).
The whole basis of the article would appear to be the claim that ibogaine has been linked to “dozens of deaths” around the world. According to Dr Kenneth Alper, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, Director of the 1999 Ibogaine Conference in New York, there have been three incidents in the US or Europe of a death having occurred after the use of ibogaine. In two the medical examiner evaluating the case attributed the deaths to natural causes. One of these two cases involved pre-existing heart disease, the other was due to a mesenteric arterial thrombosis and occurred 25 days after ibogaine treatment. In the third case, no definitive conclusion regarding the cause of death was reached, and surreptitious heroin use during the treatment was suspected. I would therefore submit that, to date, there have been no deaths that have been positively ascribed to the use of this medication.
The second point I wish to make is that the “ibogaine” that you quote price and dosage for is not actual ibogaine itself, but an extract of the rootbark of the plant source, the rainforest shrub Tabernanthe iboga. This product is usually known as the “Indra iboga extract” and is a complex mixture of the alkaloids that occur in the rootbark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant. It is scientifically recognised there are over ten active alkaloids present in the rootbark, ibogaine itself being merely one. This extract was produced in great quantity in Denmark in the mid-eighties, from whence it has made its way across Europe and, in scientific analysis, has been found to contain levels of actual ibogaine varying between 0 and 8%. This product is simply not ibogaine and to confuse it with the drug is to mislead the reader.
I would like to emphasize the strong distinction between ibogaine itself and this extract particularly with regard to the dosage figures that are quoted in your article. Pure ibogaine is typically administered in the form of the hydrochloride and dose levels are usually in the region of 0.5 to 1.0g, depending on bodyweight and the addiction being treated. Anyone taking the 6g your article advises as being the “maximum safe dosage” would be taking an extreme overdose.
Pure ibogaine is currently used to treat addiction in several government-licensed clinics around the world, most notably that of Dr Deborah Mash, professor of neurology and cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. No deaths in a clinical setting have ever been recorded and Dr Mash further comments “Addicts desperate for an effective treatment will try to get help in any way possible. The lack of goverment sanctioned studies have forced this effective treatment into underground settings. Many accepted treatments for opiate detoxification have led to deaths, including Ultrarapid Detox and LAAM. With medical oversight, ibogaine is safe drug.”
Nick Sandberg (website owner www.ibogaine.co.uk)
31 D’arblay St
Tony Thompson replied, saying that the letter would have to be edited for publishing. I protested, both to him and to the editor, pointing out that not only had they completely misrepresented ibogaine, but further published information relating to dosing which, if followed, could easily result in death or serious injury.
It was to no avail and the following, severely edited letter, appeared in The Observer at the weekend.
In ‘Hallucinogen cure for addicts linked to deaths’ (News, 7 January) the ‘ibogaine’ that you quote price and dosage for is not ibogaine itself, but an extract of the rootbark of the plant source, the rainforest shrub Tabernanthe iboga.
This product is usually known as the ‘Indra iboga extract’ and is a complex mixture of the alkaloids that occur in the rootbark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant. It is scientifically recognised that there are more than 10 active alkaloids present in the rootbark, ibogaine itself being merely one. This extract was produced in great quantity in Denmark in the mid-Eighties, whence it has made its way across Europe and, in scientific analysis, has been found to contain levels of actual ibogaine varying between 0 and 8 per cent. This product is simply not ibogaine.
Nick Sandberg (website owner www.ibogaine.co.uk)
I feel that the attitude of The Observer has been quite disgraceful in this matter. And that refusing to print a retraction of an article which very seriously misrepresented what is likely the most promising potential treatment for drug and alcohol addiction known, is qute immoral and a stance which should be strongly protested in the public arena. I am today (Jan 23 2001) writing to the journalist and the editor, expressing my opinion and demanding a full retraction this Sunday. If this is not forthcoming, a protest outside The Observer’s offices is planned for February 1st 2001.
Demonstration outside the offices of The Observer
Date – Thursday 1st February 2001, 12 noon
Location – The Observer
119 Farringdon Rd
The Protest Handout
[heading] Observer talking nonsense over addiction treatment
[photo] – original article
[text] – In the article to the left, which appeared in The Observer on January 7th 2001, journalist Tony Thompson so seriously misrepresents the drug ibogaine – a substance that would almost certainly revolutionise the treatment of drug addiction and alcoholism – that we, as supporters of the drug, feel we must protest the issue.
