In the U.S., some medical professionals believe that recovering addicts have the highest chance of overcoming an addiction if they stay consistent with treatment and have supportive people around them.
Despite this, many addicts are choosing psychedelic treatment in Mexico as opposed to high-quality treatment centers in the U.S. The man in the following story was so desperate to overcome his opioid addiction that he traveled to Mexico to see what all the fuss was about.
Addicted to Painkillers
After three years of taking prescription painkillers recreationally, Dustin Dextraze finally came to a breaking point. At 36, he had been living with his parents, while every day focusing on panhandling to get money to buy drugs. He told Wbur (Boston’s NPR News Station) that he did this to avoid being sick from withdrawing from opioid use. But as he walked the streets of Dover, New Hampshire, Dextraze felt so sick that he could barely focus.
Panhandling For Drugs
“I’m gonna be alright. I have to be until I go find someone to find something for me,” he says while chain-smoking cigarettes, and stopping strangers to ask for money or drugs. Despite the fact that he roamed the streets nearly every day, Dextraze said he hated panhandling to get drugs. For years he told himself he would quit and he even went to several rehabs, taken addiction medications, and attended support groups, but nothing worked.
Dextraze’s drug use even landed himself in the hospital with hepatitis C, and he went to jail for possession. “The day I got out of jail I used,” Dextraze said. “It’s just a constant cycle, and it becomes such a vicious cycle, you can’t get out of it.” Feeling like he had to break this vicious cycle, he researched an alternative psychedelic treatment called ibogaine.
What is Ibogaine?
Ibogaine is a substance from the iboga plant that’s commonly found in Africa and it’s believed to be used in coming-of-age ceremonies by the Bwiti region. For years, people have reported it eliminates withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with various drugs. The only problem is, the treatment isn’t available in the U.S. “I’ve tried everything they’ve offered me to try, and this is the last thing that I know of,” Dextraze said. “My whole life is riding on this ibogaine.”
But, according to Dr. Kenneth Alper, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at NYU, ibogaine was declared a Schedule 1 drug in the U.S. because of its psychoactive effects. The World Health Assembly classified ibogaine as a “substance likely to cause dependency or endanger human health.” At one point in the 1990s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved testing it, but it was never completed because of health risks. One of Alper’s studies found that 19 people died after using ibogaine between 1990 and 2008.
Testing The Drug’s Safety
Because of this, many researchers are reluctant to do more research on the drug. But Dr. Martin Polanco, the founder of an addiction treatment center in northern Mexico, has studied ibogaine and he says the drug is safe if properly administered. Still, Polanco warns people that they should research their provider, saying “the quality of treatment and medical oversight can vary from one clinic to another.”
Hitting Rock Bottom
Feeling like he had nothing left to lose, Dextraze searched for a reputable provider through someone he knew from Massachusetts, who works at a clinic in Mexico. Dextraze’s friends even offered to pay $5,000 for one week of treatment and his mother agreed to purchase his plane ticket. Dextraze wasn’t scared by any potential health risks since his drug use has already put him in a dangerous place.
Scheduling The Treatment
“I was ready to die anyways,” Dextraze said. “So I’d rather take this chance and be able to live a normal life than not take this chance and die a horrible death on dope.” But before arriving at the clinic in Mexico, he landed in San Diego and immediately left to look for drugs. Dextraze went missing for a few days but he finally got in touch with the clinic.
For the first few days at the Experience Ibogaine Treatment Center in Mexico, Dextraze went through medical tests of his heart and liver and took short-acting opioids so he didn’t get sick. He then rested and did light exercise while learning about what to expect from the treatment. The clinic is two homes next door to each other so that clinic owners rent their property in a gated residential community.
The homes are private with one perched on a hill south of Tijuana and another with treatment rooms and staff offices. On the grounds are a sauna, hot tub, hammocks, a chef preparing meals, and staffers who oversee the patients. Once Dextraze was medically cleared, he would be given ibogaine at night. “I was a little nervous, but I’m just going to remind myself that this is in my head and none of it’s real — nothing can hurt me,” Dextraze said.
