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Ky. opioid abatement commission considers psychedelic treatment for opioid addiction

Man sitting at desk speaking into microphone wearing blue suit coat, small crowd of people in audience behind.
Screenshot
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Office of the Attorney General
Marine Corps Veteran Dakota Meyer, a Medal of Honor recipient, testifies during the Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission about ibogaine, an experimental addiction and PTSD treatment.

The Kentucky Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission heard from more than a dozen people about their personal and professional experiences with ibogaine, an experimental psychedelic treatment for opioid addiction.

The state panel will decide in the next few months whether to invest $42 million of Kentucky’s nearly $900 million in opioid lawsuit settlement funds. Bryan Hubbard, the commission’s chair, proposed the plan earlier this year.

Ibogaine has gained recognition in recent years for its potential to treat severe PTSD and opioid addiction while minimizing withdrawal symptoms. But the drug is still classified as a Schedule 1 substance and is not approved for distribution by the Food and Drug Administration.

Without FDA approval, many of those who spoke at the panel hearing Friday said they or their loved ones traveled abroad to seek help.

Jerry Catlett, an insurance advisor from Mercer County, said he initially thought his son wouldn’t survive his opioid addiction.

“I was expecting a policeman to show up and tell us he's no longer with us,” Catlett said.

Catlett and his wife decided to send their son to a clinic in Mexico to try ibogaine treatments, which he said he didn’t think would work. That was 10 years ago. Now his son works at ibogaine clinics to try and help others suffering from addiction.

Crying during the hearing, Catlett credited ibogaine with helping his son start recovering.

“That's a parent story. I don't know anything about research. I don't know anything about chemicals. I don't know anything. I know my son’s above ground today, because of ibogaine,” he said.

But ibogaine also has severe risks, including sometimes life-threatening cardiac complications like lowered or irregular heart rates and heart damage.

Joseph Peter Barsublia, a psychologist who runs a psychedelic treatment center in Mexico, acknowledged the treatment has risks.

“From what I have repeatedly witnessed firsthand, I believe ibogaine is a revolutionary and paradigm-changing treatment. However, it is by no means a cure-all or a panacea.” he said.

In 2022, 2,135 people died from drug overdoses in Kentucky. The state saw a roughly 5% decrease in overdose deaths compared to 2021, but deaths remained higher than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since 2018, nearly 9,000 people have died from overdoses, according to state data.

Catlett said the risks of ibogaine treatment can be worth it for some people.

“What's the definition of insanity?” Catlett asked. “Keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Is that not what we're doing with our opioid addiction? I mean, we have to do something different. And this is a viable option.”

If the commission votes to allocate the money, Kentucky would become the first state to research ibogaine for its uses in opioid addiction recovery.

Several people who spoke during the hearing were veterans’ advocates who extolled ibogaine’s uses for treating severe PTSD with fewer treatments.

Dakota Meyer, a Kentucky Marine Corps veteran who received the Medal of Honor, said that combat had “left lasting scars on my psyche” and that ibogaine helped him after an ineffective combination of conventional drugs and alcohol.

“I toggled between medication, alcohol, and dangerous coping habits, just trying to do something to be able to get relief long enough to be able to enjoy the life that I had fought for,” Meyer told the panel. “Back then I believed that being in Iraq or Afghanistan, and even some of my own worst days in Afghanistan, were truly a lot easier than it was to be here in the state of Kentucky.”

Meyer said it wasn’t until 2019, when he discovered ibogaine, that he was able to fully confront and overcome his PTSD. He said that since returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, other members of his unit were not so lucky.

“Not from the war overseas, but from the war we have here,” he said. “It's time we explore innovative solutions — like ibogaine treatment — and consider its potential in treating these debilitating conditions.”

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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