In particular, the article claimed that ibogaine had been linked to “dozens of deaths”, when medical records confirm that it has never been found to be the cause of a fatality.
The article further quoted dose and price information for a substance that is recognised as not even being ibogaine, but instead an extract that contains small quantities of the drug, along with an assortment of other psychoactive substances. The article also failed to make clear that all recognised opiate detoxification treatments are considered potentially dangerous and have been associated with fatalities in the past.
The Observer was contacted with regard to these points, and presented with the expert testimony of two scientists internationally recognised as being at the forefront of ibogaine research. The paper refused to publish a retraction, and eventually only printed a letter so severely edited the above points were not made.
As persons deeply concerned with addiction issues, we find The Observer’s attitude towards this revolutionary medication deeply concerning. The immense harm that drug and alcohol addiction cause at all strata of our society is now universally recognised, and we feel it is deplorable that The Observer should publish an article that chooses to sensationalise issues, instead of dealing in the established facts about a medication that could well end the misery of millions worldwide.
We call on The Observer to print in its next issue a retraction of the article, of similar size and prominence to the original, making clear that no deaths have been attributed to the use of ibogaine; that all detoxification medications are recognised as being potentially dangerous; and that some of the quoted comments regarding the drug would likely be refuted by any knowledgable scientific authority.
Said Chris Sanders, of the Ibogaine Project, “It seems the media is only interested in sensationalising problems, not accurately researching solutions.”
Said Nick Sandberg, an independent activist, “Ibogaine is a medication stranded in development because no-one will back it. Pharmaceutical company spokesmen have admitted this is not because of concerns over whether it is safe or effective, but because they consider it financially non-viable.”
Said Shane Collins of the Green Party Drugs Group, “Ibogaine is a plant medicine requiring extensive and serious research, offering as it does a means of curing one of the greater ills of present society and the crime associated with it”.
Full details of The Observer’s article are online here
Protest Report – Thursday 1st Feb 2001
About 10 of us protested outside The Observer’s offices in the Farringdon Rd, London this lunchtime from 12 – 2.
We distributed about 600 handouts to workers and passers-by and had placards saying “Observer trivialising plight of addicts” and similar. 2 police in attendance. No trouble occurred and it was a very well-mannered event. Various execs showed up at the door from time to time, and myself and Shane from the Green Party drugs group had a discussion with Stephen Pritchard, the paper’s readers’ editor. He promised to get Shane’s letter published in the Sunday edition, and look into them doing a more extensive feature. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.
Many thanks to those who turned up, despite the biting cold. Present were: me, Shane Collins (Green Party), Chris Sanders, Saj (Green Party), Michael York, Richard, Rick, Richard Jacobowski, Barbra, Boris, Hans and John the photographer. Apologies if I missed anyone out.
The Big Issue, (a UK mag distributed by the homeless and with good circulation among people likely concerned about drug issues), is running an article on ibogaine in its next edition, (this Monday), and the writer just ran the text past me. It’s brief and not fantastically researched but should give the drug a fair hearing. I’ve had no other media queries about the event thus far.
Will be entering into dialogue with GlaxoSmithKline now, to try and assertain why it should be that the world’s largest pharmaceuticals company, like the rest of them, isn’t doing their utmost to bring this medication to the market.
On Sunday 4th Feb 2001, The Observer newspaper published Shane Collins’ letter, (they had agreed to publish it the week before), see below, and so we consider the matter now closed.
[from The Observer, letters page, 4th Feb 2001]
I would like to correct a point made in your ibogaine article (News, 14 January). Far from being dozens of deaths, there have only been three, none directly attributed to ibogaine, a new treatment for heroin addiction.
The plant can be dangerous at the high dose used by the Bwiti for a ‘once in a lifetime’ religious initiation in Gabon, but not at the far lower dosages used to break opiate and methadone addictions and eliminating the usual withdrawal symptoms. Ibogaine is a plant medicine requiring extensive research, offering as it does a means of curing one of society’s greater ills (and the crime associated with it).
We now consider the matter closed, and hope to look forward to more responsible reporting in the future.