The Shaman Will See You Now

New York's most radical rehab counselor is still standing after a duel with the DEA

The busts marked the culmination of a lengthy and elaborate sting targeting Mugianis. The investigation was unprecedented. Only two people had ever been arrested for ibogaine in the United States over the previous 40 years, and never before had the federal government devoted serious time and resources to thwarting the obscure drug. The bizarre circumstances — a shaman practicing a voodoo-like religion that purportedly cures addiction — made the case even more unusual.

"They were convinced we were moving massive amounts of stuff across borders with a couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of assets in the bank to seize," speculates McKenna, who works closely with Mugianis and Payne. "If they would have just Googled us, they would have realized that wasn't true. Instead, they came in with the equivalent of a sledgehammer."

Mugianis makes little attempt to conceal his illicit occupation. His personal website lists his phone number next to the words "Ask Me About Ibogaine" in a large typeface. He is also a somewhat prominent figure in the world of harm reduction and addiction recovery, speaking often at international conferences on the topics. His life is the subject of a documentary film, I'm Dangerous with Love, released in 2009, that follows him to Gabon and shows him leading a hotel-room ibogaine ritual similar to what he had planned in Seattle.

Dimitri "Mobengo" Mugianis practices Bwiti, an African religion that involves elaborate rituals and ibogaine, a potent hallucinogen that some say helps cure opiate addiction.
Willie Davis
Dimitri "Mobengo" Mugianis practices Bwiti, an African religion that involves elaborate rituals and ibogaine, a potent hallucinogen that some say helps cure opiate addiction.
Mugianis and his assistant, Michael "Kombi" McKenna, perform a ceremony that makes offerings to "the mother of the forest" (represented by the tree).
Willie Davis
Mugianis and his assistant, Michael "Kombi" McKenna, perform a ceremony that makes offerings to "the mother of the forest" (represented by the tree).

Roger Rogoff, the assistant U.S. Attorney in Seattle who prosecuted Mugianis's case, says the DEA sting was prompted in part by the high profile the Bwiti medicine man maintained. Ibogaine, although virtually never used recreationally, is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance, on par with LSD, marijuana, and heroin, the drug it purportedly has the power to subdue.

"This group was pretty blatantly and obviously out there doing things that aren't legal," Rogoff says. "We decided to pursue the case in order to send a message that you can't continue to do that. If you believe the law should be changed or different, you need to go about making it happen. You can't just go out and do something that is illegal."

Mugianis and Payne were released from federal custody less than 24 hours after their arrest. Yet, despite the potential for felony charges and a lengthy stretch in federal prison, their case stalled until November 2, 2012, when the men were indicted along with McKenna for misdemeanor drug possession. They pleaded guilty, and in March a judge sentenced each of them to 45 days' house arrest and fined them $25 apiece.

Both Mugianis and federal prosecutors claimed victory after the judge's ruling, but the real winner is perhaps yet to be determined. Mugianis continues to advocate for ibogaine and is planning a lawsuit claiming the government's prohibition of the drug violates his constitutional rights.

"We can go to court and sue to practice our religion," Mugianis says. "The trajectory of this case shows how people can look at this substance in a new way. A lot of good can come from this. It could be a tipping point for iboga."

Since 1991, at least 19 people worldwide have died during or shortly after undergoing ibogaine therapy, almost always when combining the hallucinogen with other drugs. The government last considered rescheduling ibogaine in the mid-'90s but rejected the idea and has no plans to revisit the decision. The drug's illicit nature creates a shady world where patients can be exploited or intimidated and have no recourse if something goes wrong during their treatment.

But details of the criminal case against Mugianis and his associates — many of which have never before been made public and are now being revealed exclusively through documents and interviews obtained by the Village Voice — suggest there is also another side to the story.

The events leading up to the DEA bust reveal compassion on the part of Mugianis and a willingness to risk his freedom in order to help a woman overcome her addiction. For him, the slim possibility that she could perish during the ceremony at the Homewood Suites was eclipsed by his certainty that heroin would ultimately cause her to die a far more excruciating death.

Born in Detroit to a Greek-American family, Dimitri Mugianis moved to New York in 1981 to become a professional punk rocker. His band, Mister Unique and the Leisure Suits, had gained a steady following and had aspirations of becoming the next Iggy and the Stooges. Mugianis was already heavily into drugs when he met his future friend and mentor Herbert Huncke, the Beat poet and muse known for his close relationship (and shared love of shooting up) with William S. Burroughs.

Mugianis's band renamed itself Leisure Class and became a fixture of the East Village art-punk scene of the '80s and early '90s, infamous for performing with a goat's head impaled on a spike and other wild stage props. His addiction eventually spiraled out of control and he ended up living in his family's basement back in Detroit, blowing through nearly $300 worth of heroin, methadone, and cocaine per day by his own accounting.

At the suggestion of friends, Mugianis turned to ibogaine. He rattles off the exact date he last used heroin (May 21, 2002) and describes his experience the next day at the clinic in the Netherlands. "It sort of washed me clean," he says of ibogaine. "I saw this matriarch deep in the Earth. She was Peloponnesian or Greek and she was saying over and over that she had been dead so long that Earth had flowed through her. I also saw this black man in the forest with piercing eyes and a beard. That was Papa Andre."

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