Last month, the government of the Brazilian state of São Paulo issued a statement that may signal the country’s path toward approving scientific research of psychoactive substances, including the medical use of the drug ibogaine. This announcement marks the first instance of a government agency in South America to recognize the need to further evaluate the potential for psychoactive drugs like ibogaine to treat addiction.
For decades, researchers in Brazil have been seeking increased approval to use ibogaine, a drug derived from the West African shrub Tabernanthe iboga, in their work evaluating treatments for a variety of substance use disorders. Ibogaine became recognized in the late 1980’s and early 90’s as an ‘addiction interrupter’ and attention was given toward its use as a detoxification treatment for opiate dependency, with lasting effects that minimize physiological craving and psychological obsession for drugs like heroin and opioid painkillers for several weeks following a single treatment.
The recent statement, issued by Leonardo Arquimimo de Carvalho, the President of the São Paulo State Council on Drug Policy (CONED-SP), would allow them to move forward with their work. It includes encouragement for clinical investigation of ibogaine and other synthetic and semisynthetic substances derived from T. iboga, calls for institutional funding for research, and permission for doctors and psychiatrists to use ibogaine to treat people with substance use disorders in São Paulo hospitals.
In 2009, Medsafe, New Zealand’s equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration, recommended classifying ibogaine as a prescription medicine, becoming the first and only other country in the world to officially recognize ibogaine’s efficacy for treatment of substance use disorders. While the United States Drug Enforcement Administration considers ibogaine a schedule I drug – having a high abuse potential and no evidence for medical use – most other countries have no specific laws controlling ibogaine. The governments of São Paulo and New Zealand have allowed restricted medical use of ibogaine, and there are many other countries where ibogaine is used to treat people with substance use and mental health disorders in legally operating clinics.
Conversation about ibogaine as an effective addiction treatment is beginning to open up in Central and South America. Next month, the Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance (GITA) will host an international conference on ibogaine in Mexico, which will include a presentation by Bruno Rasmussen Chaves, a Brazilian doctor who has overseen more than 1,200 treatments in São Paulo hospitals under the currently existing guidelines.
While the U.S. has never authorized the use of ibogaine in humans, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world have been treated for misuse of drugs like methamphetamine, alcohol, cocaine, as well as for mental health disorders like PTSD and depression. But just last week, legislators in Vermont filed a bill in the general assembly that would fund a clinical trial with ibogaine in the Green Mountain state. Vermont isn’t alone as many other states throughout the U.S. are struggling for ways to address the increasing public health demand for treating heroin addiction, as overdose rates are rising in cities throughout the northeast.
As empirical evidence continues to strengthen regarding ibogaine’s efficacy for treating opiate dependency, it may only be the beginning of what this remarkable drug could bring if restrictions were lifted on clinical research. The prohibition of drugs like ibogaine unjustly limit opportunities to evaluate a promising treatment, reflecting a criminal justice policy that does far more harm than good when it comes to what ought to be a public health approach to treating complex conditions like addiction.
Kevin Franciotti is a Program Associate at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Photo via Flickr.