In 1962, Howard Lotsof, a 19-year-old junkie from the Bronx, New York, ingested a little known West African psychoactive called ibogaine. The trip was a startling hallucinatory voyage. More startling than the trip, however, was the substance’s residual effect: when he came down he no longer had any desire to shoot heroin.
Nearly 20 years later, in 1980, after an accident cut short his career in television and movie lighting, Lotsof began working toward making ibogaine available to the public as an addiction interrupter. In 1986 he opened NDA International, a company based on Staten Island, NY to promote research into the substance. Shortly after NDA International was founded, Lotsof began treating clients with ibogaine in Amsterdam, and in 1991 he convinced the National Institute for Drug Abuse to begin looking into his claims that a single ibogaine dose could interrupt addiction to heroin, cocaine, and methadone.
To his critics, Lotsof is a snake-oil salesman who charges enormous sums of money for a treatment which at best generally interrupts addiction for only six months at a time. To his backers, he is the man who offers addicts their best chance at getting clean.
HIGH TIMES: During the past couple of years there have been reports in the media which suggest that ibogaine is something of a silver bullet against cocaine and heroin addiction. Any truth to those claims?
HOWARD LOTSOF: If you’re asking whether we are killing werewolves, the answer is no. What we do have is a highly effective treatment for chemical dependency. Ibogaine has the ability to interrupt—but not eliminate in most cases—chemical dependency. By that I mean the elimination of narcotic withdrawal to heroin and methadone is virtually complete and a window of opportunity is created whereby a patient is free—on average anywhere from one month to three years and running—from chemical dependency and the concurrent craving to continue using drugs.
HT: What is ibogaine exactly?
HL: Ibogaine is an alkaloid that comes from the shrub Tabernanthe iboga, which grows abundantly in Gabon, Zaire and the Congo. The ibogaine is concentrated in the bark of the root and traditionally is eaten in the form of root scrapings, though it may be extracted in a water and/or alcohol solution. Purified ibogaine is a crystal or powder that you take in capsules.
HT: What are the traditional uses for the substance?
HL: Ibogaine has been used for hundreds of years in West Africa in both indigenous religions—for the purposes of initiation from adolescence into adulthood—and medical societies—where it’s used for the purposes of psychotherapeutic healing.
HT: How did you initially come across ibogaine?
HL: I was introduced to it by a chemist in 1962. At the time a small group of my friends and I were evaluating a series of psychoactive substances for psychotherapeutic efficacy—including LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and DMT—and ibogaine was one of the products included in that series.
HT: Were you studying analysis or therapy in school at that time?
HL: No. I was self-educated, as I am in most of my endeavors.
HT: So were you eating it to get high?
HL: Everybody eats it to get high. But we were interested in its use in psychoanalysis, just as psychiatrists are today.
HT: At that time, 1962, weren’t you also using heroin?
HL: Yes. I had played around with heroin for maybe a year or so and slowly became addicted. When I first tried ibogaine I’d been using regularly for maybe three to six months, shooting up a couple of times a day. I was a new addict.
HT: Tell me about your first ibogaine trip.
HL: At the time I ingested it I happened to be on my way to a psychologist I was seeing. I was informed it would take seven hours to take effect, so I anticipated it wouldn't take effect until long after I had seen him. It actually took about 35 minutes to come on so it hit shortly before I entered his office and resulted in a very interesting session.
I saw what might be construed as either experiencing my birth or a form of an oedipal connection. I found myself on stage under spotlights and suddenly a ladder appeared and I began to climb the ladder and as I did my clothes vanished. I reached the top of the ladder and a diving board appeared and I walked out to the end of the diving board and I looked down and a swimming pool appeared. And in the swimming pool I saw my mother, naked. As I dived toward her she changed into my sister who changed into a female infant and at the moment my fingers touched her vagina the image disappeared and another image, which I don’t remember, superseded it.
These images probably lasted about a second or two apiece. It’s a very similar experience to what some persons who have come close to death have described, where they see their whole life before them in 30 seconds.
When my session was done I left the office and went all over the city. I was an experienced adventurer in psychomimetic substances, so I was watching what was happening and I was completely at ease. And eventually I went to sleep.
HT: Tell us about ibogaine’s residual effect on your heroin use.
HL: Immediately after I awoke there was an absolute reversal of all of my perceptions relating to heroin. Where I had viewed heroin as comfortable, I now viewed heroin as emulating death. Where I had a previous physiological need for heroin, the need completely vanished. I felt my basic change was I chose life over death, and that heroin represented death.
HT: What do you think was responsible for that change?