Preparing For Treatment
The next day, Dextraze fasted after breakfast and two nurses, a doctor, and Aeden Smith-Ahearn, the treatment coordinator, monitored him. “It’s absolutely crucial to have medical staff here because it is a dangerous substance,” Smith-Ahearn said. “It’s cardiotoxic.” Smith-Ahearn came to Mexico to get ibogaine treatment for his own addiction to opioids and he’s been an ibogaine enthusiast ever since. Out of the 1,000 people he’s treated in the past five years, more than 95 percent came from the U.S. The clinic says that it gets the ibogaine from a lab it trusts in Africa.
Dr. Paul Castillo administered the ibogaine to Dextraze, giving him a capsule containing a small “test dose” to make sure he didn’t have an adverse reaction. Then, after about an hour, he administered the full dose. Castillo believes the treatment is partially spiritual, so he and the nurses dim the lights, speak softly, and put on soft flute music. Smith-Ahearn even burns sage in the treatment rooms for cleansing.
The Day of Treatment
For the next 10 hours, Dextraze laid in the dark room with medical staff staying with him for most of the night. The following morning, he described feeling as if his body was vibrating and he also saw visions, like someone was showing him photos of the negative things he has done. “I saw my kids when I left them,” Dextraze said, “and I knew that they were sad and afraid that I wasn’t coming back.” After the treatment, for the first time in three years, Dextraze said he didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms.
Resetting The Brain
While it’s not exactly clear how ibogaine eliminates withdrawal, most studies say that it affects the brain’s receptors in a way that resets them back to their pre-addictive state. Dr. Alan Davis, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University says that many of those who reported success from ibogaine attributed it to the psychedelic experience. He believes that they benefit just as much from the psychedelic trip as they do from the removal of the physical withdrawal symptoms.
Dextraze’s treatment of ibogaine was considered somewhat minimal so three days after taking it, the clinic gave him 5 MEO-DMT. He inhaled it from a glass pipe and started “intensely tripping.” After being coherent again, Dextraze described the experience as one of the most positive, intense things he’s ever been through. But the question remains, will ibogaine work in the long term?
Long-Term Success Rate
The long-term success rate of ibogaine is not known but clinics believe that the key to success for patients is ongoing support, even after they leave the clinic. Davis says, “Largely absent [in his ibogaine study] was any follow-up aftercare. So people who return home may not have the support they need to continue making changes in their lives.” Since finishing his treatment, Dextraze now needs to start with counseling and join support groups while looking into how long it will take to get into inpatient treatment.
Maintaining it’s a Miracle
But a few days after returning to his mother’s home, Dextraze maintains that ibogaine is a miracle. “Not just 100 percent — I’m 110 percent. Like I am totally OK with myself. I’m not trying to escape life anymore. I’ve never felt this way in my whole entire life,” Dextraze says. “It’s not just [that] it gets you off the heroin, it’s like, it hits the reset button — that’s the only way to really explain it. It’s like a new brain.” Dextraze is reuniting with his children, he got a part-time job and he’s going to counseling and attending support meetings. “I think now it’s to help other people — that’s why I’m going to the meetings,” he says. “And by helping them, I’m helping myself, because we are all one.”
Still, his mother worries about the long-term effects of the drug. She hopes her son will stay sober but only time will tell. Several studies show that ibogaine remains in the body for weeks and people appear to be refraining from drugs at first. “My best representative guess would be that it’s usually in the range of about one to three months of diminished drug use,” Alper says. “People need to use this opportunity to restructure their lives.”
A Totally Different Experience
There was a problem with ibogaine for Kathleen Cochran’s daughter who went to Mexico for treatment three years ago. “I understand that it works for some people, but it ended up not working for my daughter,” Cochran says. She says the psychoactive experience caused her daughter to have visions of unresolved childhood trauma, and there was no support to help deal with it. Thankfully, her 27-year-old daughter is now stable on methadone.
Not A Magic Pill
Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Bertha Madras, says she understands that the opioid epidemic has made many people feel desperate, but there is already treatment in this country that’s backed by strong scientific research. “People think there is going to be a magic pill that’s going to erase addiction, and that’s just not reality,” Madras says. “What they should not be desperate for is a quick fix. High-quality treatment centers do exist in this country, and that’s where they should be flocking to, as opposed to places that have undocumented data and anecdotal evidence. I just think it’s fraught with hazard.”