Fear and loathing in the five-star rehab: Inside the controversy around ibogaine, the psychedelic drug that just may cure addiction

The hottest high-end addiction treatment is a real trip — ibogaine, the powerful ancient African hallucinogen.

Published September 9, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)


Perched on a rocky cliff above the azure Pacific, in Rosarito, on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, sits the Holistic Sanctuary, a super luxe resort-clinic where the rich and tormented retreat to make all of their problems go away. A round white concrete disk with sweeping windows and a perimeter of stout palms, the Holistic Sanctuary looks like a UFO at rest. It is a bit alien, the facility, which describes itself as a “five star luxury drug rehab,” arrived here in 2009 (it had first opened in Los Angeles) to offer its patients plant-based detox treatments along with frond-roofed cottages, a tennis court, swimming pools and a state-of-the-art gym that overlooks the ocean. Johnny the Healer, the 40-something proprietor of the Sanctuary claims he can cure almost any ailment — PTSD, infections, eating disorders, sex addiction, boredom — but his specialty is addiction.


Johnny, who looks David Copperfield’s Persian cousin, is no 12-stepper. He’s not that pious. Instead he repairs his patients using what he calls the Pouyan Method, a way, way out-of-the-box mélange of treatments that includes but isn’t limited to organic green coffee enemas; juice cleanses; wheatgrass shots; sleep sessions in a hyperbaric chamber; a vegan, GMO-free diet rich in organic fruits, vegetables and superfoods; stem cell therapy; oxygen therapy; massages; Reiki healing; yoga; session in the carbon sauna; ionic Dead Sea-salt baths; powerful IV vitamin drips; and the removal of tooth fillings. “The Pouyan Method is perfect,” Johnny told Salon. “It gets the brain to pre-addiction state, activates stem cells, cleans out the GI tract, gets rid of parasites, fungi, mold, pathogens in the body that are just sitting there.”


A course of treatment at the Holistic Sanctuary, which ranges in cost from $20,000 to $50,000, combines the Pouyan Method with plant-based medicines, like ayahuasca and ibogaine, the naturally occurring drug derived from the root of a West African rain forest bush called iboga. In addition to being the most potent treatment in Johnny’s medicine chest, ibogaine is an increasingly popular, but long-misunderstood medicine with thousands of years of history. Classified as an “entheogen,” a sacred earth medicine that “generates the God within,” it is possibly the most powerful psychedelic known to mankind. It may also be the most humane and effective addiction treatment out there.  


Many people first heard about ibogaine treatment in the spring of 2015 when Veuve-drenched celebutard Scott Disick, father of Kourtney Kardashian’s children and infamous presence on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” announced that he was jetting to Costa Rica to loosen addiction’s grip with a series of “shaman guided Iboga flights” at the Rythmia Life Advancement Center, another five-star oceanfront rehab with a mud-bath spa and gourmet restaurant. Disick said, via a press release, “Rythmia's rehab approach puts my worries at ease. The fact that there is a money back guarantee that has never been called upon gives me even more confidence.”


The tabloid press devoured the news, dispatching paparazzi and daring to ask, “What’s ibogaine?” Disick was roundly criticized for leaving Rythmia’s treatment center after only one week rather than the recommended four. Disick, however, claimed that the ibogaine treatment worked. "It kind of resets the receptors in your brain and kind of helps you kind of remember and look at your childhood and gain knowledge on what's gone wrong that makes you want to either drink or do drugs or whatever it may be that compensates for what you're not getting," he told People. "It helped me dramatically to see some of the things that have troubled me in the past, but I'm not done,” he said. “I plan to go back and I hope it helps me even more to get to a point where I'm fully cured of some of things that I struggle with." After leaving the Costa Rica clinic, Disick flew directly to Las Vegas to host a party at the nightclub 1 OAK.


