Howard Lotsof Dies at 66; Saw Drug Cure in a Plant
Howard Lotsof was 19, addicted to heroin and searching for a new high in 1962 when he swallowed a bitter-tasting white powder taken from an exotic West African shrub.
“The next thing I knew,” he told The New York Times in 1994, “I was straight.”
The substance was ibogaine, an extract of Tabernanthe iboga, a perennial rain-forest plant found primarily in Gabon. In the Bwiti religion it is used in puberty initiation rites, inducing a powerful altered state for at least 48 hours during which young people are said to come into contact with a universal ancestor.
By Mr. Lotsof’s account, when he and six friends who were also addicted tried ibogaine, five of them immediately quit, saying their desire for heroin had been extinguished.
It was the start of a lifelong campaign for Mr. Lotsof. And now thousands of former addicts around the world and some scientists contend that ibogaine should be scientifically tested for its ability to halt heroin and cocaine cravings and even end addiction. Ibogaine is used in drug treatment clinics in many countries, but is banned in the United States.
Mr. Lotsof, who was 66, died on Jan. 31 at a hospital near his home on Staten Island. The cause was liver cancer, his wife, Norma said.
Virtually from that day 48 years ago when he first tried ibogaine, Mr. Lotsof became perhaps its leading advocate, lobbying public officials, pharmaceutical companies and independent researchers to investigate its efficacy. In the mid-1980s, he persuaded a Belgian company to manufacture ibogaine in capsule form and begin offering it to addicts in the Netherlands.
By then he had started the Dora Weiner Foundation, named for his grandmother, to develop ibogaine as a medication, to disseminate information about chemical dependence and to refer people to treatment. Mr. Lotsof ran the foundation.
In 1986 he received a patent for the use of ibogaine as a remedy for heroin and cocaine addiction. Five years later, he began working with Jan Bastiaans, a Dutch psychiatrist who had gained renown by using LSD therapy for Holocaust survivors.
They treated 30 addicts from around the world, two-thirds of whom stopped using drugs for periods ranging from four months to four years. With 75 percent of addicts typically relapsing within six months of conventional care, the results spurred scientific interest.
“His great achievement,” said Kenneth Alper, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, “was in inducing the National Institute on Drug Abuse to undertake a research project on ibogaine that produced scores of peer-reviewed publications and paved the way for F.D.A. approval of a clinical trial.”
The Food and Drug Administration did approve the trial, Dr. Alper said, but it was never completed because of contractual disputes and lack of financing. Ibogaine remains banned by the federal government.
“In the uncontrolled environments in which ibogaine is typically used, clinics or nonmedical settings,” Dr. Alper said, “the observations indicate that there is a resolution of withdrawal, meaning the addict is detoxified and no longer has withdrawal symptoms and is no longer physically dependent.” Scientifically controlled testing is needed, he said.
Herbert D. Kleber, director of the division on substance abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University, said he was skeptical about the efficacy of ibogaine in treating substance abusers, including those addicted to opium-based drugs like heroin.
“At various times ibogaine has been proposed to treat opioid withdrawal as a cure for opioid dependence and as a cure for cocaine dependence,” Dr. Kleber said. “But there is a lack of controlled scientific studies to back those beliefs.
“A number of deaths have been associated with its use, especially to treat opioid withdrawal and dependence,” Dr. Kleber continued. “I therefore do not feel it is something that should be used in the absence of such evidence.”
Howard Stephen Lotsof (pronounced LOTS-uv) was born in the Bronx on March 1, 1943, the only child of Abner and Lillian Weiner Lotsof. Besides his wife, the former Norma Alexander, he is survived by two sisters, Rosalie Falato and Holly Weiland.
Mr. Lotsof, who dropped out of Fairleigh Dickinson University in the 1960s, graduated from N.Y.U. in 1976. Over the years he wrote or co-wrote scientific papers on ibogaine that were published in respected academic journals, including The Journal of Ethnopharmacology and The American Journal on Addictions.
“These accomplishments are all the more extraordinary,” Dr. Alper said, “in view of the fact that Mr. Lotsof, a graduate of New York University who majored in film, was without a doctoral-level degree.”
By DENNIS HEVESI
February 17, 2010
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Ibogaine Pioneer Howard Lotsof Dead at Age 66