Initially suspected of felony drug crimes, the three purveyors of ibogaine - an African drug used elsewhere to treat cocaine and heroin addiction - are set to be sentenced Tuesday on misdemeanor charges. None are expected to be sentenced to jail, though their attorneys have objected to a federal prosecutor's request that each be monitored for three years.
Charged in U.S. District court, Dimitri Mugianis, Robert Payne and Michael McKenna were accused of arranging an exotic intervention for a Bellingham addict referred to them by her doctor.
In March 2011, Drug Enforcement Administration agents investigating advocates of ibogaine - a hallucinogenic plant derivative used elsewhere in the world to combat heroin and cocaine addiction - raided a Seattle hotel room and arrested Mugianis, self-described "shaman" and nationally known proponent of the drug.
Mugianis, 50, and his codefendants pleaded guilty in November to possession of a controlled substance, a federal misdemeanor. All three are slated to be sentenced to probation on Tuesday morning.
Ibogaine is illegal in the United States and cannot legally be prescribed. The Federal Drug Administration is not currently considering modifying rules regulating ibogaine, and has not seriously debated doing so since the mid-1990s.
Derived from the iboga plant native to Central Africa, ibogaine is used by treatment providers in Canada, Mexico and elsewhere to combat the effects of withdrawal. Proponents contend addicts can kick their addictions during days-long treatments with the controversial drug; it is also used in religious practices in Africa.
In August 2010, the DEA received a report that a Bellingham physician - Dr. Gregory Sharp - and a drug treatment provider were referring heroin-addicted patients to Mugianis. Neither Sharp nor the drug counselor have faced any criminal charges in the matter; Sharp is currently facing related administrative charges filed by the state Department of Health.
According to court papers, a patient said Sharp put forward ibogaine as a solution to the patient's heroin addiction. The patient went on to say Sharp said he'd undergone ibogaine treatment personally and knew a "shaman" who would provide the treatment.
Writing in court documents, a DEA investigator said a Bellingham drug treatment provider admitted Sharp sent her at least eight patients for ibogaine treatment. She also allegedly admitted to sending those patients to Mugianis for ibogaine.
"I only refer patients to Dimitri when all else fails," she said, according to court documents. "(The informant) would have died."
One of Sharp's patients ultimately worked as an undercover source for the DEA.
According to investigators' statements, Mugianis planned to treat that patient in a New York hotel room for $6,000. For three to five days, the patient would ingest the hallucinogen while going through heroin withdrawal. A heroin user of more than a year, the patient had planned to go forward with the treatment until Mugianis said he would leave the patient's body behind in the hotel room if the patient died during treatment.
Mugianis later told the informant they would then go to a Homewood Suites hotel in Seattle and take a "purifying bath" before going to gather leaves at a forest or park. Throughout the treatment, the informant would receive ibogaine when he or she felt "dope sick."
DEA agents followed Mugianis when he arrived at SeaTac Airport on March 7, 2011, tailing him to the hotel. The following day, DEA agents searched his hotel room and four locations in Bellingham. Among the items seized were several animal hides, ceremonial clothing and suspected iboga bark.
Writing the court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Rogoff noted that none of the ibogaine experts collecting thousands of dollars in payment from their "patients" are medical professionals. All describe themselves as recovering addicts helped by ibogaine.
The men are described by their attorneys as adherents to the Bwiti religion, a faith practiced by about 300,000 people in Gabon. The plant from which ibogaine is derived is a sacrament to believers used in low doses during ceremonies.
Attorneys for the men have asked that they be allowed to continue traveling, asserting that preventing them from doing so would interfere with their religious freedom.
Rogoff argued the men's religious views are not at issue in the case, as they are being punished for attempting to provide ibogaine to a patient who is not an adherent to the Bwiti religion. The prosecutor also asserted all three men appear interested in continuing to distribute ibogaine despite the new criminal convictions.
"While each claims that they will abide by their 'protocol' not to dispense the drug in the United States, any work done in the United States designed to facilitate the transfer, use or sale of the drug is a federal crime," Rogoff told the court, asking that each defendant be sentenced to three years on probation.
San Francisco attorney Alexis Briggs, who represented the men along with attorneys J. Tony Serra and Kali Grech, argued her clients put the government informant's wellbeing ahead of their own. The transaction, the attorney told the court, was a selfless act.
Defending the use of ibogaine in a lengthy memo to the court, Briggs asked for a delayed judgment that would allow the charges to be dismissed after the defendants serve one year on probation.
All three defendants are scheduled to appear Tuesday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge James at the federal courthouse in Seattle. None have been jailed in the case.