Ibogaine: Does This Psychedelic Drug Portend the End of Primal Therapy?

By John A. Speyrer

From Primal Feelings Newsletter - Issue #11 - Winter 1995-96

Much basic government sponsored research in drugs and drug addiction was being conducted during the early 1960s. Its ultimate aim was to understand addiction and perhaps find a cure. Some results of the research were the discovery of the various endorphines and how the placebo effect worked, but the goal of finding a cure for drug addiction continued to remain as elusive as ever. However, by the late 1960's, the government began a strict prohibition of all drugs they felt were socially harmful, and research with psychedelic and other drugs was abruptly stopped. During the late 1980s, as the financial and social costs of drug addiction spread and became even more of a burden to the country, various federal governmental agencies again began allowing the study of certain illegal drugs in the hopes of finding that evasive cure. Presently six approved studies of psychedelic drugs are being conducted. One of those drugs is ibogaine.


The Bwiti tribe in west-central Africa developed a myth that explained the origins of their magical shrub, Iboga. One day in the distant past, their god cut up a pygmy and scattered his remains through a jungle. The pygmy's widow found the flowering iboga plants growing from the parts of her husband's scattered remains. The god told the widow that if she wanted to speak with her dead husband she should eat the root of the plant (Taub).

For untold hundreds of years, the members of the Bwiti tribe have been using the bark and roots of the iboga plant as a psychedelic and as a central part of their religious celebrations. It is also used as a stimulant during long and tedious hunting expeditions, and as an important part of rites of passage from adolescence into manhood (Taub). It is felt by the Bwiti that the drug eliminates the traumas of childhood and reprograms the inductee with the cultural norms of the tribe. (Goutarel)

Since Gabon and the Congo were French colonies at the time that the iboga plant was introduced to the West, it was logical that the earliest studies of the attributes of ibogaine were first conducted by French pharmacologists. It was the anti-fatigue and stimulant properties of the plant that first attracted their attention in 1864. In 1939, a preparation containing ibogaine was marketed in France as an aid to counter the effects of neurasthenia and fatigue. However, during the worldwide anti-drug hysteria of the 1960's, sales of the product in France were prohibited. (Goutarel) During this same time, when psychedelic research was at its peak, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that ibogaine allowed repressed childhood memories to surface into present memory. (Jetter)


Howard S. Lotsof, a heroin addict, in the early 1960's, while looking for a new "high," ingested a dose of ibogaine and to his surprise found out that the drug freed him from his heroin addiction. He consequently gave it to six of his friends and five remained free of their addiction. Subsequently, a self-help addict group found that a one-time ibogaine use showed an almost perfect success rate with addictions to many drugs. Between 1989 and 1991 Lotsof filed four patents for the use of ibogaine in interrupting addiction. Since all psychedelics were illegal in the U. S. then, Lotsof sent his clients to the Netherlands for treatment, where he ". . . claimed that two-thirds of his clients quit drugs for periods ranging from four months to four years." (Jetter) However, two addicts recently died while in ibogaine treatment in the Netherlands. It is quite possible that ibogaine had nothing to do with their deaths, since the doses were very small, but for whatever reasons, Lotsof subsequently moved his facilities to Panama where his operations continue today. (Jetter)

The 1967-1968 federal decree of prohibition never really eliminated the use of psychedelics, such as LSD and Ecstasy, but ibogaine never had much of a market in the illegal drug trade anyway, since its effects were not enjoyable. For this reason, and since drug dealers became aware that its sale might deprive them of part of their clientele, ibogaine was never marketed with any enthusiasm. (Gouteral)


As mentioned, by 1989, the consequences of drug abuse had become so serious that various federal agencies began to reopen research to investigate the possibilities that such psychedelic drugs such as ibogaine, ecstasy, LSD, psilocybin, or DMT could break the drug dependence problem. The National Institute on Drug Abuse plans its own research program on ibogaine. Because of toxicity problems, human trials were postponed in favor of animal studies. At the University of Miami, human studies have been in progress for about a year and one-half. Primate and human testing there had been temporarily delayed, as cerebellum lesions were found on rats given huge doses of ibogaine. Human testing has been completed and the analysis of the effectiveness of the drug in humans is now ongoing. As soon as I have access to these results, they will be printed in the Primal Feelings Newsletter.


Besides Lotsof (who is a Staten Island resident), another involved in the ibogaine story is Floridian Eric Taub. An alcoholic friend recounted stories to Taub about the drug. He became interested, went to Africa, secured a supply of the plant and had a chemist extract an ibogaine alkaloid. Taub claims that the drug works 100% of the time in interrupting withdrawal and that there is never withdrawal agony. But even what is more important, he says that ibogaine allows a person to get to and relive early repressed memories that he believes is the ultimate cause of their drug habit. Taub insists that one cannot get addicted to ibogaine since it is not a recreational drug. It's not the kind of experience that a person wants to have repeatedly. In other words, it's work, it's therapy, he says. And it is not a hallucinogen, since you only experience what is in your subconscious. (Taub) Some patients who have a history of psychosis or catatonia will experience hallucinations, he says. Taub's observation tends to support Dr. Arthur Janov's belief that such hallucinations are the result of a massive release of primal pain. A catatonic schizophrenic has such a large amount of typically first-line pain that ibogaine may act as a trigger to flood the cortex with symbolic images.


