The Shaman Will See You Now
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.'"
The DEA's search-warrant affidavit alleges that Mugianis initially offered to treat Dinesen for $4,000 with $3,000 paid up front. She would also cover her flights to New York and the cost of their hotel room. Breakspear allegedly described what she would do if the authorities got wind of their plan.
"If anybody asks if I had anything to do with setting up the ibogaine treatment, I will say no," Breakspear told Dinesen, according to court documents. "I will lie under oath and say that you asked me about ibogaine and that I gave you the information. Dr. Sharp and Dimitri are my best friends, I will lie on the stand. . . . If you tell anyone, I know people and will have you killed."
During a subsequent visit, Breakspear allegedly became "angry" when Dinesen said she had changed her mind about taking ibogaine. In September, Dinesen told two other doctors in Bellingham that she was "very distressed" about the situation with Sharp and Breakspear and felt "pressured" to use ibogaine. Sharp, she also claimed, was prescribing her dangerously large doses of morphine. The doctors alerted the Washington State Department of Health and a drug-diversion specialist with the DEA.
Reached by phone, Dinesen briefly discusses her involvement with the DEA investigation before declining to comment further. She denies using heroin (a detail mentioned by DEA investigators in court documents), but confirms that she agreed to work for the feds. As a confidential source, Dinesen's name is not listed in court documents from the criminal case against Mugianis; Dinesen later filed a civil lawsuit against Sharp and Breakspear that reveals her name and corroborates her role as the informant.
"They [the DEA] have been extremely kind to me," Dinesen says. "I didn't go to them because I was in trouble. They came to me. My doctor went to them and said, 'This woman is dying from morphine, we're finding her unconscious,' and then the DEA showed up at my door to help."
At the DEA's urging, Dinesen arranged a series of meetings with Breakspear and expressed renewed interest in participating in an ibogaine ceremony with Mugianis. Breakspear, according to court documents, again recommended that Dinesen try a clinic in Mexico, where the drug is legal and doctors are on hand to handle any medical issues. As Dinesen signed a confidentiality agreement, Breakspear worried aloud that she might be wearing "a wire." DEA agents were recording the conversation and listening in.
On January 6, 2011, Dinesen sent Mugianis a Facebook message asking him to schedule an ibogaine ceremony with her in Seattle. She was asked to fill out an application on Mugianis's website, and Payne followed up with a phone call to arrange the final details. Court documents allege that Payne "quoted a price of $7,800" for the cost and told her to deposit the money in his bank account.
Mugianis and Payne maintain that Dinesen and the DEA set the price, and that the $7,800 figure included airfare and hotel costs. The shaman says he typically charges clients on a sliding scale from $700 to $2,000 and that Dinesen's hefty fee was doubly tempting because the money would have helped to subsidize treatment for less-affluent addicts.
"We broke away from our protocol, and that's what got us in trouble," Mugianis says. "That's the thing I hate the most about all this: She raised the amount of money she was willing to pay us. She offered us almost three times the amount of money we normally do for detox, which should have been a red flag."
Dinesen continued to meet with Breakspear and report to the DEA. In February, Breakspear allegedly told her, "There is no danger in ibogaine, only if you go back to taking drugs." She didn't need to fill out medical forms because "we never put anything on paper."
Breakspear also detailed what Dinesen could expect during her ibogaine ceremony. "The process would begin with them walking into the woods and Mugianis 'making offerings to the forest,'" court documents read. "Mugianis would then call on her ancestors and she would be bathed with leaves, painted in white paint (representing semen) and red paint (representing blood) and wrapped in a white cloth."
On March 2, 2011, a week before the scheduled rendezvous at the Homewood Suites, court documents say, Mugianis called to check up on Dinesen. He asked about her health and suggested she bring a few changes of clothes to the hotel. He again cautioned that the ibogaine experience "could be rough" and warned that she would "feel like shit." He explained that she would take a purity bath during the ceremony to "wash off all the bad spirits, all the guilt, all the shame, wash it down the drain."
Undercover DEA agents were waiting at the airport when Mugianis and Payne arrived in Seattle the following week. They tailed the men to the Homewood Suites and plotted their bust for the following afternoon.
Two years after their arrest, Mugianis and Payne are back at the Homewood Suites in Seattle, this time with McKenna in tow. The men have returned for sentencing in the court of U.S. Magistrate Judge James P. Donohue after pleading guilty to their misdemeanor possession charges. Just hoping to avoid prison, they were stunned when the judge handed down their exceptionally light sentences.
There are no animal hides or grass mats in the hotel room this time around, and Mugianis looks less like a shaman and more like a regular guy wearing jeans, a button-down shirt, and a gray flat cap. It smells as though somebody recently smoked a celebratory bowl of weed. Mugianis is in the suite's kitchen sending a text message when he lets out a howl of laughter.
"I sent a text to Gabon: 'Basse! We won!'" he tells the room. "'They sent a text back from the jungle. They said, 'We already know. We were praying for you all night.'"
