Philip Seymour Hoffman and a Simple Solution for America’s Heroin Addiction

Pacific Standard looks at the overdose-related death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and points to research into the therapeutic use of ibogaine as a possible way to help people suffering from severe drug addiction. The article shares information about MAPS-sponsored ibogaine research taking place in New Zealand and Mexico and interviews MAPS Founder Rick Doblin. “It has unique potential for helping people go through opiate withdrawal,” Doblin says.

Originally appearing here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death this past Sunday, an apparent overdose from heroin, felt singular among celebrity drug casualties. The first response was one of general incredulity: “Really hope this is a hoax,” fans and commentators were tweeting more than an hour after the Wall Street Journal‘s website first broke the news.

Hoffman was 46 but a rather old 46, with a kindly resignation behind his eyes. The actor had discussed his stints in rehab, 14 years ago and again last summer, and one sensed hints of private anguish in the palpable empathy of his performances, a sense of forgiveness toward even his most craven or broken characters that made it seem he had lived their sins. And then there was the art, which has driven lesser talents to the needle’s comforting oblivion. As he told the New York Times Magazine for a 2008 cover profile: “Wanting [greatness] is easy, but trying to be great—well, that’s absolutely torturous.”

Hoffman was found dead in a Greenwich Village apartment he had rented, a needle supposedly still dangling from his arm. The NYPD announced Monday that it would launch a “city-wide” hunt for Hoffman’s drug dealer after finding 70 bags of heroin “littering” the apartment; indeed, to judge by social media responses, the image in most people’s minds was 70 garbage bags full of yellow powder, as opposed to the square-inch translucent envelopes that actually composed the stash—an alarming amount, nonetheless. In the outcry over the supplier, meanwhile, there is very little talk about addiction beyond the membership of SAG, and how a national epidemic is being ignored in favor of a War on Drugs—and by regulations that prevent heroin addicts from getting what very few dispute is the world’s best and most efficient treatment.

There is only one short-term chemical therapy that actually obviates the wrenching withdrawal symptoms of any opiate. This therapy involves the administration of a therapeutic dose of ibogaine, an alkaloid derivative of a family of plants in Central West Africa that Bwiti worshipers have long used as a visionary sacrament. A dissociative and powerful psychedelic compound, ibogaine induces a dream-state described variously as beatific, clarifying, and terrifying; the after-effects, usually a hazy state of dull relaxation, can last a number of days. In the majority of reported cases in Europe and Africa, cravings disappear once the psychoactive iboga wears off. (You can watch a hamhanded Vice video of white guys imitating the Bwiti ritual here, if you really must.)

In the states, there’s a degree of mystery surrounding the process of ibogaine. This state of affairs is hardly an accident. Most scientists at R1 schools (especially those with a research budget to lose) are uncomfortable speaking publicly about the treatment because to do so is to league oneself with the black sheep of the American scientific community—psychedelic researchers, a culture still stained by the legacy of Timothy Leary’s decades-long LSD boosterism. Even tenured researchers express a certain skittishness when the subject arises. Organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) seek to mend this division within the medical community, so far without much luck.

Rick Doblin, who earned a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School and co-founded MAPS, has been a vocal proponent of psychedelic therapy since the mid-1980s and has helped produce recent MAPS studies on ibogaine’s promising curative applications in New Zealand and Mexico. Doblin also self-administered ibogaine in 1985 (video here) and tells me that “[ibogaine] remains one of the most important psychedelic experiences of my life, and one of the most important experiences of any kind. It has unique potential for helping people go through opiate withdrawal.”

When I press Doblin to describe the experience, he responds:

It feels like a major psychedelic except it’s more body-oriented and instinctual. It’s of course difficult to describe. I threw up for a about 10 hours on and off, was exhausted and had to lie down the rest the entire next day and didn’t feel ready to drive until the third day after the experience.

In a reddit AMA two months ago, Doblin responded to dozens of recovering opiate addicts who reported varying degrees of success with (often illegal) ibogaine therapy. One reader asked:

You mentioned Ibogaine in your preface. I used it twice, 1 week apart to help conquer my opiate addiction. It worked like nothing else ever did. It had been a ball and chain for me for 15 years, and I am happy to say that because of Ibogaine, that is all in the past. I don’t understand why something proven so beneficial is still illegal here in the U.S. Are you currently doing any research using Ibogaine?

Doblin responded: “I’m glad to hear ibogaine was helpful for you…. The drug war is irrational, and my hope is that ibogaine will eventually become more widely used to treat addictions around the world.” Equally important: Unlike the more evangelical proponents of ibogaine, Doblin wisely places equal focus on the importance of collaborative rehab and the talking cure:

One key lesson we learned from this study is the importance of after-care. Your story of using it twice and having it be a cure is a minority rather than majority. Most clinics focus on the experience and do not focus on after-care to integrate…. Ibogaine helped me separate my self-criticism and self-hatred, and expanded my access to my self-critical mind in a very positive way.

Greg Miller of Wired reported on last year’s Psychedelic Science meeting, where psychiatrist David Nutt of Imperial College London (whose research includes psilocybin’s therapeutic potential in depressive patients) told him: “The illegality of these [psychedelic] drugs has profoundly distorted research and continues to do so. It’s one of the greatest scandals in modern research.”

The Drug Policy Alliance continues to lobby for sensible loosening of regulations limiting psychedelic research, ibogaine included. Meghan Ralston, the organization’s harm-reduction manager, puts it simply: “Our take on ibogaine is that is shows interesting potential to assist some people in recovering from substance dependence. It should be more widely researched.”

DAVID ROTH, IN AN excellent elegy for Hoffman on The Classical, writes:

It was not easy for him to move so fully into and out of all those different [roles], not merely trying on but inhabiting their problems and then leaving them behind when the workday was done. It was his passion and his job, and he did it relentlessly and brilliantly, but it seems he also did it in part because he was unable to stop…. Hoffman was an addict, and then he was sober for more than 20 years before relapsing — the story of his rehab stint was briefly in the news earlier this year, to general surprise — and then, this quickly, winding up in the place addiction tends to lead people.

Mystery will always muddy the wake of self-destruction. Even when we defer shopworn notions about madness-as-prerequisite-for-art, it remains painful to recognize that addiction was in part a reflexive response to the self-lacerating discipline behind Hoffman’s excellence. Still, there is one certainty we can dr
aw from a Hollywood OD: Money cannot beat drugs.

Nicholas Jackson, arguing for legalization yesterday in these pages, noted that the War on Drugs costs taxpayers $51 billion annually—a number that does not include the far greater cost of incarcerating drug offenders. We can treble the border patrol and start funneling an extra $50 billion per annum into the Drug War and guess what? We’ll still be helpless on the bathroom floor.

By all means, repeal mandatory minimums, do away with warped drug laws that incarcerate black users at rates astronomically higher than white users, start looking at clean needle centers, and all the rest—but let doctors start administering ibogaine and educating addicts on all their options. A shorter, less painful withdrawal period, and a solution that doesn’t require Beverly Hills-level cash, would create a new culture of curing, one that subordinates moral judgment and anti-drug orthodoxy to more practical concerns of suffering, caring, healing.