SAN DIEGO — People across the country are crossing the border to Mexico, hoping an alternative form of therapy will cure their addiction to opioids.
One former addict shared his story with Scripps station KGTV in San Diego. He asked that he only be referred to as Bob.
"I had been to traditional rehabs throughout my life, mostly against my will," said Bob.
He said he got hooked on painkillers after multiple injuries due to skateboarding and snowboarding.
His addiction quickly escalated. He started using heroin when he was fourteen.
"One day, I only had $10 or $15, and a friend told me, why you gonna waste your money on half of a pill? It's not going to do anything for you. You're going to be sick. Why don't you just get heroin? Just that "H-word" has a stigma attached to it, and I was like, I shouldn't, but financially, it made sense, cause when I did a $5 bag of heroin, it did the exact same thing as $120 worth of "Oxy's", so it was kind of a no-brainer to make the switch," said Bob.
He bounced in and out of rehabs, but always caved to the withdrawals.
"It's just like the flu times 1,000. It's a really miserable experience, and a lot of times, you feel like you're going to die," said Bob.
He was 23 years old and living out of his car when he agreed to try an alternative treatment.
He heard about a clinic in Rosarito, Mexico that was treating addicts with Ibogaine. Ibogaine is described as a psychoactive alkaloid that comes from the shrub, Iboga, in West Africa.
Ibogaine is illegal in the United States; classified as a Schedule I drug, or a drug with a "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use."
In Mexico, Ibogaine is unregulated. There are a handful of clinics providing the treatment just across the border from San Diego.
"When the medicine kicked in, it was very different than let's say, eating LSD or magical mushrooms," said Bob.
Ibogaine is given in capsule form. Patients can hallucinate for more than 24 hours.
"My experience was tough. It wasn't easy, but it needed to be that way. It wasn't an enjoyable experience," said Bob.
He described seeing a snapshot of his life while under the influence of the drug.
"It pulled me out of my body and brought up these high definition bubbles that would just pop up and disappear, pop up and disappear, with images with motion video inside of them."
He said he was forced to look at his life from a different perspective.
"They were focused on all the negative things I had done in my life. I had really hurt my family, my friends, did awful things to people and myself," said Bob.
During the treatment, he was hooked up to a heart monitor and under the care of a medical staff.
That was eight years ago. Bob says he's been clean ever since. He said the physical cravings for drugs were gone almost immediately, but mentally, he still had work to do.
"You're never going to forget how good a high feels like, you're stuck with that curse for life, but what Ibogaine does, it gives you the option of whether you have to react on that urge or not."
He said Ibogaine is not a cure. Aftercare is critical to long-term recovery.
"It's never going to make you forget your go-to easy coping mechanism of "Oh, I can make this problem temporarily go away by getting high, but it gives you a window of opportunity."
Thomas Kingsley Brown, Ph.D., runs an undergraduate program at the University of California at San Diego. Unrelated to his work at the school, he's been researching Ibogaine for a decade. In 2010, he conducted a study with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) on the outcomes of people who received Ibogaine for the treatment of opioid addiction.
"Ibogaine is really helpful for taking away the withdrawal symptoms that you would ordinarily get when you stop using the opioids," said Kingsley Brown.
According to Kingsley Brown, Ibogaine can reduce drug use after just one treatment, unlike the years it can take to be weaned off of Methadone or another replacement drug.
"It doesn't act in the same way that the standard treatments do; those are replacing the opioid at the receptor site and letting your brain continue trying to receive that type of action. Ibogaine doesn't do that," said Kingsley Brown.
Patients report experiencing a "wake up call" of sorts while undergoing treatment.
"They realize all the harm they've been doing with their addiction. Sometimes they'll have insight into the roots of their addiction, and they come out of that with this sense that they can stop using and they change their lives. I think that makes a really big difference," said Kingsley Brown.
The drug doesn't come without risks. It can be fatal for people with heart problems and other pre-existing conditions. There are also dangerous drug interactions.
According to MAPS, "over 30 fatalities temporally associated with the ingestion of Ibogaine have been reported in the published peer-reviewed scientific literature."
Nancy Knott is a Carlsbad based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in addiction. She does not recommend Ibogaine.
"It creates a psychosis, which can be so absolutely life-threatening and mentally threatening to a developing brain, or any brain, for that matter," said Knott.
She is skeptical about claims that one treatment of Ibogaine will end years of addiction.
"The belief is that the person will have less of a withdrawal and an early start in recovery. None of that is anything I, or most professionals, would subscribe to because treating addiction involves many, many, things on every spectrum," said Knott.
Treatment costs usually start around $5,000. It is only legal in New Zealand, Brazil, and South Africa.
"I think it should be made available as a legal treatment. I don't think it should be widely made available like a dispensary, because people won't really know how to use it safely. It should really be administered by someone who knows what they're doing, but it should be made available," said Kingsley Brown.
According to the County Health and Human Services Agency, one out of every eight San Diegans has a substance use disorder, but about 90 percent of those suffering from addiction do not access treatment.
Bob and other former addicts say any risk associated with Ibogaine is worth it.
"Every time you stick a needle in your arm, it's just as dangerous as traveling to a foreign country or doing a drug that could potentially be dangerous. Heroin is far more dangerous than Ibogaine."