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Heroin treatment shows promise, but is illegal in the U.S.

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Heroin treatment shows promise, but is illegal in the U.S.

By Paul Marble, Courtny Gerrish. CREATED May 5, 2014 - UPDATED: May 6, 2014

MARSEILLES, Ill. -- Heroin use has exploded over the last 10 years. Deaths from the drug are up 600% in Milwaukee County. Viewers wrote us wanting to know why the U.S. isn't being aggressive in allowing addicts access to a potential 'cure'. Here's the story of a young man who swears by this treatment.

23-year-old Jake Smith of Marseilles, Illinois didn't believe he would ever feel at peace again. Just weeks ago he only thought about one thing: Heroin.

"I was in terrible shape. Ya know, using every day. Had lost about 25 pounds," he recalls.

Jake got clean for a while using traditional treatments. He went to rehab and was put on Suboxone, but it didn't work for him. He says his heroin cravings still dominated his life. "It didn't take long from there until I started right back where I was--shooting heroin except for the relapse was more violent than the previous time."

That's when Jake and his family considered another option: Ibogaine-- a potent hallucinogenic drug that comes from a plant in Africa. It's said to greatly reduce withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. The big problem: It's illegal in the United States.

"I started to look into it. My parents looked into it, and I was like, 'Maybe there's something to this.' But I was still very skeptical."

Jake was also desperate, and his life was out of control. So he decided to give it a try.

'Ibogaine University' is a clinic in Mexico that has been treating drug addicts with Ibogaine for the past 4 years.

Charles Johnston is a former addict and helps run Ibogaine University. He explains, "It's medical tourism, which is very prominent down there. You come to Mexico and you do it in a place that's legal and safe. Then you go home clean and sober."

The clinic is staffed by former users and a full medical team. They pre-screen candidates, and test the drug on them first. Then doctors give addicts one individualized dose of Ibogaine.

Dr. Carlos Silva is a head doctor at Ibogaine University. He adds, "You prevent the patient from going into physical withdrawals, and also you prevent the patient from actually getting the cravings to continue using again. It kind of resets the brain's chemistry."

Ibogaine University has seen more than 600 people, and workers say they've never had a fatality. However, the risks are there. Studies have shown 1 in 300 users of Ibogaine can die from it, mostly from heart failure.

Dr. Michael Miller is an Addiction Therapist at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc. He has his concerns.

"It's actually a very toxic substance," he says.

Dr. Miller says the side effects from drug outweigh the benefits. "It's pretty certain that in the U.S., because we care about safety and efficacy, it will never be approved as a therapeutic agent because of safety concerns."

Jake spent about 10 days in Mexico, and was amazed how he felt after his Ibogaine treatment.

"It got me clean overnight. It took away all my withdrawals. I mean, it's a gift," Jake exclaims.

Now, Jake looks forward to each day, and a future without drugs. He knows it won't be easy, and hopes others hooked on heroin get the same chance he did. He says, "How many people with great potential are you losing on a daily basis due to drugs that can be treated?"

Jake adds, "I do know that I believe in what I went through and it saved my life, and that I know for a fact that it could save a lot of other people's lives."

There has been very little research done on Ibogaine, so experts are hesitant to call it a 'cure', and if you talk to addicts many will tell you once an addict, always an addict. But many of those who have used Ibogaine find it easier to stay clean.

In Jake's case he paid $7,500 - which included airfare to Mexico, lodging, and all medical expenses.