Health officials support Kentucky spending millions on possible psychedelic treatment for addiction

Published 11:44 am Thursday, September 21, 2023

By Melissa Patrick

Kentucky Health News

Twenty-three people spoke in favor of funding the development of an opioid-use disorder treatment using the psychedelic drug ibogaine with some of the state’s opoid-settlement money at the Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission‘s second and final public hearing on Friday, Sept. 15.

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Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky President and CEO Ben Chandler, a former Kentucky attorney general and five-term congressman, opened the meeting by saying that he had seen this problem from almost every angle

Ben Chandler, the president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Chandler spoke of a first cousin’s addiction to opioids and other drugs and at least 15 failed attempts at recovery, having gone to “about every rehab center that you could go into of any note in this country.” At age 30, the cousin “put a bullet to his head” and died. “He was like a brother to me.”

Then his real remaining brother, Matthew Chandler, died of a fentanyl overdose in January. Ben Chandler said his brother sought illegal opioids to manage his pain because he wasn’t able to legally obtain the pain medications he thought he needed, and he had been addicted to opioids for “probably 15 years.”

Chandler also talked about the surge of Oxycontin in Eastern Kentucky in the late 1990s, when he was attorney general, and his efforts to combat it, then about his time in Congress and the “enormous sums of money” spent to address this problem.

“The bottom line to me is, despite the best efforts of so many people working on this problem for so many years — and I mean that, they work their tails off, and they care deeply — we have been unable, in my judgment, to solve this problem,” he said. “It continues to be intractable, and we need as many tools as we can get.

“And I believe that a drug like ibogaine, from what I have read, it has the potential to make the difference that we need to have made, or at least a big difference. It’s a tool that we can give the people who are working in the trenches, which will give them the opportunity, maybe, to break this cycle of addiction and actually save quite a number of lives. And I endorse anything that we can do to get that done.”

Chandler said the proposed $42 million to fund this proposal, about 5 percent of the settlements with opioid makers and distributors, “is a drop in the bucket, compared to what has been spent over the years to try to deal with this problem. And spent quite frankly, to a large extent, unsuccessfully. We have successes, but we have a whole lot of failures. And I’ve seen those failures in my family, both my cousin and my brother, in and out of facilities, strong efforts to try to break the chain of addiction, both of them no longer with us.”

Illegal, supported by anecdotal evidence

Ibogaine is illegal in the U.S. but has been anecdotally reported to stop the withdrawal symptoms of opioid dependence. The $42 million expenditure, to help get ibogaine federal approval in the next six years, was proposed by Bryan Hubbard, chair and executive director of the commission, which operates in the office of Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the Republican nominee for governor.

Bryan Hubbard announces plans to explore ibogaine as a treatment for opioid-use disorder during a May 31 event hosted by his boss, Attorney General Daniel Cameron. (Photo by Melissa Patrick for Kentucky Health News)

Joseph Barsuglia, a clinical psychologist and ibogaine researcher who also provided a long list of professional connections to ibogaine, talked about the first time he witnessed an opioid detoxification with ibogaine in 2015.

“I could not believe my eyes,” he said. “To witness a patient with the most severe and chronic addiction you can imagine on death’s doorstep undergo a 48-hour process and come out calm, connected, with a new radiance in their eyes and really wanting to live — this is a miracle in the truest sense. With ibogaine, this is not a rare occurrence, this is the norm.”

Barsuglia said ibogaine works for opioid-use disorder because it “rapidly alleviates opioid withdrawal and cravings and promotes lasting sobriety in a manner that is superior to opioid-maintenance therapies,” and because “It induces dreamlike visions that increase insight into the causes of one’s addiction, which can lead to durable psychological change.”

He said studies show that “ibogaine simultaneously targets addiction and craving to multiple substances, including alcohol, methamphetamines, cocaine and nicotine — not just opioid use disorder,” which is important because over half of opioid-use disorder patients are addicted to multiple substances.

Also, he said ibogaine is “fast acting and has durable outcomes.” He said it takes 12 months to break opioid dependence with methadone and 12 hours with ibogaine. He added, “It reduces anxiety, improves mood, does not require ongoing burden on the medical system and has little potential for abuse.”

The major objection to legalizing ibogaine are its risks to the heart. Barsuglia said that can be mitigated under a carefully controlled environment.

“I believe funding ibogaine research for opioid use disorder is perhaps one of the most obvious and necessary decisions that can be made in the history of addiction medicine,” he said.

Personal testimonies

Several speakers gave personal testimonies about their experience with ibogaine, with a recurring message that it not only healed them physically, but also spiritually.

Paria Zandi, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, said she describes her life as two distinct chapters, “pre-ibogaine and post-ibogaine,” and has been free of her opioid addiction for 10 years.

“Through an intense 24-hour treatment, I emerged feeling reborn,” she said. “Not only did I escape the clutches of the physical withdrawal symptoms and cravings, but I also began to relive some of the traumas in my life and gained a newfound perspective. I saw myself as someone of immeasurable worth, and a child of God. I experienced a profound sense of aliveness and connectedness that had eluded me until that moment.”

Zandi added that ibogaine is not a “cure-all” and if it is ever approved will need to be combined with social services, support systems and education. “We urgently need innovative approaches to addiction treatment, such as ibogaine,” she said.

Navy SEAL veteran and ibogaine patient Tommy Aceto told the commission, “It wasn’t just a medicinal treatment. It was a deep dive into my subconscious, self-forgiveness and most importantly, self-love.”

Reed Madison, a parent of an ibogaine patient, said of his son, “The reason he went to an ibogaine clinic is because ibogaine offered him a solution for addiction interruption without withdrawals. . . . So I feel incredibly lucky that I learned about ibogaine at the time to help give my son a way out of his addiction problem before it was too late. I think there’s a pretty good chance he may not be alive today had ibogaine not been available to him.”

In closing, retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Martin Steele, CEO of Reason for Hope and the president of the Veterans Mental Health Leadership Coalition, called on the commission to vote unanimously to fund the ibogaine initiative.

“Our nation owes its citizens a viable alternative to something that’s not working. You have it here in Kentucky, you have this moment in history, this moment in time,” he said. “To conclude, I implore each and every member of the commission to support this initiative. A unanimous vote will send a message that will resonate loudly, nationwide.”

Asked what was next, Hubbard told Kentucky Health News, “I think every commission member needs to take a little while to think over everything that they have heard. It’s a tremendous amount of information to absorb that’s been presented between May 31 and now we sit here on Sept. 15. And I think after some due diligence individually and collectively at some point, within some months, we’ll be ready to put a vote on the agenda.”