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The notion of Ed Muskie on an ibogaine bender was absurd, and Thompson knew it. Most experienced users say the drug is extremely unpleasant when ingested in large doses, causing severe nausea, vertigo, sleeplessness, and visions that can be nightmarish. The effects last up to 36 hours, and some users are bedridden for days after.
"I only took one capsule of extract. It was very weak, but it was still strong enough to make me puke for six hours," says Dana Beal, a New York-based activist and longtime lobbyist for ibogaine legalization. "I don't ever want to take it again."
Thompson brought ibogaine into popular parlance, but credit for discovering the drug's medicinal potential has been widely attributed to a man named Howard Lotsof. In the early 1960s, Lotsof was a junkie living in New York. Having bought some ibogaine for recreational use, he was astounded to find that when the hallucinogen wore off, he no longer craved heroin. Days passed, and he didn't experience any of the excruciating withdrawal symptoms associated with kicking a dope habit.
Lotsof, who died earlier this year of liver cancer at age 66, devoted his life to making ibogaine available as an addiction treatment. He experienced a significant setback in 1967, when the U.S. government banned the drug along with several other psychedelics. And in 1970, officials categorized ibogaine as a Schedule I substance, on a par with heroin, marijuana and other drugs that, as defined by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department, have "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."
Lotsof shifted his focus and began using ibogaine to treat heroin addicts in the Netherlands. In 1985, he obtained a U.S. patent for the use of ibogaine to treat substance abuse.
By the late '80s, doctors and scientists were confirming what Lotsof knew: Ibogaine blocks cravings and withdrawal symptoms for many types of drugs, especially opiates.
Dr. Stanley Glick, a pharmacologist and neuroscientist at Albany Medical College, was among the first researchers to test ibogaine on rats. Glick hooked up the caged rodents to IVs, with levers that allowed them to inject themselves with morphine.
"If the rats do it, you can be pretty sure that humans will abuse it if given the opportunity," Glick explains. "It's really the time-tested model of any human behavior."
Strung-out rats dosed with ibogaine stopped pressing the levers that gave them morphine. Glick and other researchers have subsequently replicated the morphine results with other addictive drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and methamphetamine.In the early 1990s, Lotsof teamed with Dr. Deborah Mash, a neurologist and pharmacologist at the University of Miami, to study the effects of ibogaine on people. Mash received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to give ibogaine in 1993 and was able to test the drug on eight people before the experiment came to an abrupt halt.
"I was unable to get it funded," Mash says. "We had the rocket ship on the launchpad, with no fuel."
A few months after the FDA gave Mash the green light, a committee of academics and pharmaceutical-industry professionals, assembled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), concluded that the U.S. government should not fund ibogaine research. Earlier that year, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University had found that rats injected with massive doses of ibogaine suffered irreparable damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and motor skills. According to Dr. Frank Vocci, former director of treatment research and development at NIDA, the fact that ibogaine increases the risk of seizures for people addicted to alcohol or benzodiazepines, such as Valium, raised eyebrows as well.