HL: I think there was a pharmacological response to block narcotic withdrawal, and a reversal of pharmacological effects caused by the heroin. Simultaneously there was a psychotherapeutic effect allowing a basic behavioral modification in terms of compulsive-addictive behavior.
HT: How long did you stay clean from heroin after that experience?
HL: From the series of treatments I took—I took it on five occasions, one week apart, in a dose increasing regimen—I stayed clean for three, three-and-a-half years. I took it on the other four occasions because we were investigating these substances and we needed to understand the dosage ranging properties of the drug.
HT: Did you ever have the urge to shoot up during the period you were clean?
HL: On the one occasion when the urge occurred—which might have been six months or a year afterward—there was simply none available. I had married and moved to California in the interim and I was into my life and heroin wasn’t available and that was alright.
HT: Now, three-and-one-half years later you took heroin. What brought you to that?
HL: I was back in New York, on the lower east side. I came down with a staph infection and my throat was in enormous pain and somebody walked into the house and asked if I wanted some heroin. I said yes. It was as simple as that.
I was just beginning to use again when I got myself arrested on conspiracy to sell LSD charges and spent 14 months in Danbury federal prison. Shortly after I came out I become re-addicted.
HT: How long were you re-addicted?
HL: Maybe a year, year-and-a-half. But I hated being an addict. I was sick as much as I was using drugs because I hated it so much. I hated the cheapness with which life was treated in the addict community. And I also realized that I was in the position to be abused constantly by virtually anybody who wanted to do so. So in 1970 I went into a methadone program, which were just beginning at that time, and that was an absolute godsend. I was a classic methadone success story. But after about a year I realized that the care within the methadone programs was diminishing and simultaneously I realized I didn’t feel like changing the dog chain of the street pusher for the dog chain of the government pusher, so over the period of about a year-and-a-half, I detoxed from methadone. And what allowed me to do that was the information that I had gained from ibogaine years earlier.
HT: What do you mean?
HL: Most addicts cannot perceive the world in non-addict terms. But my experience with ibogaine allowed me to know that addiction could be reversed, and that knowledge allowed me to slowly, methodically, carefully detox myself—along with a psycho-social stability structure which my wife and I developed concurrently, which included returning to the university.
HT: Did you ever go back to heroin or do methadone again after that?
HL: No. Nor did I feel the requirement to.
HT: Let’s cut to how you became the ibogaine man.
HL: I graduated university in Film and Television production—which I loved, but I incurred some spinal damage and could no longer work in my specialty, which was lighting. That was a real heavy blow to me. After that I tried my hand at screenwriting for about a year, and then I gave about another six months to the question of what was I going to do with my life. I realized that the most significant thing I could do was develop ibogaine, both in terms of humanitarian service and personal gain. That was probably around 1980-81.
HT: How did you proceed?
HL: I went into the medical libraries with a friend of mine who was a research librarian, and we spent about 6 months obtaining every document we could find on ibogaine. Then we reviewed 25 years of opiate and cocaine pharmacology, until I realized that if I was going to continue in that vein I was going to have to become a pharmacologist. So I decided the way to approach it was to connect with known pharmacologists and let them do the work. Which we did with Dr. Doris Clouet, at that time the Assistant Director for the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Laboratories in Brooklyn. She subsequently went to work for NIDA, the National Institute of Drug Abuse. And Doris did a very good assessment on the ibogaine literature available. Her overview was that it should be evaluated, as all new approaches to addiction should be evaluated.
HT: Had any studies been done in the US at that point?
HL: Yes, Dr. Harris Isbel, chief medical officer of the federal public service hospital in Lexington, KY, provided ibogaine to eight black former morphine addicts in studies that were funded by the CIA between 1957 and 1962. But all the records from those studies have vanished. We do not even know the nature of those studies other than in a very preliminary form. I tried to get the information, even filed a Freedom of Information Act request but was given such a runaround I finally stopped. And when we’ve tried to reach Dr. Isbel, the pro forma response is “unavailable.”
HT: Was Dr. Clouet able to generate any interest in ibogaine?
HL: Maybe once or twice a year some NIDA official would ask about Ibogaine and she would say “I think you should look at it.” And then they’d go away and nothing got done.
HT: Where did you push from there?
HL: At first we hoped to proceed philanthropically, so we set up a foundation but after two years of not raising dollar number one, in 1986 we established a for-profit corporation, NDA International—which has raised over a million dollars, all of which has been spent—and then we began referring patients for treatment.
HT: Who was your first guinea pig?
HL: My dearest friend, Bob Sisko, of the International Coalition for Addict Self-Help, which was not yet formed at that time. He was heavily addicted to cocaine, and a mutual friend asked me whether would we treat Bob. And eventually that was what happened.
