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The shaman made his warning blunt so there would be no misunderstanding. What they were about to do was illegal. It was also dangerous. The medicine he was prepared to administer did not come from a doctor or pharmacist. It was grown in an African jungle, shipped across the ocean, and smuggled into the United States. The drug had the power to save lives, he told the woman, but it also had the power to claim them. There was no point tiptoeing around the matter: If she died in his care, he had no choice but to leave her body behind in their hotel room.
It was around 2 p.m. on Monday, March 8, 2011. The sun peeked out from behind the blanket of gray clouds that shroud Seattle in the wintertime. Dimitri "Mobengo" Mugianis and his partner, Robert "Bovenga" Payne, had arrived the evening prior on a flight from New York, checking into room 803 of the Homewood Suites in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood. They packed animal hides, woven mats, grass brushes, candles, and feathers to redecorate. The aroma of incense and smudge sticks lingered. They were ready for an intense three-day spiritual journey involving one of the world's most potent hallucinogenic drugs.
The 51-year-old Mugianis (pronounced mew-gain-is) is one of the few people outside of the tiny African nation of Gabon to practice Bwiti, a religion that involves elaborate rituals and ingestion of a vision-inducing sacrament called iboga. Derived from the root bark of a rainforest shrub, iboga can be extracted into a powder called ibogaine, a drug that packs a serious psychedelic wallop. It hits the brain chemically like a hybrid of PCP and LSD, causing an experience that lasts for days and is frequently accompanied by severe nausea. Bwiti practitioners in Gabon have a genteelism for taking iboga. They call it "breaking open the head."
There's a side effect, though. Beyond fueling an intense trip, lab studies have shown that ibogaine temporarily interrupts cravings and withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to heroin and other opiates. Despite that medicinal benefit, it has been banned in the United States since the 1960s. Scientists are working to isolate the active compounds in ibogaine to maximize the anti-addiction properties while eliminating the hallucinations and other unpleasant side effects. In the meantime, a handful of posh rehab resorts in Mexico, Costa Rica, and elsewhere meet the demand for ibogaine treatment by offering weeklong therapy sessions that can cost thousands.
Stocky, with his head shaved bald and a countenance dominated by a pair of thick, expressive eyebrows, Mugianis is a loquacious and commanding presence. He evangelizes for ibogaine with the zeal of a convert. A former heroin addict, he kicked his habit in 2002 after visiting an ibogaine clinic in Amsterdam. He says a vision that came to him during the experience compelled him to visit Gabon and learn about the traditional spiritual uses of the drug. He underwent a tribal initiation, adopted the name Mobengo (meaning "Spirit of the Forest"), and embarked on a career as an underground ibogaine healer in New York, performing more than 500 ceremonies with recovering addicts, often in hotels around the city.
"Junkies understand ritual," Mugianis says. "People who use drugs are constantly conducting rituals. They get it, even if they don't understand this specific ritual. As Bwitis, we do a lot of spiritual work. It's not just about the ingestion of iboga."
The client meeting Mugianis at the Homewood Suites was a middle-aged, brown-haired woman from Bellingham, a college town 90 miles north of Seattle. Ibogaine was supposed to be a last resort in her struggle with opiate addiction. Spooked by Mugianis's explicit warning about the potential fatal consequences, she canceled a previously scheduled trip to New York. She approached him again seven months later and said she was willing to go through with it, but only if he'd come to Seattle.
Now, at the moment of truth in the hotel room, she was visibly nervous, clutching her car keys tightly in her fist even while she was having her blood pressure checked. Mugianis suspected she was starting to show withdrawal symptoms, which would subside after she took her first dose of the hallucinogen. They prepared to leave the hotel and begin the ceremony with a prayer at a nearby grove of trees.
The team of agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration waiting patiently in the eighth-floor hallway of the Homewood Suites had other plans.
Mugianis was arrested as soon as he opened the hotel room's door. Payne was also taken into custody. DEA agents seized all of their ceremonial objects, along with several doses' worth of ibogaine, some anti-nausea medication, 51 grams of marijuana, and a few personal items. The men were transported to a federal detention center south of Seattle. The client walked free.
Although she was indeed a recovering addict, the woman had been working for months as a DEA informant. In Bellingham, federal agents raided the offices of an osteopath and addiction counselor responsible for connecting her with Mugianis. In New York, Michael "Kombi" McKenna, was later charged for helping to arrange the ibogaine ceremony.