Taub writes that

"the subject ingesting the drug seems to journey backward in time, to the place where the core issue that helped to facilitate the addiction began. The emotional content of the experience is relieved along with the visual, pictorial gestalt of the experience itself. In most of cases, the experience is accompanied with the sensation of actually "being there" complete with 3-D effects, yet there is also the witness self who watches and finds understanding. . . . It enables people to access repressed memories that show them specifically why they became addictive personalities. . . . You relive your relationships with your parents and siblings." (Taub)

An interesting result is that addicts do not get high anymore, even when they take their drugs of choice. Strangely, ". . . the more cross-addictions a person has, alcohol, cocaine, heroin . . . the better ibogaine works."(Taub)


Taub recounts the story of a

". . . therapist who was adopted, and during the session she got in touch with being two-days old. . . She experienced the smells and felt the comfort of being embraced by her real mother, and she realized in a moment that she had been running away from the pain of that separation her entire life, creating relationships to simulate that initial pain. After treatment with ibogaine, her whole life changed. She told me it was the greatest gift she ever received." (Taub)


"What we've found takes place is that a person is brought back to a specific time when there were certain core issues that needed to be explored. The emotional content of that experience is relived along with the visual, pictorial gestalt of the experience. "It's incredibly visual. . . So you begin to see these pictures, as if you were watching a movie. This happens whether one's eyes or opened or closed. Many of these pictures are pictures of experiences from childhood, and the person gets to see portions of his life that beforehand were not available to him. Ibogaine seems to have an inherent limitation . . . and (if) a person takes (it) a fourth, fifth, sixth time, nothing happens psychologically. The pictures don't come; The experience is null and void." (Taub)


Besides the exception for psychotics, described above, Taub writes that

"The only thing that a person experiences is an unleashing of repressed memories that are intrinsic within the subconscious of that particular person. That person does not experience other people's memories. They don't experience an exaggeration of reality." (Taub)

Taub says that he took ibogaine and had never before

". . . seen a therapist in my life, but that day I learned what the therapeutic process is. I got in touch with experiences that I never knew of or explored before. As a result my whole life changed . . . I (had been) a normally neurotic, compulsive person." (Taub)

But if you're not an addict you take a smaller dose, but in any event, most agree that you should have a therapist after the program to help integrate the newly found insights (Taub).

Eric Taub is from Gainesville Florida. He and others have formed a company named "Release Therapies, Inc." which uses ibogaine to rehabilitate addicts. The therapy, which lasts five days, is being conducted in Belize, Central America.


Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean physician, conducted many sessions with ibogaine, during the 1960s. He recounts his experiences in The Healing Journey in a chapter entitled "Ibogaine: Fantasy and Reality." Dr. Stanislav Grof (he wrote the book's preface), and others found archetypal memories to be common in LSD sessions. Dr. Naranjo found the same memories in sessions with ibogaine. However, since the direction of the fantasies under ibogaine treatment can be readily directed, and since there are fewer hallucinogenic elements in such sessions, Dr. Naranjo was more impressed with the results of psychotherapy with ibogaine than with other psychedelics. Naturally, being able to think about an early scene, and later return to that scene of one's own will or by the therapist's direction lends ibogaine to self-directed or therapist assisted psychotherapy.

Grof, in LSD Psychotherapy writes: "The ability of LSD to deepen, intensify and accelerate the psychotherapeutic process is incomparably greater than that of any other drug used as an adjunct to psychotherapy, with the exception perhaps of some other members of the psychedelic group, such as psilocybin, mescaline, ibogain, MDA,. or DTP. . . " (Grof)

Naranjo believed that ibogaine could not produce the changes by itself. He felt that a psychotherapist is needed to guide the patient to uncover the repressed feelings that are the cause of his neurosis (Naranjo). However, Lotsof, feels that the patient should not be distracted by a therapist since this may interfere with re-living the traumatic repressed memories. Lotsof believes that while undergoing the ibogaine experience, the patient does not wish to speak and would rather be enmeshed in the experience. However, he insists that after ibogaine therapy, a trained, strong support system is vitally important to the client. (Lotsof)


The quest for a cure for drug addiction is as old as history. In the nineteenth century, opium was looked upon as a cure for alcoholism and even Freud touted cocaine as a cure for the morphine habit. When heroin was first refined, it also was initially seen as a cure for morphine addiction. In the 1940s first Demerol, then later Percodan were similarly hailed as being non-addictive. More recently, we have heard of the many cases of heroin addicts becoming more serious methadone addicts. In the past, disillusionment eventually settled in. The quest for the holy grail of addiction cure continues as new esoteric chemicals replace each other in the never ending search for a cure of the drug addiction problem.