Their nganga in Gabon was among 74 people who wrote letters to the court on behalf of Mugianis and his associates. He informed the judge that the men are "the American messengers" of Bwiti and that Mugianis "has compassion for every down-trodden person." Similar messages were delivered from friends, family members, harm-reduction activists, academics, and former addicts who swear by the kindness and support Mugianis provided while helping them to get clean.
"I do not understand Bwiti," the judge told the court during sentencing. "It's not important that I understand Bwiti. What is important is that the defendants understand Bwiti. And it is a strong component in their lives and has been something that has been actually directing their activities for what I think everybody would say would be the common good as a general proposition."
Rogoff stands by the DEA investigation and says the judge handed down an appropriate penalty. "They were charged for what they did, and they were sentenced based on who they are," the prosecutor says. "I think the system worked exactly how it should in this case."
The woman who worked nearly a year as an informant doesn't see it quite that way.
"It was really sad to me to know that the three of them got off on nothing," Dinesen says during a 20-minute phone conversation. "I'm not afraid of these people anymore, but, I mean, they most certainly changed my life. My marriage has ended. I'm not the same person anymore after all that stuff."
Dinesen says she's writing a book about her experience and would "like people to know what happened," yet she declined to answer questions about her relationship with Sharp and Breakspear, or about whether the DEA paid her to work as an informant.
Dinesen says she is under a "gag order" after filing a malpractice lawsuit against Sharp and Breakspear (Washington court records show the case was dismissed with prejudice on March 19), and ends the interview by saying she needs permission from her attorney to speak further. Neither Dinesen nor her attorney responded to several subsequent calls and messages.
Breakspear spoke briefly when reached by phone at her office. She confirms that Dinesen was her client and says she felt "guilty until proven innocent" in her dealings with the Washington State Department of Health. (Records show her license is in good standing with the agency.) Breakspear declined to answer questions on the record, saying "quite frankly, the DEA scares me," before ending the call.
Sharp also declined a request for an interview, saying a DEA agent involved with the case "has complete regulatory control over my license." Sharp's office was audited by the DEA in 2010 and records show he was later sanctioned by the state health department, which charged him with unprofessional conduct and importation of controlled substances. He did not face criminal charges.
Since their sentencing, Payne and McKenna have continued living in New York and working with Mugianis to help recovering drug addicts. They also operate the Yippie! Museum and Café, a performance space and community center (now closed) at 9 Bleecker Street in Noho handed down from the 1960s counter- culture movement.
Mugianis's primary causes are developing sustainable iboga production in Gabon — "the plant is becoming endangered," he says — and working with New York Harm Reduction Educators in East Harlem and the Bronx, where he preaches sobriety and Bwiti to recovering addicts. There's no iboga involved, but Mugianis incorporates animal furs and all the other ceremonial trappings into his sermons. "If you go to 125th and Lexington, you'll find junkies with Bwiti paintings on their faces," he boasts.
"Once a week we take a trip to the forest," he adds. "We do a ceremony with active drug users, sex workers, people recently incarcerated. We go take a bunch of hardened criminals and hug trees."
Mugianis has been courting fame since his encounter with the feds. He was profiled by the New York Times earlier this year for his harm-reduction work and featured on an episode of HBO's Vice, performing an ibogaine ceremony with a heroin addict in Tijuana. He says he's working on a variety of media projects and shopping an idea for a reality show that features him as "the Anthony Bourdain of the spiritual world."
The shaman says the intervention by the DEA prompted reflection — "My magic powder was taken away. It stopped me in my tracks. I was able to find my bearings" — but he maintains he did nothing wrong.
"How much money was spent on this?" he wonders. "How many thousands of dollars? How many beds could we have opened up for addicts with that money? And not just for iboga, but for other forms of treatment, too."
Now he is considering a lawsuit to challenge restrictions on ibogaine use in Bwiti ceremonies. He has formally established a religious organization, the Universalist Bwiti Society of New York, and is consulting with a law firm that specializes in religious civil liberties cases. They hope to sue under a precedent set by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case (Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal) that allows a New Mexico church to use hallucinogenic ayahuasca tea in their services. Mugianis says he's raising funds to cover legal fees.
He earns a modest living from his harm reduction work and has vowed not to administer ibogaine in the United States until it is legal. Still, he continues to offer his services at IbogaLife, a rehab center in Costa Rica. There, the shaman doesn't have to shock clients with a warning about how he might be forced to abandon their corpse in a hotel room.
"I used to say that for people to realize the gravity of the situation," he says. "We have such reverence with dead bodies in this country and really don't give a shit about living people. I'd never leave a living body behind, but I'd leave a dead body. Besides, what would I do with a dead body? They'd be out of trouble, and I'd be in it."
Keegan Hamilton wrote about ibogaine in a feature published in the Village Voice in 2010: bit.ly/ibogaine1