Ibogaine is a hallucinogenic psychoactive substance found in some species of plants that grow in Africa. It’s been used in religious ceremonies, chewed to give a mild stimulant effect. With increased doses, this substance has hallucinogenic effects. Ibogaine is a sloppy drug, affecting at least three types of brain receptors. Ibogaine’s metabolite, noribogaine, has serotonin reuptake inhibition properties, like found in many antidepressants. It also has a weak opioid effect on the mu opioid receptors and a stronger effect at the kappa opioid receptors, causing less dopamine to be released. It also has effects on at least two other receptor types.
Limited studies show that since the drug does block the release of dopamine, it may have some benefit in the treatment of addiction to these drugs. Both animal studies and case reports suggest ibogaine may reduce withdrawal symptoms of opioid addiction and craving for cocaine. But so far there have been no good scientific trials of the drug. This drug has been outlawed in the U.S. and in most European countries due to concerns about the drug’s side effects and case reports of death. Ibogaine’s supporters claim this drug can cure addiction to alcohol, cocaine, opioids, and nicotine.
In this case report, the decedent was a 25-year old male with heroin addiction and a history of supraventricular tachycardia, meaning he had an underlying heart problem that caused episodes of rapid heart rate. This man took ibogaine 2.5 grams over 3 hours, and then had hallucinations, difficulty with balance, fever, and muscle spasms. He improved over the first day, but by the next day he developed problems breathing and had a respiratory arrest. Despite cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he remained in a deep coma and died after two days of multi-organ failure.
This death was of course a tragedy, but I’m not sure this case and other similar cases mean ibogaine won’t ever have a place in the treatment of opioid addiction. It surely gives us information that patients with underlying heart disorders are at increased risk of death from ibogaine.
I still think there’s a need for further (careful) research on ibogaine. This can’t be done at present in the U.S. or Europe, but perhaps other counties can do necessary trials.
Yes, this is a medication that can kill, but then, addiction kills, too. And many medications routinely used in the medical treatment of various illnesses can be deadly at the wrong doses or in the wrong patients. For all medical treatments, the risks have to be weighed against the benefits. Right now, we don’t have a full idea of the benefits or the risks of ibogaine.
Like many treatments for addiction, there are also people who make unsubstantiated claims in favor of ibogaine, and sell it via the internet or in countries where it isn’t outlawed, as a miracle cure for opioid addiction. The evidence for this claim is lacking, to put it mildly. This case report reminds us that ibogaine can be deadly. Until/unless we have more knowledge about the risks/benefits of ibogaine, evidence-based treatment of opioid addiction with methadone and buprenorphine are much better options and should be recommended.
For further information of the state of ibogaine research, here’s a great reference: