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Ibogaine comes from Gabon’s iboga plant, which has incentivized poaching. Photograph: Marta Parszeniew

The psychedelic ibogaine can treat addiction. The race is on to cash in

Clinics and scientists around the world aim to turn a profit from a powerful Gabonese plant – but it’s an ethical and legal wild west

Kaitlin Sullivan
Tue 24 Jan 2023 06.00 GMT

Last modified on Sat 11 Feb 2023 15.14 GMT

Lynn Smith was lying in a bed on the third floor of a beachfront house, unable to move her body from the neck down. A buzzing grew louder in her eardrums; just when she thought she couldn’t take it any more, it stopped. Then the visuals started.

For 22 hours after a nurse administered three pills of a psychedelic called ibogaine, Smith relived the series of events that had led her to this treatment clinic just south of Tijuana, including being ejected from a truck years prior. The accident left her with a crushed skull and prescriptions for the opioids she was addicted to for almost 20 years.

“It was horrific, it was the worst thing in the world, what I saw,” said Smith (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) referring to her experience on ibogaine. Behind closed eyelids, she also witnessed wires in her brain being ripped apart, singed, and pieced back together like a puzzle. Under the watch of a nurse who kept an eye on her vitals, Smith’s body shot straight upright in bed then flopped back down before darting up again – all part of an ibogaine trip.

woman leans over patient in bed with medical equipment nearby
A nurse prepares a guest for ibogaine treatment at the Beond psychedelic retreat center. Photograph: Courtesy Beond

She spent five weeks at the clinic, where, not unlike upscale in-patient substance use disorder treatment centers in the United States, she was offered psychotherapy sessions, acupuncture, and lounge chairs overlooking the beach. But the main attraction was the powerful psychedelic, an experience Smith, now an in-home caretaker in Arizona, believes saved her life. “It’s like I was put back to the day before I ever used a drug,” she said.

A Schedule I substance (the same category as heroin, cannabis and peyote) in the US, ibogaine is a controlled substance with no recognized medical benefits and a high risk of abuse. It is illegal in the US, but in countries such as Costa Rica, Mexico, New Zealand and the Netherlands, it is unregulated, which has allowed clinics to flourish. Starting in the early 2000s, the opioid crisis – in April 2021, annual overdose deaths in the US reached 100,000 for the first time; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 76,000 of these deaths were from opioids – gave way to a booming industry of makeshift ibogaine treatment clinics like the one where Smith was treated, often set up in rented houses located right across the US border.

A simple internet search for ibogaine therapy in Mexico will reveal plenty of options – mostly unregulated, with some existing only on social media. A few are fully accredited medical facilities, others do not include any medical personnel at all and most sit somewhere in between – a local doctor may have a relationship with a provider and clear patients for an ibogaine dose, but may not be present during the treatment. Some are run solely by people who have used ibogaine to get clean and want to help others do the same. They are generally more affordable than traditional rehab clinics in the US (Smith paid $12,000) and offer opioid users another option when rehabilitation and 12-step programs have failed.

photo of the plant with green leaves and yellow fruits
Gabon is one of the few places the plant naturally propagates. Photograph: Biosphoto/Alamy

Over the past decade, ibogaine’s popularity has incentivized poachers to target shrubs in Gabon, one of the few places Tabernanthe iboga, the plant ibogaine is most commonly derived from, naturally propagates. Consumed in small doses, iboga root bark acts as a stimulant, often brewed into palm wine or chewed to curb hunger and fatigue. In larger doses, iboga has powerful psychoactive effects, which have been harnessed for centuries by the Fang, Mitsogo and Punu people of the Congo Basin, as part of the Bwiti religion. The ongoing poaching is depleting natural reserves of iboga in Gabon’s forests and cutting Gabonese people out of an industry that would not exist without their Indigenous knowledge.