The Shaman Will See You Now

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

Mugianis says he had no heroin withdrawals and stopped craving the drug — a sensation so profound he felt compelled to make proselytizing for ibogaine his life's work. He eventually received tutelage from Howard Lotsof, the man crediting with discovering the anti-addiction properties of ibogaine in 1962 and later filing a patent for its use treating chemical dependency.

His initial hotel-room ibogaine treatments were secular. Mugianis did not incorporate the ritualistic elements until 2006, when he made his first pilgrimage to Gabon. There, he says, he met Papa Andre, his "spiritual father" or nganga. He underwent a rite of passage that inducted him into Bwiti, a religion practiced by about 300,000 indigenous people in the forests of Gabon and neighboring Cameroon. Iboga, "the sacred wood," is sometimes taken in doses of up to 60 spoonfuls (the documentary about Mugianis describes the flavor as "like sawdust seasoned with ammonia") during marathon ceremonies that worshipers say allow them to communicate with their ancestors and the spirits of plants and animals.

"There are ngangas who can dance around someone and heal them." Mugianis says. "I'm not kidding. But you also have to be able to laugh about this. I get the fact that I'm a Greek boy from Detroit walking around talking about Bwiti."

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).

Mugianis later connected with Payne and McKenna, his partners in the shaman business. The men were "stung by the Bwiti," as they put it, and visited Gabon together. Payne, who credits ibogaine with helping him get sober after 17 years of alcoholism, learned to play a traditional African bow instrument called the mugongo, which is used during Bwiti ceremonies.

Beyond the spirituality, the trio further carved out a niche in the ibogaine world by emphasizing "aftercare" for patients in the weeks following their treatment. Payne says addicts need continued guidance to help them change their lives and habits if they are to remain drug-free.

"Ibogaine doesn't work by itself," he explains. "It works with the cooperation of the participant. The person who took that shit — they're going to have to change a lot of things. The physical relief is there, but how does that result in your life changing? What are you left with after that? Who is going to clean this up and make it something sustainable? That's you. Iboga always points you back to yourself."

Mugianis is a polarizing figure in some circles. His unusual background and beliefs about ibogaine make him an outsider in the traditionally academic and political realm of drug policy, and critics have accused him of appropriating an African religion for his own ends. Supporters, however, see an individual who empathizes with addicts and fearlessly supports radical alternatives to conventional rehab.

Years before he became her client, attorney Alexis Briggs recalls hearing Mugianis speak at a conference for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York–based nonprofit that seeks to end the war on drugs. "I was moved by how empowering it was to hear someone who was a former addict talking about drug reform," Briggs says. "It was a very refreshing thing to see such an articulate voice coming out of the drug user community."

In the eyes of law enforcement, Mugianis's work in the field of harm reduction is admirable but irrelevant. What matters is the way he and his associates flout the law by peddling ibogaine, says Rogoff.

"I don't have any doubt that these three men have spent their lives trying to help people," the federal prosecutor says. "I think that that's what they do, is they help people. On the other hand, they've made a decision to do it in a way that is illegal in the United States."

In 2009, Carrie Dinesen began seeing an osteopath, a specialist in pain management and opiate addiction named Greg Sharp. Dinesen, according to court documents, suffered from chronic back pain and was hooked on painkillers and heroin. Sharp injected fluids to numb her spinal pain and allegedly provided her a prescription for a large dose of MS Contin, a time-release brand of morphine.

Eventually, according to Washington State Department of Health records and a DEA search-warrant affidavit, Sharp came to believe that Dinesen had no chance of overcoming her drug addiction, telling her, "You are just in a place where you lost hope." He allegedly proposed "a solution" with "a spiritual connection for you."

Court documents say Sharp confessed to Dinesen that he had previously undergone ibogaine treatment in Canada, where the drug is legal, and he knew a "shaman" (Mugianis) who could help her. Dinesen said she was interested but the price Sharp quoted her — $6,000 — was too steep.

In February 2010, according to the DEA, Dinesen told Sharp she had acquired enough cash for the ibogaine treatment. Sharp referred Dinesen to a chemical-dependency specialist in Bellingham named Pippa Breakspear. Court documents allege that Breakspear called Mugianis from her office and handed the phone to Dinesen.

"We said no to her," Mugianis claims. "She had resources. We told her, 'Go to Mexico, you can sit in the sun for 10 days and immediately go into rehab.' Then we got a call where she said her father won't pay for out-of-country therapy because he's afraid of the drug cartels. You should have heard the personal desperation in her voice: 'We have to do this.'"

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