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The Magical Mystery Tour

Drug and alcohol addicts are going abroad in search of the purported miracle treatment called ibogaine. But will the drug industry embrace a substance, now banned in the U.S., that causes a hallucinatory high?

November 28, 2004|Vince Beiser | Vince Beiser's last story for the magazine was about the new executive class in American business.

The hallucinations are coming fast and vivid. Faces, shapes, colors rush toward him, melting and swirling into each other, sometimes coalescing into more concrete visions. He sees himself floating underwater. By turns, his four children drift by. Sometimes they blow bubbles and float happily up to the surface; sometimes they sink straight down, disappearing into darkness. Then there are three ships, coming in to dock at three tubes; he knows, somehow, that they are building a bomb, and if all three dock successfully it will explode. He tries to direct them away, but can't. The final ship enters the final tube. A titanic explosion collapses everything into darkness.

Then it all starts again.

While Craig's mind reels through this visual cacophony, his body lies quietly in a darkened room in a house near Tijuana, deep in the grip of a powerful psychedelic drug. His wife, his children and his upper-middle-class home in Salt Lake City are all far, far away.

Craig is not some crystal-collecting spiritual seeker on a Carlos Castaneda trip. He is a prosperous, respected restaurant owner, age 50. He is friendly with the mayor and active in mainstream charities. Other than family vacations to the Bahamas and Mazatlan, Mexico, this is the only time he has been outside of the United States.

Craig is here because he is desperate. He is addicted to painkillers--OxyContin, Lortab and other illegally obtained prescription opiates. His habit is costing him $1,500 a month, and he knows he must stop. Conventional detox programs have failed to help, so he has slipped over the border to try a treatment that is as much an urban myth as a scientifically proven medication--and is as illegal as heroin in the United States.

The treatment is a dose of a powerful hallucinogen called ibogaine. It is derived from the roots of a shrub called Tabernanthe iboga that grows in Africa. Local tribespeople have used it as a peyote-like sacrament for generations. Since the 1960s, it has circulated on the margins of Western drug culture, sustained by its reputation as a potent healer. A single daylong trip on ibogaine, lore has it, can help break an addiction to heroin, cocaine, alcohol or even cigarettes.

Other hallucinogens such as Ecstasy have purported to be helpful in treating addiction, but interest in ibogaine seems to be approaching critical mass. The increasing number of anecdotal success stories has attracted the attention of researchers. Although there is no rock-solid proof, scientific consensus is growing that this drug may indeed possess potent addiction-thwarting properties.

Regardless of what science says, faith is flourishing. A devoted community has grown up around ibogaine--a motley congregation of former junkies, envelope-pushing academics and drug-reform zealots helping to spread awareness and use of the drug. There reportedly are at least two underground activists in the U.S. who will provide it to seekers illegally. But taking ibogaine doesn't have to involve breaking laws, because it's legal in many countries. As a result, clinics are popping up from the Caribbean to Pakistan, offering ibogaine treatment for a few thousand dollars to well over $10,000.

The clinic near Tijuana is, relatively speaking, among the most reputable. It was opened in 2001 by Martin Polanco, a Mexican doctor who was impressed with how ibogaine--obtained at an underground U.S. clinic--had helped one of his relatives beat cocaine addiction. Polanco's facility, known as the Ibogaine Association, has administered more than 350 treatments and currently has 10 to 15 new patients a month, says program director Randy Hencken.

Hencken, a gangly 28-year-old with curly hair and little studs in each ear, was one of Polanco's first patients. He had dropped out of college at 21 to devote himself to cocaine and, eventually, heroin. Over the years, he tried everything from 12-step programs to methadone to get clean, but nothing worked. He discovered ibogaine on the Internet, made his way to Polanco's facility, and returned with his addiction broken. He has since embraced the cause with a convert's zeal, taking a job as the association's main organizer.

On the summer day Craig is to begin his ibogaine experience, Hencken is padding around a San Diego apartment that doubles as the association's U.S. office. The place fits naturally in the beachside slacker-student-surfer neighborhood. The front room is furnished with worn couches and a computer emblazoned with a Jane's Addiction sticker. A bike and surfboards hang on hooks in the kitchen.

Hencken, dressed in a black T-shirt and pants, hops into an unmarked van and drives to a dingy airport motel. Waiting in the parking lot is Craig, a trim, compact man wearing loafers, khakis and a Nike T-shirt.

"I've got to admit this is a little weird," says Craig, who flew in from Salt Lake the night before. "I feel like we're doing a drug deal." Which, in a sense, they are. Craig gets in the van and they roll south.

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