HT: Where was that done, and how did the treatment go?
HL: In Africa, which we’d connected with through the Gabonese Embassy in Washington. The treatment went extremely well, so well that after one treatment, Bob has not used cocaine since 1987. But I view Bob’s response as outside the normal pattern of ibogaine response. It was one of the particularly good responses.
HT: Why do you think that was? Was he predisposed to quitting or what?
HL: I’m not sure. We don’t have a full understanding of all of the parameters.
HT: You’ve subsequently done work in Holland. Was it Bob’s success that spurred you on?
HL: In a sense yes, because Bob was a newly treated chemically- dependent person, while my own treatment had occurred 25 years earlier. And where I had had 25 years to cool off, he was adamant that this product was going to be provided to the heroin and cocaine addict community no matter what he had to do. So Bob finagled— through some of the contacts he’d made in Africa—some minor supplies of ibogaine and began to treat people.
Our friendship almost came to an end over that issue, but it was eventually resolved when we came to an agreement that NDA would agree to treat as many of the clients he referred as possible within our abilities.
HT: How many has that been?
HL: We’ve treated 30 people in all and he’s probably directed about ten to us. But he’d done some on his own as well and then spread the technology and some of his supplies to Dutch addict self-help groups and they started a series of treatments which probably treated about 10 or 12 people. Probably 60 people have been treated in all.
HT: Tell me about the success or failure of the European treatments.
HL: We’ve had success to one extent or another in every case we’ve treated. Most have been for heroin addiction but there have been a few for cocaine only and one for alcohol only.
HT: Define ‘one extent or another.’
HL: In terms of detoxification our success rate is 100 percent. We can detox a heroin addict who’s using two grams of heroin daily or a methadone addict using 120 milligrams of methadone a day with one treatment. After a two or three day procedure—which is how long an ibogaine treatment takes—they are detoxed and there is an elimination of narcotic craving. Normally we’d be looking at a three-to-six week period of detoxification for heroin and up to a year for methadone.
HT: How about the longer-term effects?
HL: What the Dutch, after a two year study have found, is that some people return to heroin use as soon as four days after treatment. But they’re using at a much reduced level and all of the persons who were shooting stopped shooting. I’ve had people stop shooting after ibogaine treatment who had not previously stopped shooting for 20 years!
Initially we viewed those cases as failures, but we’ve revised that thinking. We now view those cases as partial successes. The Bush/Reagan perception of abstinence or death has nothing to do with the science of addiction treatment.
HT: What do you mean, “partial successes?”
HL: Here’s an example. One of the Dutch groups doing treatments called us up and said we were treating people with best case prognosis and they wanted to see what would happen if they treated someone with a worst case prognosis. So they went into the central station in Rotterdam and they picked up a couple who was on 180 ml of methadone a day each, and shooting all the heroin the could get. The woman was on anti-psychotic drugs and they didn’t even know which ones. She believed she was possessed by the devil.
So they treated her and in three days she was back on 30 ml of methadone a day and I said “I guess you failed.” But then they told me nobody in the entire methadone community had ever seen anybody ever go from 180 ml to 30 ml in three days. And she’d stopped heroin completely and no longer believed she was possessed by the devil. Unfortunately we lost track of her and were unable to monitor her condition subsequently.
HT: What about later, after the initial effects wear off?
HL: I just had a letter from a kid I treated who backslid. He said, “Please, when you’re here next I want to be retreated. I understand more about what I have to do. I have to plan in advance.”
In treatment this is what you want! You want your people coming to you. This quick fix deal is out of the question. All the responsible doctors working in the treatment area have recognized that addiction and chemical dependency is a protracted, lasting situation. To rid yourself of it requires learning and support.
Now 15 to 25 percent of the persons treated with ibogaine are going to be able to walk out of addiction and into their lives based on the parameters that they have something to walk into. But we can’t give you an education, occupational training, or counseling. What we can give you is the opportunity and ability to once again make the decision about what you want to do. We can remove you from the addict or pre-addictive state of mind.
HT: If I use ibogaine, then return to a street environment, what are my chances of staying clean closer to the three years rather than the one month.
HL: All dependent on the individual. Some people are going to succumb regardless of where they are, while other people can walk through hell and make it.
HT: Does ibogaine appear to work better with people exclusively dependant on cocaine than on heroin or a mixture of substances?
HL: No. It’s more dramatic with opiate narcotic users because the narcotic withdrawal is eliminated, but it’s really very much determined by who the individual is, what they bring into the treatment, whether they want to stop or not, or whether they’re responding to pressure from people around them to stop. Ibogaine is not going to change someone from a person who wants to do drugs into a person who doesn’t. But anybody who wants to stop can literally take ibogaine and walk away from drugs.
