Ron Price needs his milkshake. It's 10 o'clock on a Monday morning, and the baldheaded, barrel-chested former bodybuilder is shuffling around the kitchen of a posh rehab clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, wearing slippers and a blue Gold's Gym T-shirt. Price is a stockbroker in New Mexico, but his training regimen has left him with debilitating injuries, causing him to undergo 33 surgeries in less than a decade. His doctor prescribed Oxycontin, and Price quickly became dependent on the potent painkiller. More recently, he started snorting cocaine and chugging booze to numb the pain. Now, 53 years old and three weeks into rehab, all he wants is a milkshake and to crawl back into bed.
Clare Wilkins, the vivacious 40-year-old director of Pangea Biomedics, pops the lid of a blender to check the consistency of the concoction that Price craves: peanut butter, soy milk, agave syrup, hemp protein powder, and a few scoops of chocolate-flavored Green SuperFood.
Oh, and a half-teaspoon of root bark from the tabernanthe iboga plant.
Taken in sufficient quantity, the substance triggers a psychedelic experience that users say is more intense than LSD or psilocybin. Practitioners of the Bwiti religion in the West African nation of Gabon use it as a sacrament to induce visions in tribal ceremonies, similar to the way natives of South and Central America use ayahuasca and peyote. Wilkins is one of a few dozen therapists worldwide who specializes in the use of iboga — specifically, a potent extract called ibogaine — to treat drug addiction.
She pours the thick, chocolatey liquid into a Mason jar and agrees to hand it over to Price on one condition: that he stay out of bed and interact with his fellow residents and the staff. He grudgingly agrees and takes a seat at the dining-room table. Sunlight pours in through a sliding-glass door that opens to a terrace with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean.
"Ron, I remember when you called me [three weeks ago], you were crying on the phone. You were so devastated, you couldn't leave the house," Wilkins says gently. "When you use, you end up alone in a bathroom or something. You need a community. As weird and misfits as we are, we need this sense of community. You need to learn to deal with being in your body each day instead of relying on the fucking ibogaine."
Ibogaine and iboga root bark are illegal in the United States but unregulated in many countries, including Canada and Mexico. Wilkins, though, is hardly alone in her belief that iboga-based substances can be used as legitimate treatments for drug addiction. Researchers at respected institutions have conducted experiments and found hard evidence that the compound works — as long as you don't mind the mind fuck.
"All drugs have side effects, but ibogaine is unique for the severity of its side effects," says Dorit Ron, a neurology professor at the University of California–San Francisco. "I think ibogaine is a nasty drug. But if you can disassociate the side effects from the good effects, there is a mechanism of action in ibogaine that reduces relapse in humans."
Now, scientists have devised ways to make ibogaine non-hallucinogenic. The trouble, say Wilkins and others who have found relief through ibogaine, is that the psychedelic journey carries the secret to the drug's success.
It was Hunter S. Thompson who introduced ibogaine to a wide audience in the pages of Rolling Stone. The gonzo journalist was covering the 1972 presidential election, reporting what would eventually become Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. When Democratic contender Edmund Muskie acted strangely during a campaign stop in Florida, Thompson suggested that the candidate was taking ibogaine, "an exotic brand of speed" that "nobody in the press corps had ever heard of."