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Glick and his cohorts have yet to determine whether their synthetic ibogaine has psychedelic properties. The rats, after all, aren't talking.
"You look at an animal given ibogaine, and you can't tell if they're hallucinating. But they look positively strange," Glick says. "You give them 18-MC and you can't really tell. But we hope when it gets to people, it won't produce hallucinatory effects."
The first human testing of 18-MC is scheduled to begin later this month in Brazil. But scientists there won't be studying its effect on addiction. They'll be investigating the drug's potential as a cure for the parasitic infection leishmaniasis, an affliction similar to malaria that's common in tropical climates. Through pure coincidence, 18-MC is chemically similar to other drugs that are used to treat that disease.
The Americans jumped at the chance to test their product in South America. Although 18-MC has shown promise and no observable side effects in animals, not a single pharmaceutical company has shown interest in developing it as an anti-addiction product.
"Pharmaceutical companies don't like cures," says Kuehne, a veteran of big pharma who worked for Ciba (a predecessor of Novartis). "They like treatment. Something for cholesterol or high blood pressure that you [take] for years and years, every day. That's where the profit is."
Further complicating matters is the fact that 18-MC has proved difficult to manufacture. Obiter Research, a company based in Champaign, Illinois, that specializes in synthesizing experimental chemicals, spent nearly two years refining the process before successfully creating about 200 grams of the substance — just enough to send to Brazil to be administered to human subjects.
The notion of hallucination-free ibogaine (whether it's ever manufactured) rubs the drug's die-hard supporters the wrong way.
"With methadone, they just removed euphoria from opiates," says Dimitri "Mobengo" Mugianis, an underground ibogaine-treatment provider. "This is the same process they're doing now — removing psychedelic and visionary experience. Ibogaine works. What are they trying to improve or fix?"
A former heroin addict, Mugianis kicked his habit with the help of ibogaine administered at Lotsof's clinic in the Netherlands. The experience was so extraordinary that Mugianis traveled to Gabon to be initiated into the native Bwiti religion and was trained by local shamans. He says he has performed more than 400 ritualistic ceremonies on addicts, most of them in New York City hotel rooms.
Despite his strong belief in the power of ibogaine, Mugianis does not see it as a miracle cure for addiction.
"The 12-step approach really helped in combination with ibogaine," he says. "I say it interrupts the physical dependence, because that's what it does. There's no cure. It's not a cure. It allows you a window of opportunity, particularly with opiate users."
Efforts are afoot to legalize — or at least legitimize — ibogaine in the United States. But persuading doctors and elected officials to support a potent, occasionally lethal hallucinogen can be a tough sell. And the pitch becomes doubly difficult when some of the ibogaine enthusiasts inspire skepticism.
One of ibogaine's most outspoken advocates is Dana Beal. An eccentric character who helped found the Youth International Party (more commonly known as the Yippies) in the 1960s, Beal travels the country giving PowerPoint presentations and touting the benefits of ibogaine and medical marijuana. In June 2008, he was arrested by police in Mattoon, Illinois, and charged with money laundering. He was carrying $150,000 in cash in two duffel bags, money that he claims was going to finance an ibogaine clinic and research center in Mexico. Beal maintains his innocence and is free on bail as the case heads to trial.