special to Drug War Chronicle by Doug Greene
Over a cold President's Day weekend, dozens of researchers, providers and activists converged on the Yippie Museum Cafe for the Ibogaine Forum 2010, the annual conference about the controversial African rainforest addiction interrupter. This year's event was held just downstairs from the lair of conference organizer, Global Marijuana March facilitator and Cures not Wars cofounder Dana Beal (who remains free on bail from his October 1st bust following last year's NORML conference). This year's Ibogaine Forum, like last year's, was streamed to hundreds of viewers.
Ibogaine has been receiving more media attention and public interest in the past few months. It was featured in the plot of an episode of "Law & Order Special Victims Unit" in November and in "I'm Dangerous with Love," Michel Negroponte's new documentary about New York based on underground provider Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis. Although the buzz about ibogaine has been slowly building for decades, efforts to develop ibogaine as a medication for drug dependence in the United States have been stalled since 1995, when a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Phase I study in humans was halted after the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) spent $2,000,000 in pre-clinical and animal testing, due to financial issues and disputes among the study sponsors.
That may be about to change, since Dr. Walter Ling, the Director of UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, has allegedly undertaken a review of current ibogaine research for NIDA. Dr. Ling's web page states that he is a consultant to NIDA.
According to conference presenter Dr. Anwar Jeewa, co-director of the Minds Alive life rehabilitation and treatment center in Durban, South Africa, he met Ling at Schering-Plough's launch of Suboxone in Durban on Feb. 2, where Jeewa asked Ling if he knew about ibogaine. Ling admitted that he did, having received many phone calls from Lotsof, but was not aware of the amount of treatment providers and published research. He then revealed that NIDA had contracted with him to reassess ibogaine. Ling's research is overseen by Dr. Cecelia (Cece) McNamara Spitznas, PhD, of the Behavioral and Integrative Treatment Branch at NIDA's Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research. Adult treatment research is part of Dr. Spitznas' portfolio for NIDA.
However, according to David McCann, Associate Director (acting) of NIDA's Division of Pharmacotherapies and Medical Consequences of Drug Abuse, "nobody at NIDA knows anything about it. If [Ling] is in fact writing a review, he's apparently not doing it for NIDA."
Jeewa said this week that NIDA had not officially sanctioned Ling to reassess ibogaine, but had done so unofficially. Ling had not responded to requests for clarification by press time.
Despite that and other enormously positive news, conference attendees were still reeling from Lotsof's death on Jan. 31st after a long struggle with liver cancer. Lotsof was recognized as "[the] discoverer of ibogaine's anti-addictive effects, patient activist, president of the Dora Weiner Foundation and author of the Ibogaine Patient's Bill of Rights" last November, when the Drug Policy Alliance co-awarded him the Robert C. Randall Award for Achievement in the Field of Citizen Action at their biennial conference. (The video is here).
At Ibogaine Forum 2010, Lotsof was posthumously honored by a large number of presenters and attendees during Sunday's memorial. "Ibogaine-Rite of Passage" producer and director Ben De Loenen showed footage of Lotsof he took at last March's Lotsof tribute First Ibogaine Providers and Facilitators Conference, in which Lotsof called ibogaine "a magnificent tool and road to freedom over slavery" and expressed his belief that ibogaine would eventually be used successfully in drug treatment, in contrast to his pessimism at the end of the film. That conference also marked the founding of the International Federation of Ibogaine Providers.
Another presenter, NYU Langone Medical Center Associate Professor Ken Alper, pointed out that in addition to Lotsof's personal qualities, his work was directly responsible for NIDA's research into ibogaine, a slew of peer-reviewed publications and the First International Conference on Ibogaine, which was held in 1999. But perhaps Beal summed it up best when he told the audience the best way to memorialize Lotsof was to move ibogaine forward and help realize his dream.
The sheer diversity of the presenters, attendees and topics discussed would have heartened Lotsof. Among the attendees were Midge Potts, a Missouri US Senate candidate calling for ibogaine treatment as part of her platform, a nurse from New Jersey whose boyfriend was part of a Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) long-term outcomes study on ibogaine's efficacy for treatment of opiate dependence at Pangea Biomedics in Playas De Tijuana, Mexico, and LEAP's Matthew Fogg.
- MAPS' John Harrison, discussing the preliminary results of their ibogaine study (of 20 participants, 10 were confirmed as still not using), a revised study protocol, ibogaine's potential in treating HIV, HTLV, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and other personality disorders and "aftercare as an afterthought" among providers.
- Robert Sisko of the Addiction Research Institute on efforts to produce ibogaine according to Good Manufacturing Practice for use in clinical trials and a proposed multinational study to have the FDA approve ibogaine for alleviation of opiate withdrawal symptoms.
- San Francisco provider Krista Howard on tips for new treatment providers.
- Sandra Karpetas of British Columbia's Iboga Therapy House and New Zealand activist and aspiring provider Marie Cotter on ibogaine's status in their countries (where it's not regulated, but also not officially legitimized for use), the need for further research, standardizing data from ibogaine therapists, defining best practices in ibogaine therapy, and the rationale for adopting language that defines ibogaine as a natural health product.
However, none of the ibogaine enthusiasts present believed that it was going to conquer the drug treatment world in the near future. The mainstream treatment establishment remains skeptical, if not outright hostile to ibogaine -- as witnessed by the comment of Dr. Herbert Kleber, director of the division on substance abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University in Lotsof's New York Times obituary, who cited a lack of controlled studies and a number of deaths to conclude that "it is [not] something that should be used in the absence of such evidence." Alper and others have attributed these deaths to factors such as cardiac risks that could have been detected by better screening and overdoses from taking opiates during or just after an ibogaine experience.
Naysayers like Kleber aside, with research, production techniques, initiates and providers experiencing rapid growth around the world, ibogaine's potential for transformation of the way drug dependence is viewed and treated seems boundless. The spirit of Lotsof, as the tare ("father" in the Fang language, which is spoken in Tabernanthe iboga's native equatorial Africa) of it all, must be pleased that so many believers are, as Krista Howard said at his memorial, "working together to finish this masterpiece, make it even more beautiful and legitimize it."