New York—Some drugs are made in laboratories. Others, like penicillin, are discovered by accident. And then there's ibogaine, a sacramental substance from West Africa that some say interrupts heroin, cocaine, and other addictions. Over the past 40 years, the tale of ibogaine's flirtation with legitimacy boasts more twists than the roots of Tabernanthe iboga, the shrublike source of ibogaine.
After riding the backpacks of Westerners to the radical 1960s New York City underground, ibogaine rose from a counterculture star to a serious project funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1995, after spending several million dollars on laboratory and animal studies, the NIH decided not to pursue ibogaine development. Since then, patent disputes have divided the drug's champions; a growing network of informal clinics has sprung up; and pharmacologists have discovered that ibogaine works on the brain in a manner unlike that of any other known drug (see sidebar 1).