Adrienne Porter tried to get clean several times, but the methadone that was supposed to help her quit taking prescription opioids just led her to heroin.
Narcotics Anonymous, 12-steps, suboxone – she knew the options available in her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana worked for some people, but she was just as certain that they wouldn’t for her.
One treatment, though, had stuck in her mind since she’d first stumbled across it online, a decade before she stopped using: ibogaine.
Adrienne is now 44 and has been clean for 18 months since she flew to Mexico to spend a week in September of 2016 preparing for and taking the psychedelic drug at the Ibogaine Institute.
Ibogaine is a psychoactive powder made from the root of a West African shrub and it is illegal in the US, though many addiction experts now say it deserves to be researched here.
Recently, Americans desperate to get clean, have been fleeing to Mexico to take ibogaine or another psychedelic, ayahuasca, but the drugs are unregulated and have been linked to the death of tech billionaire Matthew Melllon this week.
Adrienne Porter traveled to Mexico and took ibogaine to treat her opioid addiction and is now clean after 15 years of abusing pills, heroin and cocaine
Ibogaine clinics mostly operate underground, but as the opioid epidemic continues to plague the US, even prominent members of the medical community are pushing for laws against the drug to be slackened so that it can go through clinical trials.
But for Adrienne and 2.6 million opioid addicts in the US, that day quite literally cannot come soon enough.
By the time Adrienne decided to go to Mexico last year, she ‘had been living on a diet of speedballs and dry cereal for a while,’ she says.
‘You might think “how can a person even survive on that?” I wouldn’t recommend it, but you can,’ she says.
There was no single breaking point or revelation for Adrienne, but the slow realization that ‘I’m not going to live much longer if I keep this up,’ she says.
Her life had become a mundane blur and every glance in the mirror, at her young but scarred body was another painful reminder that her addiction was not only depressing, but could soon turn deadly.
‘I don’t know what people think of when they think of drug addicts, but it’s the same day over and over,’ she says.
‘I was getting to a point where if I couldn’t get clean, I was going to overdose or something. I was beyond depressed and I didn’t see any way out except that I had ibogaine in the corner of my mind, and I didn’t think I could get clean any other way,’ Adrienne remembers.
For the 15 years that Adrienne was using – first prescription painkillers, then methadone to try to get her off of the pills, then heroin, eventually combined with cocaine that she injected herself with – she was ‘always kind of a nerdy drug addict, and looked up things online like how best to use your drugs.’
As she was researching though, ibogaine kept coming across her screen, as early on as 10 years ago, when there was no academic literature to read on the drug, just personal blog posts that said little beyond ‘I was an addict, I did ibogaine, it was weird, and now I’m better,’ Adrienne says.
Like many such clinics, the Ibogaine Institute entices clients to spend $12,500 on a month stay at its waterfront facility in Mexico
In addition to administering the psychedelic drug, the Ibogaine Institute provides its clients with counseling and activities like yoga
She did not have much information to go on, but those stories and Adrienne’s dire physical state were enough to convince her and her husband that ibogaine was worth a shot.
WHAT IS IBOGAINE?: THE PSYCHEDELIC DRUG USED TO TREAT ADDICTION
Made from the root of a West African shrub, ibogaine is a psychedelic drug. Ibogaine is used in religious ceremonies in some countries, but is illegal in the US.
A number of small studies suggest that the drug may help treat addiction. Researchers think that it targets receptors in the brain’s addiction circuit.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the use of psychedelic drugs, like ibogaine and ayahuasca, to treat mental illnesses.
Another psychedelic, ayahuasca, may be effective at treating depression, some research indicates.
But ayahuasca, a psychotropic brew made from an Amazonian plant is illegal in the US, too.
Researchers think that, like ibogaine, it may provide a ‘reset’ for the brain.
Ayahuasc a also contains two compounds found separately in the common antidepressants.
He took out a long to pay for her to go to Mexico and to cover the $12,500 fee for what was then called Ibogaine University (and has since been renamed the Ibogaine Institute).
The Ibogaine Institute is one of many such clinics that have cropped up in Mexico, where ibogaine falls into a legal gray area. The drug is not explicitly outlawed, nor permitted, but it is certainly not regulated.
