In the underground world of heroin, there is a legend of an African root called iboga, or ibogaine, that can cure addiction. Those in the depths of heroin use, often as a last resort, seek out the root, which can be dangerous to use. Some go to Mexico or to Europe to take it, as it is illegal here in the United States. It can be an expensive trip for the user, and often one made in a moment of final desperation.
Native Detroiter Dimitri Mugianis was one of those drug users, and, after taking the root, he turned to a life of service, committed to helping people, especially impoverished users here in the United States. He's well-known in the harm-reduction and drug-user communities, and has some astute observations on drug culture, drug use, and religion, including Islam.
Mugianis now lives in New York City, but came home for a visit recently. MT caught up with him at Melt café in the Cass Corridor, which brought back memories to the 52-year-old, who recounted stories of drug use with a nostalgic smile, and gratitude.
Metro Times: So who are you and what the fuck are you doing?
Dimitri Mugianis: [Laughs] Who am I? That's the mantra of the Hindu [Nisargadatta Maharaj] who wrote I Am That. I'm born and raised in Detroit. I have worked for over 10 years on ibogaine. I was a 20-year heroin user. And with one ingestion of the sacrament of iboga, I haven't used heroin in over 12 years. I was pretty much coppin' on the North End and sometimes selling dope on the North End as well. And I used to sell dope in Cass Corridor. I sold dope on Second — what's the street over from Second?
Mugianis: Third! [laughs] I sold dope on Third. Heroin. So I think probably the reason you're talking to me is because of the ibogaine stuff.
MT: What is ibogaine?
Mugianis: Ibogaine is from the plant iboga, which is a plant grown in central West Africa in a country called Gabon. The root bark of the iboga plant is a sacrament to a spirituality, a religion called Bwiti ... the religion and spiritual technology that has grown up around the ingestion of iboga. It's healing through music and dance, healing with the help of the ancestors, and healing with the pharmacology of the forest.
MT: So you took one dose of iboga after being a junkie for 20 years?
Mugianis: I took one dose of iboga after being a junkie for 20 years on cocaine, heroin, and methadone, and I've been clean for 12 and a half years. That's not everyone's story. That's a pretty rare story. Most people don't have that story of no relapse. And then I've taken other doses. I've been back to Gabon, where I've been initiated as a N'ganga [shaman] in the tradition of Bwiti.
MT: So how did you, after doing drugs for 20 years, how did you find iboga and come to take it?
Mugianis: I learned about iboga in the early '90s when I was living in New York. I was on the Lower East Side with my friend, the great noise musician Adam Nodelman. Adam and I were shooting dope along with his then-wife, and they were also part of the whole junkie boom scene, the drug users union in Holland. And they started telling me about this thing called ibogaine. It just kind of stuck in my head for about 10 years. Over time, my then-common-law wife died when she was pregnant with my child. My drug use became increasingly chaotic, although I'm really grateful to cocaine and heroin. I think they did a lot of good, but there was a point where the relationships turned problematic, and I found myself back in my parents' basement with a $200-a-day habit, speed-balling cocaine and heroin while on the methadone program, turning 40 with a very bleak future. My only goal was to go to take ibogaine, go to Greece, come back, and die.
By the way, the first place I ever shot up is a house two doors from here.
MT: Right here on Cass?
Mugianis: On Willis.
MT: How'd you end up doing ibogaine?
Mugianis: I went and I did iboga in Holland, and it's a very difficult process. I don't want anyone to get the idea that they can just do ibogaine and walk away and never do dope again; it just doesn't happen that way. But I'll explain my journey and maybe that will illustrate the point. I went to Holland and, again, the only desire was to do ibogaine and go to Greece because everyone I knew — my family, Greeks, we go back all the fucking time, right? Go to Greece and just come home and continue to die. What happened — God had other plans. I went there, I did iboga, and in that experience I saw the healing of childhood trauma, or at least the addressing and the beginning of the healing. I made contact with my ancestors, even though I didn't even know anything about it. I saw into my future. I saw one of my teachers that I would meet in Gabon six years later, a guy named Papa Andre. He was clear as day in front of me in the forest, looking at me. I saw that my life would be involved with this medicine. I saw that I was released from the guilt that I had killed my girlfriend, my common-law wife, Barbara, that I was responsible for the death of her and our unborn child.
