Hallucinogens in Addiction Treatment
Treating Drug Abuse with…Drugs?
An up-and-coming approach to treating drug abuse is the use of hallucinogens in addiction treatment. Specifically, researchers are looking to Ibogaine, a natural hallucinogen that has been used for centuries in other parts of the world for ritual ceremonies. Currently, Ibogaine is being used in some European countries and Mexico for the treatment of drug addiction.
What are Hallucinogens?
Hallucinogenic compounds found in some plants and mushrooms (or their extracts) have been used—mostly during religious rituals—for centuries. Almost all hallucinogens contain nitrogen and are classified as alkaloids. Many hallucinogens have chemical structures similar to those of natural neurotransmitters. While the exact mechanisms by which hallucinogens exert their effects remain unclear, research suggests that these drugs work, at least partially, by temporarily interfering with neurotransmitter action or by binding to their receptor sites.
Using Hallucinogens in Addiction Treatment
Ibogaine, is a naturally occurring psychoactive substance found in plants. A hallucinogen with both psychedelic and dissociative properties, the substance is banned in some countries; in other countries it is being used to treat addiction to methadone, heroin, alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other drugs. Derivatives of ibogaine that lack the substance’s hallucinogenic properties are under development.
And scientists say Ibogaine might be the best way to break drug addicts of their habit.
Ibogaine has intrigued researchers since 1962, when Howard Lotsof, a student at New York University and an opiate addict, found that a single dose erased his drug cravings without causing any withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, the hallucinogen can increase the risk of cardiac arrest, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency lists it as a Schedule I substance, a classification for drugs like ecstasy and LSD with “no known medical value” and “high potential for abuse,” making it difficult to get federal funding to run clinical trials. That is, currently it is not legal to use hallucinogens in addiction treatment.
Animal tests have shown the drug’s medicinal promise. “Rats addicted to morphine will quit for weeks after receiving ibogaine,” says Stanley Glick, the director of the Center for Neuropharmacology and Neuroscience at Albany Medical College. And addicts have reported positive effects in Mexico and Europe, where ibogaine therapy is legal.
From the limited research, though, scientists have two theories about how the use of hallucinogens in addiction treatment works. Some say it’s purely biological—that ibogaine degrades into a compound that binds with opiate receptors in the brain to quiet cravings. Others believe that it is also psychological. Those who use hallucinogens report a change in perspective and outlook on life. Researchers believe that this aspect of the hallucination provides perspective on the negative aspects of drug use, and so the drug addict will strive to quit.
The Argument for the use of Hallucinogens in Addiction Treatment
Regardless of the mechanism, proving ibogaine works is essential to winning approval and funding for clinical trials of using hallucinogens in addiction treatment. And, in the U.S., the sooner the better: Nearly seven million Americans abuse illicit drugs, costing the nation an estimated $181 billion a year in health care, crime and lost productivity.