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For hundreds of years the Bwiti people of Gabon have consumed the root bark of the iboga plant in religious ceremonies as a rite of passage. Western doctors learned of ibogaine’s therapeutic applications in 1962 after a 19-year-old heroin addict from New York City named Howard Lotsoff ingested ibogaine for a psychedelic trip. He later reported that when he emerged from the influence of the drug 48 hours later, he had no heroin cravings or withdrawal symptoms. In the late-1960s and early ’70s, amid worries over the rising popularity of LSD, ibogaine was classified as a Schedule I substance with potential for abuse and without therapeutic value. It briefly entered the popular consciousness during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Hunter S. Thompson speculated in a chapter of “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail” that ran serialized in Rolling Stone with the headline "Big Ed Exposed as Ibogaine Addict" that candidate Edmund Muskie, who’d been acting strange, was dabbling in the “Holy Wood.” “Muskie looked out at the crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people,” Thompson wrote. “His mind snapped completely as he he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs.”


More than four decades later, ibogaine is having a moment . After years of being administered in Alphabet City basements and jungle huts by former junkies reborn as self-styled shamans, ibogaine is being embraced by people open to the possibilities of alternative medicines that once would have landed you in the clink. The World Health Organization now lists ketamine — the psychedelic rave staple Special K — on its list of essential medicines. Ketamine clinics, where those who are severely depressed can go for an therapeutic intravenous drip, have recently opened. And a studies published in medical journals like Progress in Nero-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry suggest that methylenedioxy-methamphetamine or MDMA (aka ecstasy or Molly) can be useful for treating PTSD, depression and the symptoms of social anxiety, particularly in autistic adults.


Most ibogaine treatment centers utilize the “Malibu model” of drug treatment — palm trees, turquoise waters, radiant orange sunsets — but otherwise ibogaine represents a drastic departure from the now dominant 12-step model of addiction treatment. “Ibogaine therapy isn’t punitive," Peter Kroupa, a former smack addict and tech entrepreneur turned full-time ibogaine advocate, told Salon. “It’s not the classic 12-step stuff where you show up and and they tell you you’re all  terrible people who have a perpetual and incurable disease.”


Ibogaine alleviates opiate-withdrawal symptoms by resetting and refreshing opiate receptor sites in the brain. In the early-’90s, a young physician from the University of Miami named Dr. Debra Mash took an interest in ibogaine. Her city was in crisis. “Cocaine was everywhere,” Mash told Salon. “We were seeing crack babies, overdoses, dead bodies.” Legal research of ibogaine had been suspended in the U.S. so Mash went to Amsterdam where Howard Lotsoff — the former junkie who stumbled upon ibogaine’s therapeutic potential — was operating his own clinic. “I saw stunning efficacy of taking an intractable addict and breaking the cycle of addiction though the treatment of opiate withdrawal,” said Mash, who has gone on to become the world's foremost expert on ibogaine and opened a research facility on St. Kitts.


Patients offer similar but more personal testimonials. Patrick Kroupa was a wealthy  tech entrepreneur with a 2 grams-a-day heroin habit in 2000. “I ran companies, dealt with reality, and I was strung out all at once,” Kroupa, now 47, told Salon. “I celebrated my 30th birthday in jail, detoxing in the Tombs,” he said referring to Manhattan’s infamous house of detention. He had been to rehabs, seen addiction specialists, taken every medicine available. Nothing worked.


However, Kroupa hasn’t used drugs Since being treated with ibogaine in 2000. He describes his first experience with it this way: “Forty-five minutes after taking the pill it felt like my entire  body was suspended in a warm ocean of energy.” But then his back began to hurt. It felt to him like the sickness was being wrung out of his body. And just then the hallucinations started, he said, “And I was really busy for the next few hours.”


A writer for the addiction website The Fix has described the trip as “aversive, confrontational, frightening,” noting that it can “give [the traveler] a squirming look under the rock of [his life], compel [him] to unearth and examine what’s buried in the black muck of [his] unconscious.” According to Dr. Mash, this powerful experience can be used, along with therapy, to prompt people to formulate a plan to change their lives in a way that will support long-term recovery.


And yet ibogaine is no miracle cure. After a time, some cravings return. One study by Lotsoff observed that after an initial treatment, patients experienced a three- to six-month craving-free window and their success rates rose with more treatments. Lotsoff noted in his study that “29 of the 35 patients successfully treated with ibogaine had numerous unsuccessful experiences with other treatment modalities.”


