For nine years Eric Taub has been finding creative ways to treat patients and addicts with a powerful psychedelic substance known as ibogaine. Originally found in the West African shrub Tanenanthe iboga, ibogaine takes its users on a deep voyage through the psyche and beyond – usually lasting up to twenty hours. Ibogaine has also been known to successfully interrupt the painful symptoms associated with heroin addiction withdrawal. All of these properties make ibogaine a very promising substance for use in clinical settings, though it is still illegal to use in the United States.
JAMES KENT: Well I think we should probably just start at the beginning. I thought it would be good to start out asking about how and when you were first introduced to ibogaine?
ERIC TAUB: I received a phone call from a friend who at the time was an alcoholic and chain-smoked Camels. He had heard that there were a couple of doctors from Holland on their way to Washington to see if they could push the legalization of ibogaine through the FDA really quickly.
That was nine years ago this November. It was during a time when I had completed about my 20th year of making rings. It was a simple line of rings, and I was really looking for something that I could do as an end in itself, and not so much a mean to an end. Although I liked doing shows and it was an easy living, semi-retired from month to month, I really wanted to do something that I loved, something that I could call my dharma.
When I heard about ibogaine, I was initially amazed that something existed that could eliminate craving from substances like methadone, alcohol, and nicotine after one single session without the person having to go through the agony of withdrawal, and it wasn’t available. So my first intention was to go to Africa and pick up 50k doses and go to Needle Park in Europe and dose out people coming for their free works. Then I would call CNN and when only a quarter of the people showed up the following week, that would be the fulfillment of my messianic complex. (Laughs)
I had no idea when I went to Africa that it would initially cost $1000 a gram.
Where in Africa did you go?
I went to Gabon. And when I arrived I literally knocked on the right doors. I went to a university, and indirectly got connected with a chemist who already had been working with the extraction process. There was just a series of synchronistic events that literally enabled me to walk through, so that ten days later I was flying back to a Caribbean country with 13 or 16 grams of ibogaine.
So you never went out to the bush?
Never went to the bush. It wasn’t until my third and fourth trip that I visited the areas where t. iboga grows with the chemist that was doing the extraction work.
Did the chemist just give you 16 grams or was there some kind of agreement?
Yeah, he fronted me a good portion of it and I gave him the few thousand dollars I had in my pocket, and we worked out an arrangement where I would pay him contingent on receiving more. As a result of that, I had to charge a significant amount, whereas now, given the supply and price, I have a much larger sliding scale.
How much is an active dose?
It depends on body weight, and on addiction, and the type of initiatory psycho-spiritual experience one wants, but the range is quite large, from 6.5 mg per kg of body weight to 25 mg to overwhelm a methadone or heroin habit.
So you are talking about many grams for a single dose.
Well, with body weight, we’re talking about approximately .5 g to 2 g for addicts, and about .5 g to a gram for an initiatory experience. Women need less because they are more open, so they don’t need to take as much to have an initiatory experience or to free themselves of a cocaine habit. Cocaine doesn’t require the overwhelming physical withdrawal. It’s just addressing mental craving, which this does as well because there is a metabolite which is introduced when the ibogaine interacts with the biochemistry in the brain, and receptors are filled up which have to do with craving in addicts. But it also fills the receptors of non-addicts too, which I believe has to do with our ability to move into a less reactive state when dealing with certain kinds of patterns, habitual patterns of relationships, etc.
There is a biochemist I introduced the molecule to, and he said he fell in love with it, and he compared it to ayahuasca except that there is an extra added component, an extra facet to the diamond, to ibogaine, which I believe is that component which enables people to retain the information they receive from the experience. They are continually maintaining their identification with the witness or with the adult that is reliving the unleashing of repressed memories or this onslaught of pictorial gestalts and these archetypal vignettes that emerge during the 20 to 30 hours of experiencing a session with ibogaine.
A third component, a metabolite, is then introduced into the system, which washes out over a period of weeks and months. With other psychoactives it seems the experience is over when the psychoactive is thrown out of the system. With ibogaine, the ibogaine itself is thrown out of the system faster than an aspirin, but it lingers and creates these windows, three days, ten days, three months. Very often I receive calls from people months later telling me, “I finally got it, I finally understand what that was about, because I’ve been experiencing more insight as a result of that restructuring of definition of who I thought I was, and now all my intentions that I came into the experience with have been worked through and resolved, and I’m considering doing it again maybe six months from now.”