HT: Sixty treatments in total, you’ve done 30. How long has the average person stayed clean following treatment?
HL: I think that the six months we claim is pretty accurate.
HT: What’s the cost of a treatment?
HL: Anywhere from subsidized—free—to $20,000.
HT: If ibogaine were made available to the general public in this country as a medicine, what would the anticipated cost be?
HL: The same. Medicaid to Betty Ford, subsidized-to-$50,000. Now what we need and what we need in every treatment modality is after-care. The Republicans completely dismantled the after-care structure and it’s going to have to be rebuilt, reformed and revitalized under current standards of treatment.
HT: Talk me through a treatment.
HL: You’re administered a dose of ibogaine. It generally kicks in within an hour to two. A behavior immobility ensues, in which you do not want to move—though you can if you have to. There are three basic states of Ibogaine involved in a treatment: At first you’re involved in a dreamlike state; the second, which lasts two to three times the length of the first, is a cognitive evaluation or intellectual evaluation state, and this is followed by a period of anywhere from 12 to 36 hours of residual stimulation where you’re up and nothing is really happening but you’re really tired.
Ibogaine affects conditioned behavior, of which addiction is one. You may have to re-recognize the symptoms of hunger, the symptoms of thirst, how to walk...
HT: Was the vision you described having typical of an ibogaine vision?
HL: Everybody’s style is different. It’s a very interesting form of chemically-pharmacologically initiated psychoanalytic process, concurrent to the reversal of withdrawal from the pharmacological effects of both cocaine and narcotics. So what we’re seeing is simultaneous action in different areas of behavior and pharmacology.
HT: Are we talking brain-receptor events?
HL: Among others. What we’re seeing are certain effects but the scientists havn’t exactly figured out how ibogaine is working in the various neurological systems. They have not been able to find a receptor site for it yet, for instance. But it’s eliminating narcotic withdrawal, it’s reversing dopaminergic increases caused by opiates and cocaine. That’s what we know so far.
As for the withdrawal, there are many aspects which are not yet understood. And anybody who tells you that they understand the chemistry and pharmacology of addiction is lying to you. What we’re seeing are actions of the drug but we cannot determine why they’re happening.
HT: Is anyone currently trying to define those?
HL: Yes. There are toxicity studies going on, pharmacokinetic studies going on—how is Ibogaine metabolized and how fast is it metabolized? Where are it’s toxic doses showing up and what are those doses?
HT: Who is doing those studies?
HL: They’re being done through contracts at NIDA, which is spending a lot of money studying this, and by independant research institutions as well.
HT: I thought NIDA was not interested in this work...
HL: In 1985 NIDA’s position was “Nice to see you, thank you, go away.” Now their response is “Thank you for the information, what a wonderful discovery we’ve made, now go away.”
HT: How did you sell them on ibogaine?
HL: One of the key things was the creation of the Medications Development Division at NIDA with its leadership under Dr. Charles Grudzinskas. His decisions were based on research by three independent researchers—Drs. Stanley Glick, Patricia Broderick and Henry Sershen—who took it upon themselves to begin ibogaine research and demonstrate that ibogaine was effective. And in what I view as a great travesty of justice, elements at NIDA have taken it upon themselves to punish these researchers by withholding grants from them for doing that very service.
HT: Does ibogaine pose any problems related to lethal toxicity?
HL: No. The lethal dose by oral administration in humans 325 mg/kg and our maximum dose is generally 25 mg/kg.
HT: There were rumors that a person recently died in Europe while on ibogaine...
HL: A person apparently had a heroin overdose 19 hours into a treatment with ibogaine that I was involved in. This was a distinct situation. The patient did not come to us directly or through an addict self-help group, it was through the referral of doctors.
HT: How did it happen? Why would anyone even come to an ibogaine treatment with heroin in their pocket?
HL: Everybody comes there with heroin in their pockets because there is a three to five day workup period prior to ibogaine treatment.
HT: But I imagine if you’re going to put them on a table you have them clean up...
HL: At point X we do that and every other patient has obliged by turning over their drugs. This patient did not. And that’s why we have now restricted treatments to clinics only. The situation is like a parole system where everyone gets out and is fine and then one parolee gets out and commits an axe murder and for the next six months nobody gets out.
HT: Why did the junkie overdose?
HL: There are two areas which we are speculating on. One is that ibogaine potentiates morphine analgesia—ibogaine pushes smack. The second is that there may have been an instance of a swallowed balloon opening. The subject was concerned that when they had to turn in their narcotics we would in fact keep them and sell them.
