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Iboga Nights: the last chance saloon

Only one conclusion from this film: iboga should obviously be made safe and available to those who are undergoing treatment for the terrible disease that is drug addiction.

Iboga Nights is a difficult documentary to watch. It captures addicts on film as they inject opioids into ragged veins and bruised groins. It documents how those prescribed slow-release methadone break it down and introduce it directly into their bloodstream with the full knowledge that the wax which remains will clog their arteries and kill them and we listen as a junkie describes his descent into depression and addiction after the rapist who abused him as a child was acquitted. Yet, the film is a brave one and is ultimately about the attempts of these desperate people to get clean.

The filmmaker, David Graham Scott, is an ex-addict himself. The film begins with his own attempts to overcome his addiction by taking the psychedelic plant root, iboga. The substance has been used as a psychotropic stimulant in religious and tribal ceremonies for generations but has recently been discovered to help people overcome addiction. Having heard about its apparently supernatural properties, Graham Scott decided to use the iboga in an attempt to end his heroin addiction. At the time experimenting with film techniques he decided to capture the process on film. The press were unsympathetic to the idea and covered it under the headline, “Artist may Film his own Death”. Nonetheless, he persevered and after a couple of desperate days of slipping in and out of consciousness he emerged seemingly no longer addicted to dangerous substances and has remained clean ever since.

The film follows a number of individuals who have run out of options in their attempts to control their substance abuse and see iboga as, in the words of one addict, the “last chance saloon”. Graham Scott travels to Holland where there is a woman who carries out iboga treatments in her house. She has carried out hundreds of such treatments successfully and has endearingly become known as the “Iboga Mama” in a junkie subculture. Graham Scott interviews a number of the people who have bravely arrived at the house in order to rid themselves of their demons. Each has a different story about how drugs have wreaked havoc upon their lives: but what they have in common is that they are all desperate. They cannot continue with their lives in its current state or in all likelihood they will die - it is iboga or bust.

Seemingly a wonder cure, the film raises the question of why Iboga is not more widely used and why drug companies, usually so quick to exploit profitable opportunities, have not yet put the substance on the market. One reason is that it remains illegal in a fair number of countries including France, Switzerland and Sweden and in the US is classified as a schedule 1 narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act. Yet a doctor in the USA with whom Graham Scott is corresponding, and who regularly prescribes iboga to his patients, is more cynical. He claims that the pharmaceutical companies have not yet worked out how to make a profit from the substance. Furthermore he claims, they rely on the widespread use of opiates by addicts in order to make a profit from other substances which they produce and market. So bringing them off these chemicals will not do their profit margins any good.

However another reason for its use not being more widespread is the fact that for some it can be the cause of some serious health issues. This seems to be the case when the user has an unknown underlying condition as was the case with Iain. Iain came to the “Iboga Mama” from Scotland where heroin and methamphetamines had nearly destroyed him. However soon after commencing the treatment, he had a seizure and had to be rushed to hospital. The doctors thought he was not going to make it, and when he did inexplicably pull through he returned to Scotland, still an addict.

The film culminates in the flat of a man in his early 30s with a serious heroin addiction, Sid. Desperate to lead a normal life he has got hold of some iboga and has spent weeks carefully calculating the doses that he must take in order to self-treat. However, the treatment will leave him in a weakened and deluded state and as he is unable to do this alone, he requests the help of Graham Scott. The filmmaker agrees and keeps the camera rolling as Sid’s heart rate drops to dangerously low levels.

Graham Scott questions whether both enabling and risking the health of a junkie in this way is the right thing to do and furthermore whether it is right for him to exploit this situation for his film. However, after a couple of days Sid emerges from the delirium and appears to be fine. The desire for heroin does not set in as it normally would and for the first time, withdrawal does not seem so bad. Sid returns to his parents and his love of music, and sets himself up as a music therapist. An untested, dangerous plant root has allowed him to transform himself from being a self-harming junkie to leading a life as close to normality as possible.

The only conclusion one can draw from this film is that iboga is a good thing. Of course, not yet having undergone rigorous scientific tests it is dangerous, possibly fatal; yet what choice do those in the ‘last chance saloon’ have? It should obviously be made safe and available to those who are undergoing treatment for the terrible disease that is drug addiction.

Graham Scott has created something that is difficult and at times ugly, but it is ultimately hopeful; there are people who want to lift themselves out of the depths, and iboga may offer them a means of doing so.

Afterword

The winner of the Best UK Film Award category in the OPEN CITY DOCS FEST was Iboga Nights, directed by David Graham Scott. Giving the award, the jury said,

“With its spare yet telling portraits of people with desperate addictions, this compelling film brings the audience close to a very important issue.”

The jury was also impressed by the strong personal mission of this fearlessly honest filmmaker. 

About the author

Michael Goldin has recently completed a law degree and is soon to commence a masters in legal and political theory at University College London. He is particularly interested in European human rights, the philosophy of human rights and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

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