And I didn't have a habit. It was an incredibly difficult two-and-a-half days, but I woke up, not far from Amsterdam, with a bunch of money in my pocket, two-and-a-half days off of cocaine, methadone, and heroin, with no desire to use. And I've never had the desire to use again. It took me over a month to have a solid bowel movement, be able to walk without pain, to sleep more than two hours at a time, but I never had a desire to use and I've never had a desire to use since. You know, I went to Greece, and I started to know something about myself and about my family and about my history and who I was. I was on the island of Icaria, where Icarus fell from. I went through that whole healing process. There was a pivotal moment where an old woman came up to me and asked me a question. I thought she was asking me, "Who was I?" She was asking me "Whose was I?" So that's the whole ancestral thing that's attached to Bwiti, that's attached to many traditions of healing. So I believe that [with] iboga, you heal yourself, you heal your ancestors, you heal future generations. It's an omnipresent healing. Then I came back, not far from this neighborhood again. I started work for my brother, who owned a restaurant called Agave at the time. I got a little place in Hamtramck. I started going to see the great poet Ron Allen. A Detroit legend, right? And I knew he was involved with recovery. I knew his reputation as a poet and a community activist, and I went to Ron and I said, 'Ron, I've got this stuff called iboga.' And he knew everything about it. And he said, 'But what are you gonna do to save your own ass?' He suggested that I go to a 12-step fellowship, which I started to go to. And I started to go to a shrink. I remember my first 12-step meeting in the Brewster Projects. And I remember I used to cop there.
The whole time, I was burning to bring this medicine to the States. To bring it here. And it's a felony. I just wanted to come back and be of some service. And, you know, after a while I was able to do that. I was able to do over 500 treatments.
MT: Here in the U.S.?
Mugianis: Here in the U.S. In Detroit. I started doing treatments. I went back to New York, and I had been there a year and a half clean or off of drugs. I don't like to use the word clean because that implies that people who use drugs are dirty. But the idea was completely insane, so it appealed to me. We stood in front of methadone clinics with fliers that said 'Methadone is slavery' in Harlem. We were just like, "We're doing this! We're committing a felony, and here's the fliers and here's where to find us." And we just started to do that. I thought I was gonna be arrested. I think we ended up doing 30 [treatments], which if you know anything about ibogaine, that's crazy because we did 30 in a very short time. Just in people's apartments, motel rooms, and so forth. And that gave me the training, or the beginning of the training.
Then I started to incorporate aspects of the Bwiti into my treatments, [and they] became ceremonies. And then we started to bring in the village to support our ceremony. And that grew and grew in New York. We did a parade through Astoria, Queens ... [like the] processional to the water in Gabon before a Bwiti ceremony. We literally did the procession with people dressed in white [in Queens], carrying candles, playing these instruments ... before committing a felony, we would have a parade to announce it. And then this became my way of praying. It became my religion. I pray and I think about Bwiti every day. I still do. So that went on for years, and it took a lot of forms and it was beautiful and chaotic and crazy. I also started to realize the energy that I was absorbing doing this kind of work. I tried to practice the level of self-care that any healer needs to do, that we all need to do.
And also realizing there were forces that I didn't bargain for. That's the thing about entheogens or any of these traditions: It ain't all good. There's a certain kind of racism to believing that all this shit is good just because it ain't European, you know what I mean? The noble savage bullshit. So we have to acknowledge folks' humanity and call them an asshole when they fuck up.
I started to get really sort of burned-out and tired. I was turning 50 at this point, you know?
[I started] serving so-called underserved populations, a lot of people whose capital is their diagnosis. They get paid by being HIV-positive, formerly incarcerated, sex worker, drug user, hepatitis C-positive, bipolar, victim of child abuse. Not much either, like a couple dollars, but that's what they get paid to do. The deal was that they're not any of those things; you're not an addict. I don't know if I believe in the word addict. I think it's all bullshit. You're not formerly incarcerated, you're not a sex worker. You're not even Dimitri. You ask me, 'Who am I?' Actually, you're a spiritual being that coming in has a problem. Come in as a spiritual being and give your gifts. What happens with most of us, and especially "marginalized" people, is that we have nothing to contribute, to be in contribution. We're either consuming or contributing. And these are folks that, they've been pushed out of this area, apparently [gestures to Cass Avenue]. This area has been colonized. But those are folks that — most people want to contribute. We all care. We all do.