HT: How much contact had you had with this patient prior to the treatment.
HL: We had three days of contact and the psychiatrist who worked with her had a number of months of contact. Our repore was excellent but as in a number of cases we recognize that at a certain level of psychopathology we can no longer determine the reality or non-reality of the patient.
HT: There was another alleged death a few years ago, wasn’t there? One which almost killed the entire ibogaine movement?
HL: Some time ago we heard a rumor of a death by ibogaine. I called a Swiss doctor—I don’t want to mention his name—who was using ibogaine and asked if he knew the story. He said yes, and that the patient who died was his patient.
He said he brought 15 patients from Switzerland to France—where he had no legal right to treat them—and provided them with a broad assortment of psychoactive drugs: LSD, MDA, ibogaine and possibly others. And everything, according to him, was going beautifully. None of the patients were acting adversely, the results were as desired. But four hours after treatment, when the drugs were on the wane, he and his assistant left the room to take a break. Obviously a well-needed break if you’re treating 15 people simultaneously on psychoactive substances.
Fifteen minutes later the other patients came in and told him that patient X, a 40 year old woman, was having trouble, so he and his assistant went back into the treatment room and found the patient on the floor having respiratory problems. Fifteen minutes later, he said, she was dead.
Now I asked the doctor repeatedly for an autopsy report but none was forthcoming. And from my point of view, until you give me the body there is no ibogaine death. There were no patients’ photos. No one let me get in touch with the other patients involved in the room that night. The Swiss won’t make the data available. Nonetheless, shortly thereafter ibogaine was embargoed in Switzerland.
HT: Could it have been a botched treatment?
HL: If it was, ibogaine was most likely not the cause because the death allegedly occurred more than four hours after the administration of an extremely low dose, and ibogaine is on the wane at that point. It’s highly active period is about four hours. There’s another 36-48 hours, but not with significant psychoactive effect.
I’m highly suspicious that either the patient took something herself, or, without her knowledge was administered a toxic substance by one of the other patients in the absence of the two doctors.
HT: If the story was a fabrication, who would stand to gain from keeping ibogaine from the market? The drug cartels?
HL: We think they might not be opposed to it at all. Let’s say the cartels took a 10 to 15 percent hit in their sales, but that available ibogaine treatments resulted in a 30-40% reduction in police repression of their operations. Where is their position?
But maybe to a banker who launders drug money and stands to do six or 10 billion dollars less business annually ibogaine would be something they don’t want to see. These are the people we’re dealing with. A lot of powerful people do not want an effective treatment for chemical dependency, but we can’t figure out who our real opposition is.
HT: In a best case scenario, when do you foresee clinical trials taking place in the US?
HL: As early as October, 1993 at the University of Miami. They’ve done primate studies outside of the US and it’s now my understanding that additional primate and dog studies will be conducted by NIDA independent of the university. But I have no idea when. NIDA does not discuss their work with us.
HT: In a worst-case scenario how long before Ibogaine goes to human trials?
HT: If you could get approval from the Food and Drug Administration, how long would it take to make ibogaine available to the addict population?
HL: If we had the money we could have this on the market in two-and-a-half years. We’re three-and-a-half to seven million dollars short.
HT: Have the pharmaceutical companies shown an interest in ibogaine?
HL: No. They do not view the treatment of chemically dependent people as an area they wish to become associated with. They view the population as having an extreme liability factor associated with it.
HT: If the pharmaceutical houses won’t give it to you, where do you think the money might come from?
HL: Someone or some small group of persons who have the money, can afford to put it at risk, and have a significant interest in benefiting the country by doing something to help people who are chemically dependant. Tied into potential profits, of course. I think our chances of getting it are about 50-50.
One hindrance is that the investment community takes its leads from the pharmaceutical companies and is reluctant to involve itself in any area that the specialists won’t involves themselves with. But we’ve done more than anybody could imagine with the money we’ve had to spend. And I think you can see that in terms of the movement we have in the United States, the Netherlands, France and Isreal.
HT: How important could it be to have ibogaine on the market?
HL: In most cases when the patient wakes up they no longer want to use drugs. We’re talking about an effective treatment for chemical dependency that would provide the majority of people who want to stop using drugs the ability to do so.
If we were talking about the treatment of cancer and I had a drug that could keep cancer in remission for six months at a time, it would be hailed as the greatest success in the world. And here we have a non-toxic procedure that can do that for chemical dependency. To say that the cancer patient deserves life for six months at a time, but that the addict doesn’t, is irresponsible, unethical and immoral.