Americans going abroad for illegal heroin treatment
As America's opioid and heroin crisis rages, some struggling with addiction are turning to a drug illegal in the US. Jonathan Levinson went to one clinic offering the treatment in Mexico.
At the end of a dead end street in a town near the US-Mexico border, Emily Albert is in the basement of a drug treatment clinic, hallucinating about her son as a heroin addict. She imagines him going through rehab and desperately trying to get clean.
But Albert is the one with the addiction. She's in the middle of a psychedelic treatment for opioid addiction.
Through tears after the treatment is over, Albert recalls the vision of her son.
"I could just tell that he was older and going through whatever I'm going through," she explains. "It was like, basically, if I don't do this then he's going to have to."
Albert is among a growing number of opioid addicts from the US going to clinics in Mexico to get treated with a psychedelic drug called ibogaine.
The drug is illegal in the US, but several studies have suggested it is effective in alleviating opioid withdrawals and curbing addiction.
And unlike daily replacement therapies like buprenorphine or methadone, ibogaine only requires a one-time treatment.
Ibogaine, along with other hallucinogenics, such as LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), are schedule I substances in the US - drugs which have no medical application and are not safe for use, even under medical supervision.
The drug's side effects include hallucinations, of course, but also seizures and in rare cases, potentially fatal cardiac complications.
Still, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting the FDA's label isn't accurate.
"Essentially, it's because of the backlash against the psychedelic '60s," says Dr Thomas Kingsley Brown, an anthropologist and chemist at the University of California, San Diego.
In a study spanning eight years, funded by the Multidisciplinary Association on Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, Brown tracked outcomes for addicts who were treated with ibogaine.
"About 90% of the people in the study had a dramatic reduction in their withdrawal symptoms at the point when you'd expect they'd be at their worst," he says.
Brown says the severity of their addictions were reduced throughout a 12-month follow-up period and their relationships with family and loved ones improved as well.
Two days after her own ibogaine treatment, Albert is sitting on a deck at the clinic overlooking the Pacific Ocean when it dawns on her that she hasn't even thought about getting high in two days.
That hasn't happened in 10 years.
"It's like they took my addiction and put it in an elevator and sent it a hundred floors down," she says.
When Albert was 14, she had minor surgery on her big toe after a basketball injury. The doctor prescribed Percocet for the pain.
"I remember the very first time I tried one. I didn't know if it was the antibiotics my mom had given me or what it was from those bottles, but I was like 'that is great. I'm going to figure out what that was.'"
Over the next few days she tried one, then another. When she finally figured it out, she says, "it was game over from there".
Ibogaine risks and legality
- Ibogaine has been associated with at least 19 deaths. Given it is largely unregulated, the actual toll could be much higher
- In New Zealand, the only country to have regulated the drug, the medical advisory board Medsafe reported that "the number of deaths due to methadone, the most controlled substance, were a little higher that those associated with ibogaine"
- Ibogaine is illegal in the US, France, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, Croatia and Switzerland and strongly restricted in the UK under the 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act
Re: Americans going abroad for illegal heroin treatment
I dont know why more research isnt done with lsd compounds. Its meant to be good for pain and depression too. We know someone who uses magic mushrooms for pain and swears by it. If it helps with withdrawal then it should be researched rather than putting people on long term methadone. Our areas terrible for those who abuse methadone and sell it to kids.