[We] talk about God in this program. The harm-reduction world was created by a lot of lefties, right? The grass-roots people are people on the streets and shit, but the people running it are a lot of people with advanced degrees at Ivy League schools and so forth. But the people running it have no relation with God. The people who come into a needle exchange? In my experience, I would say 95, 96 percent believe in God. And I think that that's a lot of a drug user's journey, to find God. The problem with iboga is the problem with ayahuasca and peyote, is that what we want to do is we want to commodify it. We want to take what is basically a problem of overconsumption — which is the problem of all so-called addiction — and we want to mold it into a product that can be used within the existing patriarchal, racist, capitalist system. And expect change. And you can tell by the entheogen movement, a bunch of white motherfuckers telling people that they're gonna change everything except their own power.
That's the problem with it: It doesn't get you off of heroin. Nothing does. We gotta replace that with something else. Or keep using — that's fine too. That's my problem with all the entheogens is, again, they wanna make a product and put it into — what's the saying? Do MDMA with your MD? What a fucking drag that would be! Can you imagine rolling with your doctor? Because they're white, Harvard motherfuckers, no offense. So it's horrifying. I don't see any of these entheogens as a solution to anything, even heroin addiction. I don't fucking see it. And I'm sick of it.
Fuck Burning Man, too. You can put this in there: Burning Man is whiter than the Tea Party. Because that's a narcissistic movement, as the entheogen movement is a narcissistic movement. A narcissistic movement made of overconsumption made by the consumers.
If you wanna experience indigenous culture, go get fucking ebola. Go get genitally mutilated, OK? Then you can experience some poor people shit. But this is the thing — we're always co-opting. I've co-opted this shit, too. I'm a Greek boy from Detroit. What the fuck am I doing? And that's something that I have to constantly check. And it's absurd. Even the attachment to Bwiti. This is my religion. But we have to have some sort of reciprocity for what we take. We're at a point now where we have to have some reciprocity.
I think ... the problem with iboga therapy is that we're saying that there's a success: "Success" is that you don't use drugs ever again, which is bullshit. And I don't want to continue in that mode. I don't want to continue to add harm to the world by saying this gets people off of drugs and that "success" is stopping using drugs and "failure" is using drugs. I don't think Charlie Parker was a failure. I don't think Edgar Allan Poe was a failure. I don't think Richard Pryor was a failure. On and on and on. So unless we can break that nut — and that takes money and resources and professionals — I'm not that interested in working with it.
Because it doesn't get people off of drugs. Nothing does, and I don't really care about that. Just like I don't fucking care about the drug wars. I don't give a shit about policy. I don't understand how people can take these substances and then wake up and say, 'We have to work on policy!' Really? You just went to the universe and back, saw God's hand, and you thought maybe you'd make an incremental change. I just saw the apocalypse, man! Policy? Shit. So fuck policy.
What I'm doing right now on iboga is I'm working to bring iboga to Afghanistan, and what's exciting about Afghanistan is my colleague — he's done amazing work in Afghanistan bringing needle exchange to Afghanistan to drug users. We want to set up a true harm-reduction clinic where we can treat people with that sort of idea that there's no failure, with professionals and so forth. I don't plan to work there full-time. My job is just to help in any way that I can and let the [Afghan] folks carry it on from there. The idea of working in Afghanistan, with all the horror we've done to that country, to offer some sort of healing really appeals to me.
I also think that the villainization of Islam is complete bullshit. If you wanna talk about what kills more people, more gay people, and what kills more women than anyplace in the world, any system in the world, it's called representational democracy with a capitalistic economic system. People wanna say it's ISIS. I wanna go work with Muslims because at least there's a movement against consumerism happening in the Islamic world. There's no movement against consumerism in this world.
MT: There is here, but you have to buy it.
Mugianis: You have to buy it [laughs]. The other thing I'm doing is I'm still working at the needle exchange. I'm still interested in doing something in Detroit; I'm just not sure what it is yet. Maybe I could be a spy against colonial rule. — mt
Learn about ibogaine, Dimitri, and more at dimitrimugianis.com.