I’ve even talked with people who have done many psychoactives and have been very skeptical that anything can linger and create process over a period of weeks and months who are emphatic about the fact that that was the case with their experience over the continuing months after taking ibogaine.
So you had to fly back to the Caribbean because you couldn’t bring the stuff into the United States?
No, it’s a felony. It’s still a class one drug here. I had to do sessions literally in international waters, in the Caribbean.
How many sessions did you do in the Caribbean?
When I was down there initially, I didn’t do any. I just dropped the material off. The day that I arrived back home a psychotherapist friend of mine had a chapter from an out of print book called The Healing Journey by Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean therapist, dropped in her lap by a client. The book had a chapter called “Ibogaine: Fantasy and Reality.” She hadn’t mentioned that she had a friend that was beginning to do any kind of work with this – it was just one of the many synchronistic events that facilitated us beginning to experiment with the dose range.
Initially we used Claudio Naranjo’s very low therapeutic dose range, and we began to experiment with people interested in going to the Caribbean to do therapeutic sessions. These were directive therapeutic sessions specifically aimed to access repressed memories from childhood. Then we began to experiment with slightly higher doses until we realized that at about the 8-12 mg per kg stage, we could do away with the directive session, and not only have a person access those types of therapeutic insights, but also have a full-fledged initiatory experience where they would be surrendering to the essence energy of the plant.
How much were you initially charging for your sessions?
Initially I was charging $3.21 per milligram which comes out to about $2500 for a 165 pound person. Lately, I’ve been able to charge $2.14 per mg. But if a person can’t afford that, I have a place to go which is lower. I can go down to $1.50 per mg, which is less than half of what it was initially. And if a person really can’t afford it and they’re knocking on the door hard enough, whether it be for an initiatory or an addiction interruption, we’ll do them for whatever they can afford, or nothing. We do hope and anticipate that there are people who can afford to pay the full price or even more, so that we can create a sliding scale for the addicts who can’t afford it, because most addicts can’t.
Over the past seven or eight years, how many sessions have you actually done?
Since March the 8th 1992, we’ve done somewhere around 175 people; half have been addicts, and half have been initiatory.
Of the treatments that you did on the addicts, how many of them were successfully interrupted?
I consider all of them to be successful. But when you are talking linearly, in terms of how many of them have eliminated their addiction to their substance of choice, I would say that after the first single session 30% of those in their 40s and 50s and 70% of those in their 20s and 30s went back to their drug of choice. The reason for that is because usually if a person is older, they have lost more and they have reached a certain significant level of rock bottom, where they can take advantage of this. They’ve lost family, kids, homes, jobs, health, and they don’t have the world by the balls anymore, so they take this really seriously. And they’re fed up with their addiction.
Whereas people in their 20s and 30s are still playing, exploring. They haven’t lost very much yet, so they usually are really influenced by the experience but very often don’t do the aftercare work that is absolutely essential for a person to take advantage of the process. There’s a couple month period after a person does ibogaine, where they’re very open, vulnerable, and susceptible to receiving a lot of information about themselves and why they became addicted personalities. Unless they create the aftercare group and/or individual work and actually make headway into their own process, they are going to wake up one morning and the craving is going to come back.
But if they’ve done the work over the period of a couple of months, then by the time the metabolite washes out of their receptors, they’ve behaviorally changed themselves profoundly enough so that it’s okay that the metabolite washes out. They’ve already made the changes within, and the craving doesn’t come back.
Now did you yourself have a history of addiction, or was it just a condition that you thought needed to be addressed and you were going to be the guy to do it?
It was the latter, and that’s one of the reasons that I don’t conduct the addiction interruption sessions. Although I did the first several, and became somewhat acclimated to working with people who were addicts, to the point where they were appreciating the facilitation, I never really felt comfortable doing them. I leave that up to people who have a proclivity for that kind of work… ex-addicts, and people that have a calling to work with addicts. I have a lot of sympathetic professionals, psychiatrists and doctors, really throughout the world now, that are conducting the addiction interruption sessions. And I tend to facilitate the initiatory sessions.
When you are facilitating a 20-30 hour session, isn’t that fairly taxing on you?
