The Costa Rican addiction treatment clinic where the reality TV star Scott Disick spent a week this March announced his coming via a press release while flying him there by private jet. And maybe that’s to be expected, given the constant media surveillance of Kourtney Kardashian’s faux regal partner.
But the clinic—the so-called Rhythmia Life Advancement Center, or RLAC—may be guilty of more than just some tacky marketing. On its website, the treatment spa appears to be a glamorous-looking paradise promoting an ancient, hallucinogenic method for releasing addiction’s grip. But RLAC may have a darker past.
“I realize my issues are bigger than me and I’m ready to truly remedy this struggle I continue to battle,” reads the clinic press release announcing Disick’s arrival. “Rythmia’s rehab approach puts my worries at ease.”
Disick’s statement went on to explain why he had “chosen” to go to RLAC to take ibogaine, a naturally occurring psychoactive derived from the root of an African plant called iboga. The drug, derived from an African root, itself originated in Gabon, where a tribe called the Bwiti use it for initiation ceremonies, to rid people of evil spirits in preparation for adulthood. It’s been shown to interrupt addiction, at least for a time.
“The fact that there is a money-back guarantee that has never been called upon gives me even more confidence,” Disick said in the statement.
But the father of three, who struggles with alcohol, seemed less than fully committed to the ibogaine ceremony and treatment, which involves extreme hallucinations that can last for up to 72 hours. He checked out a week after he arrived and allegedly threw a party days later.
In the aftermath, speculation has swirled that Disick was merely a PR stunt for a new clinic that’s dripping in money and hungry for customers. If so, it wouldn’t be the only skeleton in the center’s closet.
Situated on a “beautiful estate” in the mountainous region of Guanacaste, Costa Rica, RLAC bills itself as a “luxury” rehab center that offers a “luxurious world class experience,” according to its website. A private jet, fitness center, five-star restaurant, and full-service mud bath spa are among the “boutique amenities” offered to customers. There are many more.
If the wealth isn’t distinguishing enough from other ibogaine clinics—which more closely align with the Bwiti tribe from Africa—then RLAC has got just the thing: a refund. In big, bold letters on the main page, the organization proudly announces itself to be the “World’s Only Money Back Guaranteed Iboga & Ibogaine Treatment Center.”
How exactly the center aims to quantify which ceremonies do or do not qualify for a return of funds is unclear. The company may be unsure itself, considering that it has “yet to issue a single refund.”
(RLAC did not reply to repeated requests from The Daily Beast for comment.)
The clinic launched in January. But its past goes much deeper. Its founder, Gerard Armond Powell, allegedly got rich after founding ThatLook.com, the first website to take cosmetic surgery procedures mainstream.
A 2004 New York Times article calls Powell a “colorful entrepreneur” who sold vanity toll-free numbers and marketing loans for plastic surgery. For a time, he was also in the real estate game. But after a breakup with his business partner—and a reported $2 million settlement suit—his firm went into bankruptcy. In 2005, with a new business model and URL, he sold his company for $89 million in cash.
The other main figure in RLAC—the Bwiti shaman who leads the ibogaine ceremonies, Patrick Zamba Makala, also known as Moughenda—is under investigation by local authorities, according to Costa Rican press reports. A 10th-generation Bwiti who grew up in Gabon, he was the first person to bring ibogaine to the West. Once a trusted shaman in the ibogaine world, he’s now criticized as irresponsible for an incident that occurred at Iboga House, a clinic he founded in 2009.
The event in question was a tragic one, a fatal heart attack suffered by a 42-year-old woman named Bente Soldberg, who was visiting from Norway. Toxicology reports after Soldberg’s death that November allegedly confirmed that she had ingested ibogaine. (The Daily Beast could not independently confirm this.) The Office of Judicial Investigations in Costa Rica has reportedly begun an official investigation of the case, questioning Moughenda’s former Canadian coworker, as well.
Reported in local papers, the allegations never made the mainstream media. Still, following the incident, Iboga House closed. Sometime after, it was absorbed into a new clinic launching in a town nearby: RLAC. Now a joint company (ibogahouse.com takes you to RLAC) it virtually revolves around Moughenda, who is the lead healer and the performer of all ceremonies.
Dr. Stanley Glick, director of the Center for Neuropharmacology and Neuroscience at Albany Medical College, is one of the foremost authorities on the drug, which is illegal in the U.S. Glick said he’s concerned about ibogaine clinics like RLAC, where overzealous businessmen seem determined to try their hand at psychoactives. “There is significant risk,” he said.
In his studies, Glick has found that ibogaine can interrupt addiction by indirectly moderating the dopamine system through an alternate pathway. This modulation involves indirectly dampening the effect of dopamine when the body is exposed to specific substances (alcohol, methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin, to name a few).
It may make a heroin addict, for example, temporarily unable to feel the extreme high of the drug—and, it is hoped, dissuading them from doing it. The beauty of the drug, said Glick, is that it doesn’t totally block our dopamine receptors. Normal kinds of events that produce joy, like sex, seem to be intact.
On the other hand, RLAC and clinics like it promote ibogaine’s hallucinogenic experience. Clinics like these, he worries, carry a significant risk. While hallucinogens themselves are more “disturbing” than dangerous, there is a potential toxicity to ibogaine in its ability to slow the heart.
“There is no doubt that there is significant risk,” Glick said. That risk, he worries, is exacerbated in places where the drug is legal, and also unregulated. “There is no standardization, there is no governing body, there is no FDA body. We have very little information about these clinics as a result. We don’t know what’s going on, or if it’s working.”
Overall, Glick said he sees the psychoactive and hallucinogenic aspect of ibogaine to be nothing more than an impediment. “It became clear to me at an early stage that the FDA was never going to approve this drug because of its neurotoxicity,” he said. “I knew we had to try to divorce ourselves from the ibogaine story. It’s baggage that doesn’t do us any good.
Hoping to bypass all that, Glick is working on what would essentially be a daily dose of ibogaine—without the hallucinations. The capsule, which begins clinical trials in the next few weeks, has the potential to help Americans fight everything from drug addiction to obesity.
As for the Disick story, Glick was at a loss for words. When asked if he and other researchers in the industry are troubled by the Kardashian incursion, he answered half-jokingly: “Apparently not, because I didn’t even know they were getting involved.”