07/14/2014 08:13 EDT | Updated 09/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Hallucinogen being offered by St. John's man to treat addiction

A former drug addict in St. John's is offering an ancient psychedelic drug native to West Africa to people looking to battle their addictions, but at least one local doctor says taking the unapproved substance could prove fatal.

Ibogaine, which comes from the igoba plant, causes hallucinations and gives users a high that can last more than 30 hours. It's been used in spiritual ceremonies for hundreds of years in some tribal communities.

Shane Mugford, a recovering addict living in St. John's, operates his own counselling service and administers the drug to help people battle addiction.

Mugford said he's been helping fellow addicts deal with their sickness by offering ibogaine as a treatment.

"Ibogaine will take your sickness away within 24 hours, and your cravings. For about a week after that it's like utopia; you're so up in life. Life is wonderful after ibogaine," said Mugford.

However, there's no scientific evidence to prove Mugford's assertions that ibogaine is an effective method of treating any kind of addiction.

Not cleared as treatment method

While the substance is banned in some countries, including the United States, it isn't a controlled substance in Canada, meaning it is legal to purchase for personal use, but is not approved by Health Canada as a treatment method.

For $1,500, Mugford will go to a person's home and give them the drug, preparing them for what he hopes will be their last high.

"We'll grind it up and put it in capsules — you're putting your intent into it. It's good that you're involved in your own preparation for your journey, because that's what they call it — it's a journey into your own mind. It's very intense," he said.

Mugford said he uses a heart monitor to ensure people are safe, and stays with them throughout the duration of their trip.

However, Mugford isn't a medical professional — and that's what worries real doctors.

What's in a drug?

Dr. Bruce Hollett, who treats addicts at the Waterford Hospital in St. John's, said using an unapproved treatment in a non-medical environment isn't the way to deal with addiction.

"They [addicts] will go after any substance that will claim to make them better immediately and that really scares me. It scares me that they will go and take medications, drugs or substances that have not been proven or accepted [to work]," said Hollett.

While ibogaine isn't an approved treatment method, CBC News has found clinics offering it in Ontario and British Columbia, as well as in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Hollett said there's additional concern about what's actually in ibogaine, which is purchased online.

"It can induce death, it can cause hepatitis, it can cause injury to multiple organs within the body, it can cause brain damage. You have to be very, very careful about what you are buying [online]."

Ibogaine has been linked to 19 deaths since 1990. Hollett said about half a dozen of his patients have tried the drug, and he worries it's catching on in the province.