Well, it’s taxing on one level. On a psychic level it’s taxing, but it’s very restful on other levels because there is very little that one has to do as a facilitator. I don’t intervene in any kind of therapeutic sense. I just help people meander to the bathroom, and help them sip some water, and I’m really there for the before period of time and the after period of time when we are docking. We take strolls on the beach when they are beginning to want to share their experience and how it relates to the patterns in their life. But the process itself is so internal that I only spend the first five or six hours in a one-on-one and then the person is very comfortable about me leaving for an hour. I come back and check, and then I leave again. I’m close at hand throughout the entire evening, but basically the person is on their own and feeling very comfortable, very protected, and very absorbed in their own process for the first 20-30 hours, so it’s a very easy process to facilitate.
Have you ever had any freakouts, or any struggling with the process that was really hard to contain?
No. Not in the case of doing a session with ibogaine. There was one person early on in our experimentation, he was a therapist, and he never told us that he had had psychotic breaks when he had done psychoactives in the past. He’s a therapist that befriended all of us, and took an actually very small amount, and ended up kind of merging with his ten year old self which was very disconcerting for all of us. He became like a child. We spoke with his psychiatrist who said that he had retrieved him from a couple of psychotic breaks and suicidal attempts. This man thought he could go in and access some good information, and not even tell his wife or any of us about his history.
What we realized from that experience was that there are certain psychiatric criteria that we need to adhere to in order to allow this process to take place in the western hemisphere. Because if you are in India, and you’re 30 years old and talking to a teddy bear, they will revere you and respect you and bring you to an ashram, and diaper you, and know that this is one of the main stages towards enlightenment. They won’t Thorazine you and try to make you functional; they will just let you go through this process, this natural process of social ego loss. But in the west they don’t respect this, they don’t understand this, there aren’t any emergency centers like ashrams, or very few, where a person would have a context for this experience.
This, plus the fact that what we’re doing is so controversial, made us decide that we have to be very careful and people need to adhere to certain psychiatric criteria. That happened very early on, thank goodness, and that was the only time that ever happened, because after that, I would screen people carefully and ask them specific questions about their previous experience with psychoactives and a few other important concerns.
Have you ever had anybody in a session who you gave what you considered to be a high dose, and they didn’t feel anything?
There was one [who didn’t feel anything at all], very fascinating. There were also a handful of people who felt very little from a full-fledged dose. But I even see the ingenuity of the plant facilitating the experience for this type of individual. People get just what they need, and it’s just an amazingly uncanny ability for this plant, and I’m sure for others as well, to facilitate giving people exactly what they need. One particular woman comes to mind. This is a woman who, since she was a young girl, knew exactly what she wanted to do. And she did everything she always wanted to do. She said that she did not wake up frustrated or unhappy any morning in her life in the past twenty years, except after she took ibogaine, because she was expecting to be booked up with all these pictures and insights. And she was lying around in bed for 30 hours, and absolutely nothing happened. No pictures, no insights, no visuals.
She woke up the next morning frustrated because in the west, especially in the New Age community, there is no notion or understanding of a very significant part of what I would consider the spiritual equation. There are two legs: one is creating a healthy sense of self, or ego, and another is offering it up, or surrendering it. And you gotta do one before you can do the other. But she had done the work, without even knowing it, and she was looking to book herself up with more ways to empower herself, ways to feel a healthy strong sense of self or ego or identification, and nothing happened.
She was so disappointed, and she spent ten more days in Costa Rica with her husband, vacationing, went back, and reported to me that she was utilizing about one third the amount of energy that she previously used to do her work. She stopped smoking pot, which she was smoking every single day, and she kicked into this state of unity consciousness for eleven months, day and night. She was just in this flow that she had never come close to experiencing before except for very brief moments.
And so I began to understand that contextually, it did not make a difference whatsoever what a person experienced; whether it was sixteen hours of visions that someone transcribed to me in the form of thirty-four single-spaced typewritten pages, or absolutely nothing. Behaviorally, they were able to change patterns, and change their relationships with certain patterns, and within their lives afterwards. So I slowly began to let go of being attached to giving people what they wanted, and I began to accept more and more the process of them giving themselves what they needed.
So even though she didn’t have the experience that she expected and wanted, it was very transformative, and essentially what she needed in life even though she didn’t know that’s what she needed.
Exactly. I realized after doing a lot of sessions that there are layers in the onion. For example, when I would do an obsessive/compulsive person, they would get more deeply in touch with their depression. If I did a person that was depressed, they would get more deeply in touch with their anger, which depression masks. If they were angry, they would get in touch with their sadness. From sadness, people would get in touch with joy. When people would come in that were perfectly functional and happy people, they’d get in touch with a deeper level of emptiness. And if a person went in with a sense of emptiness, they would get in touch with an experience of enlightenment.
