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Banishing addiction forever?

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This story is part of an occasional series of articles from the Prague Wanderer, a webzine created by New York University students in Prague. Learn more about the Prague Wanderer here.

At 7 am on 7 November 2005, in the bathroom of a Swedish Airport, Michael Korn took his last hit of heroin.

Twenty-four hours later he was in a rented house 15 minutes outside of Prague, in sheer agony from withdrawal. That afternoon, Korn got into bed, closed his eyes, and embarked on a frightening journey that saved his life.

After five years of trying to get rid of his 25-year-old addiction, Korn, now 49, had discovered the “miracle”. It’s known to some as the drug that cures all drug addictions: Ibogaine.

Korn had tried it all: Narcotics Anonymous, therapy, substitutions, and even went to an energy touch healer, all to no avail. But the healer told him about an Ibogaine treatment provider in Prague—Patrick Venulejo.

Venulejo, who has been working with Ibogaine since the start of the millennium, is “just praying for the day” he can move Ibogaine into clinical trials so it can become a government-licensed medicine, which can be provided by any physician. However, because of the serious psychedelic effects, Ibogaine is not a prescription anywhere in the world, and has been outlawed in several countries including the United States, France, Switzerland, and Belgium.

“It was so scary!” Korn said about the visualizations he saw after he closed his eyes. “They are very strange and not like anything else you’ve ever done. They come and go so super fast it’s like a movie on high-speed; you can’t tell the difference between ten seconds and ten years.”

According to Venulejo, “you still know who you are, where you are, why you’re there, and perhaps how much you paid for it,” during the hallucinations.

In 1967, the drug was banned from prescription because of the upswing in hallucinogenic drug use, along with LSD and ecstasy.

But later in the early nineties, the US National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA)—impressed by research from case reports and animal studies—began examining the safety of Ibogaine and the potential of creating treatment procedures for it.

According to Dr. Frank Vocci, Director of the Division of Treatment Research & Development at NIDA, in 1995 during a review committee meeting on Ibogaine, four committee members voted for continuing human testing and nine voted against. Those against the drug cited the few known human deaths following use of the drug, brain lesions found in rats, and the poisonous effect that developed in monkeys, which occurred during treatments.

But Venulejo says the decision to ban the drug was unjustified.

“This way, indirectly, they’ve killed a lot of people,” Venulejo said in response to NIDA’s withdrawal from further testing. His point is that addicts are dying of overdoses that Venulejo believes Ibogaine could prevent. “Do people have any idea how many people die in hospitals?” he asked, referring to drug addicts who take a lethal dose.

There have been 12 recorded deaths linked to Ibogaine, which may have been caused by underground clinics that did not file reports when treatments began going wrong. The fatality factors range from pre-existing heart conditions, using opiates while on Ibogaine or soon after, and taking Ibogaine outside of a clinical facility where one can be acutely monitored.

Unfortunately, Venulejo does not work in a clinical facility, where costs are much higher (USD 5,000-USD 15,000), but rather from hotel rooms and homes where he charges less than USD 3,000, “enough to cover the cost and have some peanuts on top”.

Discovering the possible cure for all addiction

Venulejo, son of an Italian father and Czech mother, was long interested in the evolution of consciousness.

This led to his research on Shamanic rituals, which involve communication with the spiritual world. Shamanic tribes use Ibogaine in initiations and to get in touch with spirits. “It combines, elegantly, the transpersonal and therapeutic journey,” Venulejo said.

Ibogaine, extracted from the roots of a Central West African shrub, Tabernanthe iboga, is administered in oral capsules. The normal dosage is around 1.2 grams, which doesn’t always cause the visualizations.

In November 1999, Venulejo went to the first conference on Ibogaine at New York University held by Kenneth Alper, a neurologist who is pro-Ibogaine. He returned to Prague and began treating addicts.

“My first intention was to treat people, show [Ibogaine’s] potential and have people acknowledge it,” Venulejo said.

In the Czech Republic, Venulejo appeared on two television news programs, TV Nova’s “Áčko” in 2000, and “Na Vlastni Oci” in 2001, promoting Ibogaine with the hopes of attracting physicians’ attention. But he only got responses from people who wanted treatment, not physicians.

“It drives me mad when something works and it’s not used,” Venulejo said. “They’re professionals and should always be looking for the best solution.”

Venulejo also approached the Czech Health Ministry to try to get Ibogaine approved as a prescription medication. But according to him, the ministry claimed to be cutting down the funds of their existing projects by 10%, and then by 30% on his second visit- therefore they couldn’t investigate Ibogaine.

Now Korn and Venulejo are trying to register a foundation in Sweden that will promote independent medicines such as Ibogaine. The goal is to create funds through the foundation and loosen Ibogaine’s prohibition.

Venulejo is now traveling around Europe, “focusing on spreading the word” and training more physicians to become Ibogaine treatment providers. “I’m waiting for when I get enough funds to get it into clinical trials,” Venulejo said. “Ibogaine can really change people.” He’s treated about 200 different people.

But acquiring funds for the drug’s government evaluation is a problem private clinics are facing around the world, including Canada, Mexico, Panama, and the West Indies, because of the lack of knowledge of the controversial substance.

“Ibogaine wasn’t on the agenda until now,” said Viktor Mravcik, director of the government-run Drug Monitoring Centre. “And we don’t have enough information about it.”

“I would like to know more [about Ibogaine],” said Ivan Douda, co-founder of the Czech Republic’s Drop In foundation, which provides help to drug addicts. “Our position is not on the level to deal with experiments, that’s up to official institutions.”

Substitution treatment, the exchange of illegal drug use for legal drug use, is becoming the “standard treatment in the Czech Republic for hard drug users,” according to Mravcik.

Subutex, Suboxon, and Methadone, all legal drugs, are being prescribed to drug addicts to combat use of methamphetamines, cocaine, and opiates.

Currently an estimated 3,000-4,000 people are receiving Subutex to substitute illegal drugs in the Czech Republic said Mravcik. “Substitution is perfectly fine in a treatment scene,” Venulejo said. “It helps take away the drug lifestyle. It keeps people addicted but gives them a normal life.”

But addiction to Methadone, which Korn referred to as a “legal heroin”, is potentially a bad thing. Clare Wilkins, director of the Ibogaine Association and owner of Ibogaine Treatment House in Tijuana, was addicted to alcohol and Methadone for 15 years. She tried several ways to quit, but like Korn, she failed.

Then her sister introduced her to the “blessing” of Ibogaine. “The change [after her Ibogaine treatment] was dramatic,” Wilkins, 38, said. “I became a whole being that was connected to everything around me, rather than a broken being.”

“Methadone has its own cons instead of pros,” Wilkins said. “It’s a harm reduction tool, you cannot deny it. But it’s a long-lasting substance.”

*The Prague Wanderer does not seek to promote the use of Ibogaine or any other drug.

Related Links:

The Ibogaine Dossier


Carolina Sanchez is a third-year student at New York University studying Journalism and Sociology. She is from The Colony, Texas. A version of this article was originally written for the International Reporting class at New York University in Prague.

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