For years, Dimitri Mugianis, a 52-year-old former drug addict from Detroit, has been a renegade healer to those who suffer from opiate dependency. He's probably the only man in New York, and the United States, who risked providing addicts with an illegal hallucinogen called Ibogaine that some believe to be a miracle cure. He was arrested in 2011 (his first and only arrest) for providing it to a woman in Seattle. Since then he's opened a legal Ibogaine clinic in Costa Rica, one of the few locales where the drug is legal, along with Mexico, and The Netherlands. He currently splits his time between the U.S. and Costa Rico. There he does his Ibogaine treatments, and here he does what he can without the use of the drug—a discipline which has opened him up to a new world of healing through art.
To opiate addicts, Dimitri has become a counselor, a Shaman, and a caretaker. He doesn't like figures and statistics, or questions like, "What percentage of addicts get clean after using Ibogaine?” Dimitri takes issue with terms such as "clean” and "addict," but many advocates claim a 40 to 60 percent abstinence rate after using Ibogaine. For comparison, alternative treatments generally claim between a five percent and 25 percent abstinence rate.
Efforts to legalize Ibogaine in the United States have been unsuccessful. There are two major hurtles in the way of legalization, the first being the inherent danger of using the drug. Past articles on Dimtri’s underground treatments in New York City pointed out that he used to warn patients that if they were to die during treatment, he would have to leave their body. To date there have been about 19 deaths associated with Ibogaine use (none in Dimitri’s care.) Generally, the fatalities have been the result of some kind of pre-existing condition (often heart-related) compounded with the effects of treatment. One study with Ibogaine conducted on rats found that high doses could cause damage to the cerebellum. This was one of a few Ibogaine studies conducted in the states during the '90s and then halted due to safety concerns.
Ibogaine advocates, however, are more likely to point to another reason why the drug will never budge from its Schedule 1 status: a lack of profitability. While treatment is one thing, the potential for a drug that causes hallucinations to be approved by the FDA and then synthesized and sold in the United States is simply unlikely. However, Stanley Glick, Ph.D. M.D. at Albany Medical Center, is currently beginning clinical trials with a drug called 18-MC. Glick has long been working on a way to extract the hallucinogenic aspect of Ibogaine from the equation, and 18-MC is the result. However, a debate rages on about whether or not the trip is an integral part of the anti-addictive Ibogaine experience. What makes Ibogaine an effective anti-addictive medicine is still up for debate, but the fact that it continually reduces, if not eliminates, the symptoms of opiate withdrawal is not.
In a few weeks, Dimitri is launching the first Psychedelic Recovery Group in Harlem geared toward helping people deepen their understanding of recovery through the use of psychedelics (psychedelics will only be discussed, not used or prescribed.) Here, he discusses Ibogaine, recovery, and the shifting demographics of drug use in America.
Can you talk about your arrest and why it happened?
What happened was there was somebody who eventually became a paid informant. She had contacted us to do the treatment and we decided not to because she had the money to do the treatment properly in Mexico at a facility. At the time the work I was doing was underground [in the U.S. where Ibogaine is illegal] and it was essentially triage work for people who couldn't afford to do the treatment any place else. More importantly she was starting a new regiment of Subutex and it made sense for her to try that for a while instead. So we said “no” to her. Then she contacted us again a year and a half later and started to be very persistent. Unbeknownst to us, around that time she'd started to work with the DEA as an informant. So this woman called us back and was really insistent, and we said “no” again. We gave her contacts for a clinic in Mexico. She said her father wouldn't pay for it if it were in Mexico because it was unsafe. We said that we'd do it if she went through a battery of tests and if she was going to go to a rehab afterwards. Her husband assured us that she would. We told her to come to New York and she insisted that we come to Seattle.
The day of the ceremony, she showed up in the hotel. We had a medical professional there, we took her vitals, we were on our way to do a ceremony in the forest. We were walking out the door and see a bunch of DEA agent and state sheriffs. A joint task force broke the door down and we were immediately wearing orange jump suits in federal detention. It was strange to be completely sober, turning 50 and locked up. I totally expected that one day this would happen, but this was going to be our last treatment in the states. We were done. But we broke our protocol, which was never to leave the NYC area.
Tell me where you came from and what your family was like and how you got where you are now.