Treatment facilities there fall into a similarly vague space, and there is no way to know how many, exactly, exist, much less how many are legitimate.
The Ibogaine Institute, located just South of the US-Mexico border, has a medical director who, its executive director, Thom Leonard, says is the one to administer all doses of ibogaine.
At the very least, it does seem to exist, and Adrienne says that her ibogaine session took place in a room full of ‘medical equipment.’
But places like the Ibogaine Institute necessarily operate in the shadows, and that’s a problem for both patients and the progress toward acceptance the drug has made in the US, according to Dr Deborah Mash.
Dr Mash is a professor of neurology and pharmacology at the University of Miami. She is a pioneering ibogaine researcher, outspoken advocate for its legalization, and a deep skeptic of places like the Ibogaine Institute.
She argues that when both addicts and ibogaine administrators ‘are going outside the US, these people are making money. They are not following clinical research,’ she says.
In 2016, Mellon extolled the virtues of his ibogaine experience in an Instagram post
‘It makes it harder for those of us that are trying to get ibogaine back into a credentialed environment and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths that had to fight the battle against those who thought that ibogaine was like snake oil for many years,’ says Dr Mash.
She cautions that when it is given without supervision, ibogaine can be dangerous, and says that she has often heard of bad, and even deadly reactions to the drug.
‘If you’re not skilled and a legitimate doctor who understands something about the investigational nature of the drug, this can have serious outcomes, and it has.
‘There have even been deaths due to ibogaine and it’s always been because they’ve taken it in unsafe settings and often patients don’t even know if they have really taken ibogaine or if it’s mixed with other drugs,’ she says.
Though she hasn’t gone ‘from site to site’ to examine Mexican ibogaine clinics, Dr Mash says that many are ‘made up, and we don’t know if they’re government approved, or staffed by legitimate doctors, but people continue to put themselves in harm’s way because they are desperate.’
This week, Matthew Mellon, a tech billionaire and former husband of Jimmy Choo show mogul Tamara Mellon, died in Mexico where a source close to his family says he was meant to go to an addiction rehab, but took part in a psychedelic drug ceremony instead.
In 2016, Mellon, who struggled with an opioid addiction for many years, posted on Instagram that an ibogaine ceremony in Cancun had been a ‘spiritual crossing’ for him.
He even offered to send anyone that needed help to the ibogaine clinic he attended, ‘for free, on me,’ further hyping the drug’s efficacy.
It is unclear if the cryptocurrency investor took ayahuasca, another psychedelic drug being investigated to treat depression and possible addiction, or another round of ibogaine.
Medical technicians administer ibogaine, a drug made from the root of an African shrub (right) at the Ibogaine Institute in Mexico (left)
But his death lends additional weight to Dr Mash’s concerns over the safety of the administration of these much-hyped unregulated drugs.
Adrienne, on the other hand, says that the Ibogaine Institute was very careful to be sure that her dose of the drug was not interacting with any other substances in her system, and that she was given thorough medical attention there.
HOW OVERDOSES CAN HAPPEN AT REHABS: DROPS IN TOLERANCE CAN TURN SMALL DOSES DEADLY
Tragically, many deadly overdoses happen in the places one might least expect – rehab centers.
This phenomenon is mostly caused by sudden drops in tolerance.
Repeated exposure over time to opioids dulls the brains reward system.
So, the longer someone takes the drugs, the higher the doses they will need to feel a high.
This tolerance builds almost immediate, and fades within days of quitting drugs.
When an addict goes without opioids, they experience withdrawals, which feel like a horrible flu topped with intense cravings.
To ease withdrawals, many addiction treatment progams provide a medication like suboxoone or methadone that has similar but milder effects to opioids.
But some try to have their patients quit cold turkey.
Even with constant monitoring, desperate patients often get their friends and families to sneak in drugs.
Unaware that their tolerance has dropped, patients sometimes take the same dose they might have before rehab.
What was once typical can overwhelm their systems and prove deadly.
When she arrived in Mexico, Adrienne still had cocaine in her system, so the clinic made her wait a week to take ibogaine.
Leonard is not a medical professional, but is well-educated on the risks associated with mixing ibogaine and stimulants.
