Hallucinogen touted as stopping addicts' craving Researchers probe ex-abusers' claims

August 09, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- He saw planets materialize in black space, then vanish. He saw his ancestors flee a European pogrom. He saw leaders felled by assassins, a bug devour a green leaf, his young daughter looking hopeful.

In a darkened apartment in Holland, Adam Nodelman had taken a hallucinogenic drug called ibogaine, a plant extract used in Gabon, West Africa, to initiate people into a tribal religion. He was dreaming while awake, watching rapid-fire images replay the history of the world, the laws of nature, the events of his life.

When the trip ended, he discovered something more amazing than any vision that had flashed before his eyes. He no longer wanted heroin.

For a man who had smoked and snorted the brown powder for almost six years, this was a revelation.

"All of a sudden you have a rein vigorated sense of consciousness," said Mr. Nodelman, 27, who now logs 50 to 70 miles a day as a bicycle messenger in New York. "I felt like I'd never done heroin before, and suddenly you want to eat instead of getting high."

Mr. Nodelman, a man with thoughtful eyes, long brown hair and a Frank Zappa tuft under his mouth, is part of a small, vocal group of drug addicts, AIDS activists and entrepreneurs who want to see ibogaine legalized as a main weapon against drug addiction.

They have no scientific studies of their own, only compelling testimonials that ibogaine stems an addict's desire for heroin or cocaine, even after decades of drug abuse.

If they are correct, ibogaine would offer a unique weapon in the war on drugs -- an agent that ends an addict's craving instead of producing a substitute addiction that can be just as hard to kick.

Critics of methadone, a heroin substitute used by thousands, acknowledge that methadone produces less euphoria than heroin and is less likely to cause an overdose. But they say it is abused by many addicts who sell it or use it with heroin. And scientists have yet to find a substitute for cocaine.

For now, ibogaine remains the only drug under active investigation that -- at least in theory -- allows the addict to leapfrog past physical withdrawal and live without the psychological craving that defeats most people who are trying to quit.

From Johns Hopkins University to the University of Miami, animal experiments with ibogaine are being approached in the cold, clinical manner that gives science its authority. Bubbling below the surface is a current of excitement.

Scientists are tantalized by the notion that if ibogaine really works, and they can figure out why, they might finally understand the nature of addiction.

Not recreational drug

Just about everyone who has taken or studied the chemical agrees that ibogaine is unlikely to be abused. Although not altogether unpleasant, the hallucinogenic experience is considered too intense and self-analytical to turn ibogaine into a recreational drug.

Advocates don't say the drug works for everyone or that its benefits last forever. Mr. Nodelman, for instance, said he backslid after six months and had to take a second treatment. When he slipped again, he says he gathered the fortitude to quit even without a third treatment.

"That was my last full addiction," said Mr. Nodelman, who says he has been drug-free for eight months. "Now, I feel great. I'm happy to be clean. I'm having the same feelings now that I had the morning after ibogaine. It's just a relief to be normal."

Among the most vocal advocates is Dana Beal, a former yippie radical who joined the AIDS activist group ActUp when he became convinced that ibogaine could halt transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus through addicts' needles. Today, Mr. Beal and his associates are prodding federal regulators to clear the path for its therapeutic use.

From his outpost in the East Village in Manhattan, Mr. Beal sees the desperation of drug addicts looking for a way to break free.

"If you can get somebody from using $200 of heroin a day to using a $5 bag on the weekend, it's progress," he said. "If you can get someone who's doing methadone and cheating on the program to not do anything, it's a bigger deal. Because they're not sticking a needle in their arm."

In 1991, the National Institute on Drug Abuse began funding animal studies in hopes of learning whether ibogaine truly breaks addiction and whether it might cause lasting harm along the way. Advocates hope the studies will progress to humans, but the government wants evidence first that the risks are small.

"This could have unique therapeutic potential," said Dr. Frank Vocci, acting director of NIDA's medications development division. "But it gets back to this. The layman says, 'Wow.' But when you ask them what evidence they have for their claims, all of a sudden you're up in the ether."

So far, he points out, ibogaine's track record is anecdotal; cases have been reported without careful follow-up. Ultimately, he said, the issue will be settled by controlled experiments.

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