by Judy Kerr
The Government is considering imposing a ban on a controversial hallucinogenic ‘wonder’ drug which has fiercely divided experts working in the field of opiate addiction. Its defenders argue that it offers a miraculous pain-free ‘detox’ experience, but detractors allege it has potentially fatal effects.
The Medicines Control Agency (MCA) said that it is conducting an investigation into the West African rainforest shrub tabernanthe iboga, from the roots of which ibogaine is derived, following an urgent demand for restrictions on the drug from a London coroner.
A MCA spokeswoman told Time Out: ‘We are considering what restrictions would be appropriate because at the moment ibogaine is not subject to any special controls under legislation covering medicines.’
Dr Paul Knapman recently ruled that tabernanthe iboga was primarily to blame for the death of 40-year-old John Worsley, who died by accident last year after he took capsules containing ibogaine in a desperate bid to kick his heroin habit.
Westminster Coroner’s Court heard that the Kilburn-based courier had obtained six grams of a herbal preparation purporting to be ibogaine through a Norwegian chemist. Worsley took the capsules throughout the day, during which time he seemed to suffer no adverse reactions apart from vomiting and diarrhoea – a normal response to withdrawal.
However, after eating breakfast the next morning, he collapsed in the bathroom and was dead when the ambulance crew arrived shortly afterwards.
Police toxicologist Dr John Taylor told the court that the level of ibogaine in the dead man’s blood was ‘well below the normal toxic dose’.
And pathologist Dr Nicholas Hunt added that although he believed the extract had caused Worsley’s death, it had been made worse because he suffered from Hepatitus C, which the coroner named as the secondary cause of death.
Although it is an offence to possess ibogaine in the US, Switzerland and Belgium, obtaining the drug for personal use in Britain – where it is classified as an ‘unlicensed, experimental medicine’ – is not illegal.
Exponents argue that it also helps those addicted to cocaine, crack cocaine, alcohol and tobacco to break their habits.
Nick Sandberg, who runs a website on ibogaine from his London home, stressed that despite the fact that a number of fatalities have been recorded after ingestion of the drug, no deaths have been positively ascribed to ibogaine’s use.
‘I believe that what Worsley took was not actual ibogaine, but an extract of the rootbark of the plant source, which we know only contains around 5 per cent ibogaine,’ he explained.
‘This extract is the only “ibogaine” readily available to buy in Europe right now. In addition, Mr Worsley also took these capsules 40 hours prior to his death, by which time any ibogaine in his system would almost certainly have left it.’
Sandberg points out that no detoxification methods are totally safe – methadone, the heroin substitute most often prescribed, kills 200 addicts a year in the UK.
‘There have never been any deaths from pure ibogaine in a clinical setting, and we would always encourage people to take it under proper medical supervision,’ he insisted.
‘It offers unique benefits, such as the inducing of a dream-like state where the user frequently gains vital insights into the psychological roots of their addictive behaviour, and a period afterwards of up to two months where they no longer crave drugs.’
Sandberg wants drugs companies to back comprehensive research into ibogaine, a vital step for the Government approval needed to license it for availability on the NHS.
‘I would ask that if the MCA deem any restrictions of ibogaine itself to be necessary, that these would in no way hinder the development of this medication as an addiction treatment, which in the absence of any corporate funding may have to proceed via local projects carried out by drug dependency units,’ he concluded.
In Britain, the Green Party is so impressed with the potential of ibogaine that it has promised in its election manifesto to fund medical trials of the drug.