At first, Lotsof had no desire to spend a day and a half hallucinating, so he gave the dose to a friend. A month later, his friend called in the middle of the night and told him the drug was so revolutionary that they had to “tell Congress.” Lotsof decided he had to try it himself. His first experience with the drug was unlike anything else. There were endless hours of weird visions—a pulsating yellow screwdriver, dancing Neanderthals rolling a giant stone heart. He witnessed his own birth in reverse, plunging back into his mother’s womb from a diving board.
When it was over, he stepped out into the sunlight and noticed something odd. Lotsof was addicted to heroin, but after tripping on ibogaine he felt no withdrawal, and no craving. As he later told a friend who published Lotsof’s story as a book: “For the first time in months, I did not want or need to go cop heroin.” He was stunned. “I looked down the street, at the trees, the sky, my house, and realized that for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel afraid.”
He distributed the drug to 19 friends, seven of whom were also addicted to heroin. Five of the seven reported that their symptoms of dependence evaporated for up to six months after a single dose of ibogaine.
Lotsof continued on with his life. He studied film at New York University. Ibogaine was outlawed as a Schedule I substance, alongside heroin and LSD, in 1970. But he couldn’t forget the words a booming voice had spoken to him in a dark room during that first trip.
“You will bring ibogaine to the world, and set it free.”
Last October, I flew to San Diego and drove south across the border into Baja California. I was headed for Rosarito, a small town on the Pacific with glittering surf that has drawn an American crowd to its beaches and clubs since Prohibition. Orson Welles and Katherine Hepburn were regulars. In 1996, James Cameron built a replica of the Titanic there to film Titanic. Several ibogaine clinics are also located there. Aeden Smith-Ahearn, a Massachusetts native who grew up not far from the hospital where I work in Boston, had invited me to visit his.
As soon as I stepped out of the car at Experience Ibogaine, Smith-Ahearn’s clinic in the hills above Rosarito, the first thing he asked was whether I had seen the islands.
The Coronado Islands looming out of the Pacific, off the coast of Tijuana, had been stunning in the matte light of evening as I hummed south along the Tijuana-Ensenada highway. Smith-Ahearn lit a cigarette, took a drag, and launched into an incredible soliloquy about being held at gunpoint by Mexican marines on one of the islands while trying to snorkel with a dope-sick patient.
“Eventually they let us go,” he said, blowing smoke down through his nose. “Jesus, that was crazy.”
Between drags, he continued talking about everything from American drug policy to Portugal’s experiment with radical drug legalization to the mechanics of the Santa Ana wind that was now kicking up dust all around us.
I had barely said a word.
Smith-Ahearn lit a second cigarette and gestured toward a broad expanse of empty land behind him, cluttered with construction material, trash, and general debris.
“Welcome to our wasteland—we do the treatments just behind that pile of sticks out there.”
He gave me a mischievous look.
“C’mon, Doc,” flipping his fresh cigarette into the wasteland, “lemme show you the clinic.”
Smith-Ahearn told me his story as we walked. He was wearing a New England Patriots cap, a Mexican-style shirt buttoned all the way up, pleated windowpane trousers, and a dusty pair of chukkas. He pointed out several different plants that he was cultivating—peppers, hibiscus, blue agave, and a San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline. I asked if he was going to harvest it.