Interview with Dimitri Mugianis
From the Series: The Psychedelic Revival
Dimitri Mugianis facilitates the “We Are the Medicine” circle at New York Harm Reduction Educators, incorporating ceremony and ritual with active drug users and homeless people. Born in Detroit of Greek heritage, Mugianis was once considered the face of underground ibogaine use. He facilitated over five hundred detoxes using ibogaine illegally, for which he was arrested and convicted by the Drug Enforcement Agency. He recently founded the Psychedelic (Dis)Integration Group in New York City.
Tehseen Noorani: I’m Dangerous with Love (dir. Michel Negroponte, 2009) documented your underground treatment of chronic drug users with ibogaine, following your own ibogaine detox for heroin addiction in 2003. How has your thinking changed since then?
Dimitri Mugianis: My life was so fundamentally and radically and beautifully transformed in the course of two days, that I had a need to serve. The professionals who are setting themselves up as psychedelic gatekeepers, most of them also have a need to serve. My thought was that I would give drug users iboga and people would have the same results, which was not to use again. In 2007 I was initiated as a Bwiti n’ganga (shaman), which shaped how I administered iboga to drug users back in the United States. But more recently, I’ve realized that I was bringing an ethos found in both Bwiti and in Western allopathic approaches, that there’s something wrong with you and we’re going to fix you. Dealing with the issue of overconsumption with more consumption. Very little about shadow work.
As media about my journey spread, I was looked at as a poster boy for iboga. That was damaging. There’s this idealizing of the treatment, but it doesn’t mean that the same patterns and the same pain are not in play afterwards. I don’t believe in drug treatment as such—we should just treat all people better. And so “treatment” shifted for me, from being an end result to being an opportunity to spend time together. And to find out how we’re going to spend that time. Yet we’re being told, it’s either this very traditional Shipibo or Bwiti way, or it’s the Fang Bwiti as opposed to the Puru Bwiti way that is the right way. Or it’s with approved MAPS-trained therapists.
TN: Why have you moved away from practicing as a Bwiti n’ganga?
DM: I have always had profound gratitude and respect for the wisdom and healing I received from the Bwiti. I immersed myself in it, traveling six times to Gabon, receiving three levels of initiation. The beauty was so profound that I submitted to the hierarchy, but hierarchy is necessarily abusive and antithetical to my spirit. I wasn’t ever going to completely submit to Bwiti and wasn’t a very good n’ganga because of that. There were also things that didn’t make sense to me at all, because my way of understanding things is one that is grown from a written tradition. I come from the fucking Iliad! I need to know why, and where, and where it’s going.
But I don’t need Bwiti in order to take or give iboga or any other substance. Nobody has the complete book on that. The last straw was when folks told me that I had to check in with the Bwiti about everything. And I’m thinking, I’m gonna call, ask to speak to the pigmy elder and say, look I’ve got this girl from Westchester county,1 she’s a trust fund kid and is cutting herself, she just got off Lexapro,2 she’s got some body issues surrounding the fact that her mother was a little overweight and put it onto her, and she’s had Jenny Craig3 every day—they’re not going to know what the fuck I’m talking about! Nor do I want their interpretation—everything boils down to spirit (meaning that someone is throwing a spell) or blood (meaning it’s some kind of disease like malaria) for people in that context, and sometimes it’s neither spirit nor blood.
And then I was receiving criticism, and I think some of it was right, around cultural appropriation. I was also born into my own hierarchy—the very rich mystical at least two-thousand-year-old tradition of Greek Orthodoxy—and I’m taking some time to look into that. At the same time, I now understand that my tradition of using ibogaine comes from Howard Lotsof.4 It is fifty-seven years old. It’s more suited to the way I can work with someone here, plus the Fang tradition—which is the latest in Bwiti—might be 110 years old, so it’s not that much younger. That’s not to say I don’t listen to Bwiti music, or do Bwiti prayers, or that in my heart I’ve not been transformed by the Bwiti. It’s just that I don’t need the label n’ganga—because I’ve been told I don’t deserve it and I’m like, ok, maybe you’re right! I don’t need a PhD, an MD, or a n’ganga. None of us do. That’s not to say there aren’t specific amazing things that n’gangas can do.
TN: How have countercultural politics changed since the 1960s?
DM: I’ve inherited the do-it-yourself ethic from the Yippies and Black Panthers, without caring about how acceptable it was, like handing out ibogaine flyers saying “methadone is slavery” outside methadone clinics in Harlem. The Yippies would continually be on the attack in their outrageousness. They would stage events that were theatrical that could grab and hold the press’s attention, capturing the imagination of folks and make it into a running party. Some of the Yippies are still my friends—I talked to John Sinclair yesterday—and they still influence me. But the Right today has also taken a page right out of the Yippie playbook. It started with the Tea Party in the United States. They don’t care about politeness or niceties. They have taken the Yippie tactics of never retreating, of constant mockery and of theatrics, and they’ve used it incredibly successfully. Meanwhile, too often the Left has lost it in its piety.
TN: Many in the psychedelic community view psychedelics as making us more liberal or left-wing. What are your thoughts on this?
DM: Some on our side think that cannabis and psychedelics are going to do what Anslinger5
thought they were going to do, which is change everyone into
“jazz-loving negrophiles.” Unfortunately that’s not going to happen!
There are plenty of folks on the right who are taking LSD. I’ve seen a
couple of transformations in terms of racism in the course of people
taking ibogaine. Maybe just from hanging out with us for a week? I don’t
think that this stuff is going to shift folks politically, unless there
is an intention to do so. Folks who came in Republican left Republican.
They usually do.
1. Westchester county is wealthy and the second-most populous county in New York State.
2. Lexapro is an SSRI antidepressant.
3. Jenny Craig is an American weight-loss, weight management, and nutrition company.
4. Howard Lotsof is an American researcher who pioneered ibogaine use in the treatment of problematic drug use.
5. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics and key architect of what came to be known as the “war on drugs.”