I was born in 1962 in Detroit, raised there. My mother was a painter. My father was a very iconoclastic type of guy, always took the side of the underdog, always a rebel. I come from several generations of leftists. But I grew up as a sensitive kid, dyslexic and I guess I had my share of trauma. I grew up in a neighborhood called Rosedale Park where you could be up in a sort of nice house and have home invasions and people selling dope. Also I grew up in the '70s in Detroit so there was a proximity to African-American culture and music, which I somehow identified with and fell in love with. Back then in Detroit even the squarest kid took mescaline. Most people fuck with drugs for a bit then they move on. For me that wasn't the case. I found a release from pain. I found the beauty of opiates.
It’s absolutely beautiful medicine and I'm very grateful to poppy for taking me through the period of time when I needed it. But eventually I became very dependent and that was a 20-year odyssey. I got involved with activism and the Lower East Side. I was a musician and I got to meet and party with a lot of my heroes. I lived a very interesting life in my 20's but I was high and dependent on dope the whole time. Then I started to shoot coke and dope at the same time. I was speedballing every day for 12-15 years, which produced a psychosis. A lot of people died, a lot people went to prison, HIV/AIDS, overdose, drug wars, I saw all that. I lived in the Hotel Chelsea. Around that time was the first time I saw a needle exchange. A guy named Allan Clear who was the head of the Harm Reduction Coalition opened the first needle exchange in New York on the Lower East Side, and that's the first time I ever heard the idea of drug users having rights.
When did the drug use become unmanageable?
My common-law wife died pregnant, many friends died. I was a protégé of Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke. I can tell you great nights where I sat at the feet of Sun Ra and I can tell you about awful nights where I sat in the fetal position, bleeding profusely unable to stop injecting coke into my arms on New Year’s Eve. After awhile I stopped being a creative person. My world became very small. I moved back to Detroit into my parent’s basement, my wife was dead, friends were dead. I had known about Ibogaine through the work of Dana Beal and the Yippies. I said, "I'm going to die, I'm Greek American, I want to go to Greece." I was on 100 mg of methadone, shooting $150 worth of dope a day, a $100 worth of coke a day, and parking cars to support my habit. I was just ready to die, so I wanted to go Greece before I died. But I couldn't go strung out. So I went to Holland and I did the Ibogaine treatment there with the idea to go immediately to Greece for a month. I stayed for three months and ended up learning about my ancestry and my history and who I was, where I came from. I think that time in Greece is what cemented it.
Ibogaine was very new at the point when you took it. Was there a protocol?
They knew what they were doing. The thing about Ibogaine is it's the only detox modality and perhaps the only medicine where the effected community not only advocated for it, but also discovered it, which is an amazing story with Howard Lotsof. It’s an amazing story of spirit. It's unbelievable that this 19-year-old who happened to be a junkie and also happened to be this brilliant man, discovered it where nobody else had taken it. He became my friend and my teacher. So the Ibogaine subculture has been around for as long as I have, 52 years. At that point they'd developed a protocol with junkies working with other junkies. Now doctors and so forth have made it safer, but I didn't just take it. I went to a house where a woman had done it for a couple years at that point and I was kicking methadone so it was a rough ride.
Why did it work for you but fail for other people?
Well, first of all, I don't think there's a such thing as failure. I think that's a linear way of looking at things. I don't think if someone uses again they failed. I don't think if someone dies they failed. Almost everyone's dependence on the drug is interrupted during treatment—so it works. Nobody fails. Why did I have the result that I had? I think there were a lot of factors. I was done. I was 40. I was almost dead. I stayed in Greece for three months. I got back home and had a supportive environment, no kids, no mortgage. That's why iboga picks people like us. We're the perfect apostles. I was already an artist and a creative person—I had stuff to do. I did therapy. I went to meetings. I also had privilege on many different levels. I had white privilege and I had male privilege. I had access to cultural capital and a family and support structure that allowed me the space to heal.
You studied the Bwiti. Is this accurate? Is there religious aspect to your treatment?