Treatment experts have estimated the percentage of opiate addicts who go to rehab to get clean and then stay clean for more than a year at about 25 percent 30 percent. The percentage drops to around 20 percent for those recovering from addiction to alcohol and other drugs. In “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry,” Lance Dodes, a retired Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor, examined Alcoholics Anonymous’ retention rates along with studies on sobriety and rates of active involvement and put the success rate for “The Program” (AA) at from 5 percent to 8 percent. Meanwhile, Johnny the Healer claims that the Pouyan Method and ibograine treatment has a success rate of 60 percent to 70 percent. Is ibogaine too good to be true?


As is the case with any powerful medicine, ibogaine is associated with serious risks. If not dosed or administered correctly, it can cause cardiac arrest. Ibogaine’s presence on the Food and Drug Administration’s Schedule I list has fostered the development of a black market and an underground where addicts desperate to get clean submit themselves to treatments found via websites. The Schedule I ruling has also pushed clinic operators to move their facilities outside U.S. borders and into some of the less scrupulous (if idyllic) corners of the world where treatment centers go unregulated. Kroupa has observed a rapid proliferation of “used car salesman” types who have opened ibogaine clinics. Similarly, Mash has real concerns: “When you get these people performing ibogaine treatments in unsafe settings, without medical staff, invariably you get dead bodies,” she told Salon. “It reminds me of the days before abortion was legal.”


Currently, there is no formal reporting or centralized, up-to-date tracking of ibogaine-related fatalities. The numbers we do have, however, are worrisome: Between 1990 and 2008, according to both iboga sites and news organizations like the BBC, there were 19 reported ibogaine-related deaths.


The lack of regulation has forced people seeking treatment to make decisions based on word-of-mouth, Yelp! reviews or ibogaine message boards or even the promises made by offshore practitioners who maintain slick and professional websites. The Holistic Sanctuary’s marketing could clearly be considered as such, and one of its most astonishing testimonials comes from its owner.   


Johnny the Healer says his family emigrated to the United States from Iran in 1979. As a teen, he started taking Adderall and stealing bikes, then graduated to crystal meth and cars. After he spent some time behind bars, Johnny was broke and living on his cousin’s couch. “I’d done 20 years of outdated Western therapy,” Johnny told Salon. “I decided it was time to take action. I learned a lot about different therapies.”


He “traveled the world on Google,” he added, and learned about a lot of different therapies. “I meditated for three to six hours a day. I had visions of this [treatment] center on the ocean. It looked like Atlantis. I didn’t have any coach and mentor. I meditated and transcended to a higher frequency.”


Johnny has taken ibogaine four times and ayahuasca roughly 20 times and been an energy healer for seven years, he said, adding that he built his treatment center without investors or any sort of loans. But he won’t talk about how he earned the money to open the Sanctuary. And he refused to discuss the entire year of 2012 for fear of “incriminating himself.”When asked about his education and training, he said, “I went through hell. I learned from all of it — from going to jail, being homeless, living in group homes and shelters, going to prison, being on drugs. I use all those as tools for working with other people.”  


The Sanctuary has a slew of five-star Yelp! ratings but all of them are written in a suspiciously similar voice, utilizing the same key phrases. “Johnny is the real deal” appears repeatedly. Reviewers who write anything negative are attacked and dismissed by Johnny as frauds. One skeptic urged me to look up the definition of “Pouyan” in the Urban Dictionary. It reads: “A man all women want and all men want to be. A truly great figure who is usually double fisting beer or pussy. Legend has it that his sweat cures cancer and his cock cures loneliness.”


It is, of course, entirely possible that ibogaine is the real deal, but those who promote it are not. When pressed, Johnny the Healer said his legal name is Johnny Tabaie. A Google search turns up a number of links, most references to his work with the Sanctuary, however a thorough personal-records search — which scours county, state and federal files and data sources — turned up no one by that name.


And so here again we see peril and promise of ibogaine: Even if it is an effective or possibly even a miracle treatment, getting clean means putting your life in someone like Johnny the Healer’s hands.


By Alex French

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Ayahuasca Drug Addiction Drug Treatment Ibogaine Psychedelic Drugs Rehab