Psychedelics saved their son from addiction. Will California give other users the same chance?

It was 2015, and David Brownstein and Grace Shohet were desperate. Their son, who had used drugs for years, had cycled through every treatment option they knew of. He’d been to wilderness programs, boarding schools, outpatient programs, inpatient programs, had tried psychiatry and therapy, as well as addiction drugs methadone and suboxone. When he told them about ibogaine, a psychedelic drug derived from the root of the shrub found in Africa that can help people battling with substance use disorders, they were skeptical. Research on the benefits of the drug was limited. But they didn’t know what else to do.

“It was basically: He’s not going to make it unless we find something that helps him,” Brownstein said. “He was at the end of his rope. We were at the end of our rope. And so, we tried it.”

The couple’s son (who consented to his story being shared, but requested his name not be used) flew to an ibogaine treatment center in Mexico, where the drug is unregulated. After emerging from an intense, uncomfortable psychedelic experience that lasted 24 hours, he found his craving for heroin had disappeared.

For six years, he didn’t use drugs. A brief relapse led him back to ibogaine. But his parents say that today, he’s doing well.

For decades, many addiction specialists have viewed ibogaine as a potential treatment option for people who want to curb their addiction to opiates. Preliminary studies, and anecdotes from people who’ve taken it, show it has exciting potential to curb cravings and lessen withdrawal symptoms. But any potential enthusiasm has been tempered by the fact that it’s illegal in most of the United States, including California.

Ibogaine is listed as a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, in the same category as heroin. Being caught in possession of it, particularly in San Francisco, with its newly emphasized focus on enforcement, could result in prison time.

It’s one of several psychedelic substances state Sen. Scott Wiener hoped to decriminalize in his bill, SB519, which, in its original version, sought to expand the state’s ability to conduct research into the drugs and provide treatment. Others include MDMA, psilocybin and LSD — all of which have been used to help people, treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health illnesses.

There’s precedent here: In 2020, Oregon voters overwhelmingly passed a law to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs. But it appears California might not be so brave; on Friday, Wiener said legislators watered down SB519 in committee to the point of irrelevance.

“I am looking forward to reintroducing this legislation next year and continuing to make the case that it’s time to end the war on drugs,” he said. “Psychedelic drugs, which are not addictive, have incredible promise when it comes to mental health and addiction treatment.”

It’s just one more deeply disappointing example of California’s unwillingness to act boldly in the face of our growing overdose crisis.

Brownstein and Shohet are not giving up. In the years since their son’s treatment, they have advocated for ibogaine to be decriminalized and further studied. The potential consequences for those who want to assist their sick friends or family are too profound to ignore.

“The last thing we need to do is criminalize us for trying to get him treatment, or criminalize him for trying to save his skin,” Shohet said of her son.

In its current form, ibogaine comes with risks; it’s been linked to cardiac arrest. Before the couple’s son went to Mexico, he was required to have blood work and an electrocardiogram done. But Brownstein and Shohet have hope those risks could be alleviated with comprehensive studies.

“All you have to do is look at the streets and you know that what we’re doing isn’t working,” Brownstein said.

Much of the dialogue around drug use in San Francisco these days is regressive. But the old carceral approach of police crackdowns has yet to find success in curbing street drug sales or overdoses. We’re clearly in need of new, innovative solutions. SB519’s original form would have given us some — if California was brave enough to act.

Nuala Bishari is a San Francisco Chronicle opinion columnist and editorial writer. Email:

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