Have you ever had clients who came in that you knew right away were recreational thrill-seekers just looking for a new high?
I’ve had two of those people. And their experience was quite insignificant. They didn’t have any kind of interesting reaction because it needs to be a pilgrimage.
Have you heard of any deaths or medical emergencies resulting from ibogaine use?
I’ve heard of a couple in Europe that were well documented, but there seems to be a connection with heroin. They either bolted out of, or had on them, some heroin which they took during the process of their ibogaine experience. Ibogaine potentates heroin, and so they’re not to be taken together. Those were the only deaths that I heard about.
So these were not accidental overdoses, they were user error.
That’s how it was documented in the literature. Both in Switzerland and in the Netherlands I believe.
When I talked to you previously, you mentioned that you were looking for a host country to help set up an institute. How is that process going for you?
It’s a process all right. We do have ongoing interest in Costa Rica from the health department, and there are dozens of pages of literature being translated to be presented to them. We haven’t had any kind of steps back, but the steps forward in creating a center where we can do this above ground have just been very slow. The sooner the better.
How many times have you personally tried ibogaine?
I did two small doses back when we were doing small doses, then I did a couple of the midrange, and the last time I did it was over two years ago. I haven’t done it for a couple years, and I’m gearing up to do it again fairly soon.
What were your personal reactions?
Very uniquely different from session to session. It was like a different person experiencing it every time, because my intentions were very different. Initially I went into it wanting to explore issues around my mother. I also explored father issues, very specifically rekindling memories that defined my relationship with my father and how that relates to my relationship with the world. Immediately after that the project began to change and expand. As I began to let go of certain ways of defining myself through my relationship with my dad, the project began to change.
The second experience was with my mom, and my relationships with women, and with myself, began to change after that. I think the relationship with the mother defines how you feel about yourself, and the relationship with the father defines your relationship with other people, money, projects.
The third and fourth experiences were very different. They were initiatory experiences in which I was introduced to the essence energy of the plant. During one of the experiences, I was in a transcendental state for three and a half hours where there was no thinking, only a sense of ³isness.” It was similar to a transcendental state that I accessed in my twenties when I would spend six to fourteen hours a day for months and months in meditation.
So these medium doses that you said you took, was there any dialogue going on between you and the plant?
There is for a lot of people, but not for me. It was more an overwhelming sense of its presence, its incredible power, and its incredibly benign qualities as well. It had a very visceral masculine sense, and an incredibly benign beauty in terms of the plant’s availability and willingness to not confront head-on when one didn’t want to explore a particular thing any further.
So it was not aggressively in your face.
Not at all, but it was so powerful – very interesting.
How long has iboga been used traditionally?
Anthropologists and paleontologists have told me the beginning of human evolution took place in the Rift Valley, eastern Zaire. This is where iboga originates from, so some people think it’s one of the original derivatives of the tree of life. Whether that’s true or not, who knows, but the people who brought it out of that area are one of the happiest people, living like upper Paleolithic hunter/gatherers.
No, the Buiti received it from these people 300 years ago. I’m talking about pygmies who lived in the Rift Valley 20,000 years ago. They still see life like a knife through water. They have no history, no past, no future, they still have that symbiotic relationship with the earth, whereas the Buiti and other tribes have created a religion out of it. I don’t agree when people call it the Buiti god, because it’s not the Buiti god. The Buiti are new at this, it’s only been 300 years. They created a religion out of it, the way every culture creates its own religion out of whatever, putting it up on a pedestal and abdicating their own sense of responsibility.
You’ve been following this path for nine years now. Has it been fulfilling?
It has been wonderfully fulfilling.
Are you planning to do this for the rest of your days?
Well, I just know that it is today. I mean, I have no idea what’s up for tomorrow. I go from hour to hour. I don’t think in terms of any goals, usually, and I’m better off not. I just do what’s in front of me to do. Very often I don’t know what I’m going to do when I wake up. But I feel like I’m running alongside of an energy, or an entity that has energy of its own. And I’m just thankful to be taking care of it for as long I’m involved. I have less and less vested interest in it, in terms of thinking that it’s just my project.
James Kent is Publisher of Trip