VICE on HBO: Can an Obscure -- and Illegal -- African Plant Help Cure Heroin and Opiate Addiction?

05/16/2013 04:19 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2013

In recent years, you may have noticed that the public and the media have shown an increasing awareness of the potential of plant medicines -- and particularly psychedelics, or entheogens -- to treat otherwise intractable psychological conditions, such as PTSD and addiction.

I know this as well as anyone -- I struggled with heroin addiction for 20 years and tried everything I could to kick the habit. Finally, 11 years ago -- convinced I would soon die -- I took part in a three-day ceremonial treatment in Holland that involves the ingestion of ibogaine.

Ibogaine is a psychoactive alkaloid naturally occurring in the West African shrub iboga. While it is a mild stimulant in small doses, in larger doses it induces a profound psychedelic state. Historically, it has been used in healing ceremonies and initiations by members of the Bwiti religion in various parts of West Africa. People with problematic substance use have found that larger doses of ibogaine can significantly reduce withdrawal from opiates and temporarily eliminate substance-related cravings.

Although first-hand accounts indicate that ibogaine is unlikely to be popular as a recreational drug, ibogaine is classified as a Schedule I drug in the United States -- even though most other countries have not criminalized it. This has led Americans who struggle with addiction to seek out international clinics or underground providers to receive treatment.

If iboga is virtually the only substance known to alleviate or eliminate withdrawal symptoms associated with opiate detox, why isn't it used as a drug treatment more commonly? Here are some of the reasons why you may have never heard of iboga:

  • the healing dose causes a 24 to 48 hour long "trip" with psychedelic elements (and lots of vomiting!)
  • it's African (you think we're post-colonialism?)
  • it's natural and cannot be patented (no pharmaceutical company can make money from it)
  • treatment for addiction is a one- or two-time occasion, not 'maintenance' (you don't keep taking iboga regularly)
  • it's rare (not sufficiently cultivated)

For me, ibogaine was my saving grace. After I returned from Holland 11 years ago, I was opiate-free, happier than I'd been in years, and had no desire to go back to using heroin or other drugs.

I felt so blessed to have cheated death that I decided to become an ibogaine provider myself. I learned how to administer it safely and developed a technique that adapts basic Western medical models.

In 2007, I travelled to Gabon, where I was initiated into the Bwiti religion in a three-day ceremony. I also learned ancient techniques and ceremonies to work with iboga. Bwiti had developed around iboga, so its ceremonies support the experience and emphasize the healing capacity of iboga.

In Gabon I observed that iboga is best administered in a village or community environment. So I began to develop a new hybrid modality that took the ceremonial and musical elements of Bwiti and combined them with the best safety protocols of Western medicine. (This story is the focus of the documentary I'm Dangerous With Love, which follows me on subsequent trips to Gabon.)

On March 8, 2011, a task force of 15 armed Seattle Police and DEA officers stormed into a hotel room with guns drawn -- and no sense of irony -- to arrest me as I was about to help a desperate person through her detox. It turned out that the person seeking treatment was a paid informant. I was incarcerated and charged with a felony -- the first time an arrest had ever been made at an ibogaine detox session in the U.S.

Unable to continue ibogaine treatments, I formed a group called We Are The Medicine (the subject of a recent New York Times article) that uses spiritual technologies that integrate elements of the Bwiti religion and other traditions.

When I was approached in 2012 by VICE on HBO about filming ibogaine treatments, I was apprehensive, given their reputation, and initially declined their request. Yet after I allowed them to film a meeting of We Are The Medicine, and found their crew to be thoughtful and respectful, I agreed to let the crew film a detox ceremony at a treatment center in Mexico.

The result will be broadcast this Friday night on HBO -- check out a preview here. I hope it shows the success we had, guiding an opiate-dependent young man on a ceremonial detox that combined shamanistic ritual with the safety afforded by a Western medical staff.

I know I'll be home to watch it -- because I'm currently serving a brief house arrest for my 2011 Seattle "drug bust." My house arrest ends in early June and I can attribute my lenient sentence to many things, such as Bwiti, the flexibility and intelligence of the defense, judge and prosecutor -- and white privilege.

Hopefully, my prosecution and the VICE show will propel our society's rapidly-evolving dialogue about healing plants. I also intend to follow the precedent set by other religious groups who have obtained the legal right to work with otherwise-illegal substances such as peyote and ayahuasca. I have registered the Universalist Bwiti Society and filed a certificate of incorporation with the Secretary of State of New York to further my intention to legally practice my religion within the U.S. In the meantime, I continue to practice the Bwiti religion every day.

This is a great and powerful epoch, when each of us -- and humanity -- has the ability to create or destroy ourselves. The cultures and traditions that have used plant medicines like iboga for thousands of years have a lot to teach us about how to live in harmony with ourselves, other cultures, and the natural world.

Dimitri Mugianis is a Bwiti initate and healer, an activist, poet, public speaker and a cofounder of VOCAL and the Universalist Bwiti Society