He says that medications used to help people break addictions – such as suboxone or methadone – can render ibogaine ineffective and impact the heart rate. Morphine, too, can prove deadly if it is taken after an ibogaine dose, so he and his staff closely monitor clients after their treatment, for at least 72 hours, and often for much longer.
Once the cocaine was out of Adrienne’s system, she was moved from her lodgings to the room with medical equipment and took her doses of ibogaine.
She and another client were given the drug at the same time. She started to see him as a ‘cartoon with his head on it,’ and then her ‘trip’ accelerated.
‘It was like a scary techno video, there was some kind of beat going in the background, like “donk-a-donk-a-donk” and I felt like I had these dark back and red colors, and I remember thinking “how is this going to help me stay clean?”‘
Her next thought answered that question: ‘Don’t worry about it, ibogaine knows what it’s doing.’
The staff at the ibogaine had coached Adrienne not to fight her ibogaine experience and once she leaned into it she ‘went through these different wormholes of my mind.’
Ibogaine also makes almost everyone who takes it sick. Adrienne and the other client in her room both threw up, and ‘by the next day I felt like I had run a marathon, and I sort of did,’ she says, ‘ibogaine is not for the faint of heart.’
When she got up the next day, Adrienne was exhausted, a little filthy, and felt completely new.
‘I was like a new baby. Everything in my body was kind of dirty and depression and drugs before, and this felt like I could feel my cells pulsing on my skin, like I was seeing things for the first time,’ Adrienne says.
Food tasted incredible, colors were brighter, and she felt ‘utterly changed.’
‘You could spend your entire life in therapy trying to get through your childhood and your demons and not get through what you could with one night with ibogaine,’ Adrienne says.
She stayed in Mexico for a month, had ‘a lot of fun’ putting on some weight and when she returned home, Adrienne left her husband – who had often abused drugs with her – and started a new career cleaning houses.
Adrienne is now 18 months sober, starting her own company and is in a relationship with Mike (left) at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings she attends
She tried doing heroin one more time, but she was instantly repulsed by the drug, and hasn’t touched it since.
Now, Adrienne attends regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where she met her boyfriend, Mike, and is starting her own cleaning business.
‘Ibogaine gave me a clean slate and a new brain’ Adrienne says.
Leonard, who also broke his opioid addiction after taking ibogaine, has a slightly more measured perspective.
‘Ibogaine doesn’t work for everybody, but the 47 percent success rate is still amazing, compared to the six percent success rate for the traditional model in the US,’ he says.
He and the Ibogaine Institute live in a state of uncertainty, wondering if the Mexican authorities will show up, and when they do, if they are real.
‘I don’t want to be doing treatments in Mexico. I don’t want to be operating in the shadows. I want to do this in the US. I want to see this become an option that is openly discussed,’ Leonard says.
He would welcome the legalization and regulation of ibogaine, but ‘in the interim what we need to do is be self-regulating’ by creating an accreditation system through a coordinated effort between ibogaine clinics.
‘There are people that are in if for the wrong reasons, are making false promises. Anyone that tells you this is a cure is sadly mistaken, or just lying,’ Leonard says.
‘But people making this ridiculous claim would falter and fall to the wayside out of a natural process of evolution with self-regulation,’ Leonard theorizes.
Dr Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing says that he thinks ibogaine ‘should be researched,’ but cautions that ‘before traveling to Mexico for an unproven treatment, most patients with moderate to severe opioid use disorder, a life threatening condition, should try the first-line treatment – buprenorphine,’ a medicine similar to suboxone which is commonly used in addiction treatment.
In an effort to change the drug’s status from ‘unproven,’ two Maryland state congress members sponsored a bill there last summer that aimed to establish a program to research ibogaine through the state’s Department of Health.
The bill failed to pass the House, but, as its text points out, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Yale School of Medicine took an interest in ibogaine last year.
Researchers at the two universities surveyed the results from 88 people who were treated for opioid addiction using ibogaine treatments in Mexico.
‘The results suggest that ibogaine is associated with reductions in opioid use, including complete abstinence, and has long-term positive psychological outcomes,’ they wrote.
The National Institutes of Health started to investigate ibogaine in the 1990s, but abandoned the research.
Now, as the opioid crisis continues to claim more than 100 lives a day, Dr Kolodny says ‘he can’t see why anyone would be opposed to research’ on ibogaine.