I went to Gabon in Africa to look for a deeper meaning, a deeper piece of this. I had done a peyote ceremony with a medicine man. He gave me a beautiful totem and said, "Here, use this in your ceremony." I wasn't even doing a ceremony at the time and so that struck me. I went to Gabon because I 'd been through a lot, including someone almost dying during treatment. What happened when I got there was I saw there was this culture that had the root of the music I'd always loved: jazz, hip hop, rock and roll, gospel, blues, there it was at the center of it all. There was this sacrament, which is basically a drug. There was community. There was an ancient technology of healing through the use of performing arts as healing arts, and then this pharmacopeia of nature that went along with it. I am an American Bwitist and I'm still defining what that means. Some people don't want to do the treatment with us because of that, and they don't have to.
For what purpose do the Bwiti use Ibogaine?
Primarily it is used as a central sacrament for the spiritual technology known as Bwiti. It's used as an initiation. It's used for healing, for dancing, staying up, and for going hunting. Bwiti is about healing with other medicines as well. We believe that iboga chose the highly politicized body of the addict or the drug user to announce itself to the west. Plants are powerful. They have agendas. So this plant made the migration through the middle passage and landed in the hand of this drug user Howard Lotsof.
You've said you love drug addicts. Is there a common trait you see among junkies?
I love dope fiends and junkies and crackheads and whores. I believe they are the nicest people to hang around with, the spiritual and revolutionary class. Right now, heroin addiction is not happening with the youth of color. If kids of color are doing heroin, they're probably surrounded by white people. It's the same reasons addiction has always taken place in particular areas—there's a spiritual vacuum, it’s a spiritually, emotionally dead place. Capitalism isn't just bad for poor people or working people, it's bad for everybody. The cul-de-sac is a dead place. It's literally a dead end. In the 1970s crack was brought into black communities to destroy them, to crush the rebellion. What also happened was, I believe, is kids saw what their parents had gone through and it created a stigma in the inner city. But I don't think drug abuse has gone down, it’s just shifted. Now there’s a lot of alcohol abuse, molly is on the rise, but there's a huge stigma against crack and heroin amongst youths in the inner city.
What makes you decide to actually treat someone?
I try to talk people out of it when they first contact me about it because of this idea that it's going to cure you. I want them to be totally aware that it's not an easy process, that it's incredibly hard and that statistically the outcome will not be that they won't ever use dope again. When I decide to treat someone it's because they are in a place of desperation, pain, and a place of exploration. They have to come from an informed, educated, and empowered position. There are shamans that will tell you they're going to do something for you. When anyone tells you that: Run.
Do you still tell people, "If you die, we'll have to leave your body here"?
No, we have a facility. Now we'd have to actually do something with the body. [Laughs.] People are obsessed with that line, man. We're obsessed with the fucking corpse. I just said that to people so they understood the seriousness of the situation. But people are so fascinated with the product, with the dead body, not the living person.
What's the difference between withdrawals with or without Ibogaine?
This is the real fucking miracle of iboga, the withdrawals are greatly reduced if not eliminated. I kicked 100 mg of methadone and I was hurting for a good month afterwards, but I didn't go through withdrawal. If an individual came in dope sick and you gave them a small amount of iboga, it goes away, not the tripping dose, but a small amount. If an opiate dependent person came in and you just gave them some acid, it would be horrible; they would want to kill you. That doesn't happen with iboga, but it's a rough two to four weeks after.
Where does the roughness come from?
Your bowels. You'll be shitting like crazy. You won't be able to sleep. If you're a dude, you'll come when the wind blows.
Have you ever lost anybody during treatment?
No. We do a thorough intake, and a lot of divination and prayer. That's the two technologies working together.
Is it true that there's currently a shortage of iboga?
Iboga is endangered. The reasons why are unclear. There seems to be a correlation to the amount of westerners taking it, but there's also 250,000 Bwitist eating iboga on a regular basis, and the forest is shrinking and there seems to be a shortage. So at Iboga Life in Costa Rica we we've started to use iboga HCL, which comes from another plant, called voacanga and we are contributing to efforts to replant iboga.
Some suggest Ibogaine clinics are rip-offs.
What does it take to write one of those reports? Right now there's efforts to regulate Ibogaine clinics. But this is unregulated, uncharted territory. There are abuses but that's true everywhere. At Iboga Life we are dedicated to bringing up the standard of care. If you see the same thing over and over again, maybe it's true and maybe it's not.
Jon Reiss is a Brooklyn-based writer who's written for Interview, Noisey, NY Press, SPIN Magazine, The Source, Tablet, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and many more. He tweets here.