However, the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy is quite different from the use of a substitute drug as a cure. Stimulants, such as cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine, or depressants, as heroin, morphine and alcohol, rather than helping to release early pre and peri-natal, infantile and childhood traumas, actually hold back the repressed traumatic material from breaking through to consciousness. Furthermore, psychedelics are non-addictive and aid regressive therapies by allowing the subject to feel his repressed traumas. Important questions remain: Why is ibogaine effective for only a few usages? After a few re-livings of the trauma, ibogaine does not seem to continue bringing up the repressed material. Is this because the person's encoded repressed trauma enlage has been eliminated or because new defenses have been erected against the ibogaine effect? This, perhaps, if the drug works as claimed, should be a main focus in the study of ibogaine.

There are many references to transpersonal experiences in ibogaine therapy, but in the extensive literature about the drug, I only found one reference to re-experiencing birth trauma. One patient wrote: "I was awake through it all. I began seeing pictures flash before me. Thinking back now, it was overwhelming. I could not believe it, but I actually saw myself being born. I recall it being dark, when I realized, I was inside the birth canal."

Birth re-livings are an essential and ubiquitous element in regression psychotherapies. Severe birth trauma is particularly common in drug addicts, who usually have a large amount of first-line pain. So, it should be expected that ibogaine sessions would trigger much traumatic birth material. Why is there so little mention of re-living birth trauma in the ibogaine literature?

In any event, the essential question is whether ibogaine can permanently release the residuals of stored memory traumas. It is claimed that occasionally cure of drug addiction results after only one dose, but more typically it takes a few more. Taub, states that the regressive experience, after a few sessions, cannot be repeated. This tends to support the argument that the stored memory traces are permanently released. The common feeling of the ibogaine subjects, that their brain has been reset or returned to a pre-addictive or pre-traumatized state is interesting, but is only anecdotal support of this position.

Perhaps the inability to replicate sessions means that the subjects' defenses have been raised against the ibogaine effect. In those cases when the drug craving returns, Dr. Deborah Mash of the University of Miami speculates that it may be due to a washing out of ibogaine's metabolites over a period of time.(Diamond) Some researchers have even theorized that ibogaine works because it destroys enough brain cells to affect learning and remembering. (Cowley)

Dr. Naranjo, who has studied ibogaine and used it with gestalt psychotherapy, doubts ". . . that there is anything that can be achieved with a drug that cannot be done without it. . . . However, drugs can . . . make it possible to compress a very lengthily psychotherapeutic process into a shorter time and change its prognosis." (quoted in Gouteral)

As in any psychotherapy, chemical or otherwise, ibogaine undoubtedly has had its failures. However, as is expected in literature touting a new cure, we seldom encounter examples of cases in which ibogaine therapy was unsuccessful. With the Federal Drug Administration currently sponsoring ibogaine and other psychedelic drug testing, a more objective analysis of the results of the Miami study will soon become available.

Dr. Arthur Janov, the founder of primal therapy, has written that perhaps one day a method will be found to release from the brain, in an ordered sequence, and in a way that may even circumvent the psychological stimulus, the stored memories from which neurosis originate. He wrote: "There are drugs today such as LSD which release a flood of old feelings and memories; they are released in random fashion, but who knows whether drugs cannot someday be much more specific" (Janov; p. 84).

Is ibogaine a drug that can release repressed feelings in a more specific and efficient fashion than LSD, and one day supplant primal therapy? Time will tell.


Cauchon, Dennis. 1994, June 13. Psychedelics Take A Trip Back To The Lab, USA Today

Clay, Denise. March 11, 1994. New Drug Offers Hope for Curing Addiction; Testing Hits a Snag, Philadelphia Tribune

Cowley, Geoffrey et als. 1993, Aug 23. A Psychedelic Trip to the End of Addiction, Newsweek Magazine

Diamond, Nina L. 1993, October: Brain Waves, South Florida

Diamond, Nina L. 1994, February, p. 16, Ibogaine II: Down Memory Lane, Omni Magazine

Goutarel, Robert et als. 1992. Pharmacodynamics and Therapeutic Applications of Iboga and Ibogaine. French National Scientific Research Center, Gif-sur-Yvette Cedex, France

Janov, Arthur. 1971. The Anatomy of Mental Illness: The Scientific Basis of Primal Therapy: G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York

Jetter, Alexis. 1994, April 10. The Psychedelic Cure, New York Times Magazine

Lotsof, H. S. 1995. Ibogaine in the Treatment of Chemical Dependence Disorders: Clinical Perspectives, Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Volume V, Number 3

Nadis, Steve. 1993, July, p. 14. The Mystery of Ibogaine: Can An African Psychedelic Cure Addiction? Omni Magazine

Naranjo, Claudio. 1973. The Healing Journey, Hutchinson of London

Taub, Eric. #46 - through April, 1995. Free At Last, Magical Blend Magazine