Magic bullet

When a drug gets a “schedule one” rating from the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it means mainstream medicine thinks it has high potential for abuse and no current medical value. The label also proclaims that use of the drug on humans is illegal in the United States.

But that doesn’t stop it from being perfectly legal in other countries.

Enter ibogaine, a powerful hallucinogen that some say can help people break addictions to everything from heroin to prescription drugs to cigarettes. The drug, derived from the roots of a West African shrub, received its FDA ranking in the mid-1980s. But its use in clinics from the Caribbean to Mexico to Pakistan seems to be soaring. Nobody claims ibogaine is a cure for addictions. But people do say it’s an addiction interrupter, with both biochemical and psychological effects that reduce or end an individual’s cravings, thereby smoothing withdrawal.

Make no mistake; ibogaine is not a substance developed by scholarly scientists in white lab coats at the Scripps institute or some similar place. In fact, the drug was discovered by a 19-year-old New York junkie with a heroin habit and a knack for mixing powders. It’s been circulating on the margins of the Western drug culture ever since.

But lately—thanks largely to the Internet—ibogaine seems to have gained increased support in the United States, based mostly on anecdotal evidence.

Now, its advocates want it legal and available.

But they face some major hurdles. For one thing, the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want much to do with drugs that cure addiction. Yes, millions of people in the United States are addicts, but there’s no money to be made in treatments that don’t require repeated use.

Plus, all the anecdotes in the world don’t add up to science and the need for controlled experiments on human subjects, right? For a hint at the answer, see Vince Beiser’s “One pill makes you better”.