Anthropologist Studies Alternative Treatment for Addiction

Assistant Professor within UCF’s Department of Anthropology Shana Harris spends her time in Mexico researching drug use and addiction, currently focusing on the therapeutic use of a psychedelic known as ibogaine.

Ibogaine is a naturally occurring substance that many use as a form of alternative drug treatment for addiction. Users who ingest it experience a dream-like state while awake and have visions that can last up to 24 hours. This psychedelic is currently illegal in the United States, so Americans who want to use the drug must travel to Mexico, where ibogaine is unregulated and not illegal. There are many centers along the northern part of Mexico so Americans can easily move between countries for treatment.

Harris conducts her research in centers along the coast of Baja California, Mexico. During her research, she hopes to understand both the experience of receiving ibogaine to treat addiction, as well as the strategies treatment providers employ to better develop and deliver ibogaine treatment. Her main technique revolves around ethnographic fieldwork, a technique in which she observes and interviews patients and providers.

“I observe the everyday happenings at the ibogaine centers—the daily interactions between patients and staff, the ways in which patients are prepared for ibogaine, the manner in which staff administer ibogaine and how patients behave pre- and post-treatment,” Harris said. “I employ these research methods in order to gain an ‘emic,’ or insider, understanding of ibogaine treatment that focuses on the perspectives of my research participants.”

These perspectives are important as they represent an issue plaguing America — that drug treatment options in the United States are lacking and unsatisfactory for many individuals. Harris says current options are unsatisfactory, and many Americans travel to Mexico for ibogaine treatment because they feel conventional drug treatment methods have not worked. They are partaking in an act called medical travel, which involves patients traveling to other countries to receive the care they require. Traveling for ibogaine is not the only type of medical travel Americans engage in, however. Many people travel for other healthcare reasons.

“Many Americans travel to other countries in order to obtain healthcare because of cost, policy, or availability, such as dental care, organ transplantation, in vitro fertilization, and sex reassignment surgery,” she said. “I think we need to take seriously topics like alternative drug treatment modalities and medical travel given the current state of healthcare in the United States.”

Harris has been conducting her research in Mexico since 2015. She first heard about ibogaine at a drug conference nearly a decade ago. Speakers explained how they used ibogaine to quit using drugs. Harris was fascinated to hear of a psychedelic being used to treat addiction, especially as some claimed to be long-term drug users. As someone who already had a long-standing interest in drug use, interventions and drug-user health, she knew she wanted to explore ibogaine treatment.

By engaging in ibogaine research, Harris will understand and appreciate how participants experience treatment and interpret and attribute meaning to their experiences.

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