Conservatory Controversy: Iboga Confiscation and Professor Suspensions at Ohio’s Miami University

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article was published in the December 2019 issue of ABC’s HerbalEGram newsletter. This version has been revised to reflect developments that occurred in January 2020.

Plants have a history of both bringing great value and creating conflict, but the debate surrounding the decade-long presence of an iboga plant (Tabernanthe iboga, Apocynaceae) in the Hamilton Conservatory on Miami University’s Hamilton, Ohio, campus (MUH) came as a surprise to many. The controversy began in November 2018, when, because of the presence and potential illicit use of the plant, two of the university’s professors and a student were suspended and a staff member at the conservatory was asked to resign.

Iboga is a short shrub-like plant that is native to western Africa. Its roots contain ibogaine, an active alkaloid that shows medicinal potential to treat substance use disorders, among other conditions.1 But ibogaine also is known for its psychoactive effects, and it is listed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I substance,1 defined as a substance that currently has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.2

Some details about the original acquisition of the iboga seeds and intent for the plant are unclear, but the Miami University Police Department (MUPD) provided a comprehensive account of the initial incident, which was reported in The Cincinnati Enquirer. According to the article, botany student Kelsey Lovelace told Ryan Young, a university alumni office employee, of the iboga plant’s presence and hallucinogenic properties. Lovelace also noted that she was growing her own iboga tree at home and that she and her friends planned to consume the root when it became mature enough to produce ibogaine. Lovelace denies that she ever said this. She was not interviewed by the MUPD or MUH officials. The MUPD report was based on Young’s report to Catherine Bishop-Clark, the dean of the university’s regional campus. Young’s claims were not questioned or independently verified. After his reported discussion with Lovelace, he emailed Bishop-Clark and told her about the presence of the plant and Lovelace’s intentions. Without having a conversation with either faculty member or the manager of the conservatory beforehand, the dean then forwarded the email to both the MUPD and the DEA.3

Both agencies investigated, and while neither filed criminal charges, the MUPD confiscated the plant. The university, however, suspended Lovelace for the fall 2018 semester; suspended Professor Daniel Gladish, Ph.D., and Associate Professor John Cinnamon, Ph.D., who were both tenured; and asked the conservatory manager, Brian Grubb, to resign.

More than a year later, Cinnamon remains suspended and faces potential termination, pending review of his appeal. In late January 2020, the university announced that Gladish had been exonerated (W.H. Eshbaugh email to M. Blumenthal, January 30, 2020). Although this bodes well for Cinnamon’s appeal, MUH has been criticized for its handling of the incident, which has been called everything from “bewildering” and “inept” to “heavy-handed.” The school insists that it treats faculty with fairness, however. The case raises many questions about the status of plants that contain illegal compounds. Perhaps even more importantly, the primary question may be whether professors at institutes of higher learning should have the academic freedom to pursue knowledge of obscure botanicals and their uses by indigenous peoples, despite their regulatory status.

The situation also has caused concern at other universities and academic institutions across the United States because of its potential “chilling” impact on the study of botanicals and ethnobotany, and other research in general.4

A Matter of Principle

Both professors appealed the ruling, but Cinnamon’s appeal is on hold pending a medical leave. While Gladish did not respond to requests for comment during his appeal, one source close to him said he appealed the university’s ruling as a “matter of principle.” In a September 30, 2019, conversation with his colleague W. Hardy Eshbaugh, Miami University (MU) professor emeritus of botany, Gladish stated that he did not believe he had done anything wrong and that, at age 70, he wanted to fight the ruling, clear his name, and return to the university to continue teaching (W.H. Eshbaugh oral communication to K. Raterman, October 1, 2019). In particular, Eshbaugh said Gladish wanted to finish working with several graduate students who had to come to him during his suspension because the university banned him from campus. January 30, 2020, announcement from the MU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) noted that Gladish was not only exonerated but also reinstated with tenure and at his former rank (Cathy Wagner [MU AAUP president] email to W.H. Eshbaugh).

iboga_botany

Gladish began working at the university in 1994. In addition to teaching students, Gladish studies plants to understand how they respond developmentally and physiologically to conditions in an environment to predict the consequences of environmental change on both wild and cultivated plants.5 He played an important role in establishing the Hamilton Conservatory at MUH, working with local donors as well as faculty, administrators, and architects. The conservatory opened in 2005 and serves all of the MU campuses as well as the local community.6 Daniel Hall, EdD, a professor who specializes in constitutional and criminal law and the campus’s former dean who helped raise the money to open the conservatory and appointed Gladish as its director, confirmed that Gladish’s duties primarily were to build the conservatory’s plant collection, engage the community, and develop academic programming, not to put his hands in the dirt.

Cinnamon, an anthropologist who specializes in religion, politics, and ethnicity, declined to answer any specific questions, on recommendation from his lawyer, but he noted: “I have never grown [iboga], but I am accused by the university of having provided seeds to the Miami Hamilton Conservatory 15 years ago… My case is on hold while I am on extended medical leave but will start again in early 2020” (email, October 6, 2019).

Cinnamon also has two decades of service at the university, where he supported the Hamilton campus mission by producing local ethnographies7 and engaging with community groups. He specializes in historical anthropology, environmental anthropology, and intersections of religion, politics, ethnicity, and nationalism in Africa. He has worked primarily in Gabon and Cameroon, where iboga is native.8

According to some reports, Cinnamon originally acquired the iboga seeds and gave them to the first manager of the conservatory when it opened in 2005. The seeds were planted as part of an effort to build a biologically diverse and academically relevant collection.6

After the DEA and MUPD investigations, University Provost Phyllis Callahan charged Gladish and Cinnamon with professional incompetence and for violating the university’s policies on a drug-free workplace and on reporting and addressing illegal activity and misconduct.4 Grubb, the conservatory manager, was an at-will employee and was given the option to either resign or not have his contract renewed. All three men deny knowing that the iboga plant contains a controlled substance.6

In a July 2019 commentary in The Cincinnati Enquirer, Hall expressed concern about the treatment of all four people involved. “I am shocked from a legal perspective…, as a faculty member, and as a citizen,” he wrote in the July 5, 2019, opinion piece. “I consulted five attorneys and three senior law enforcement officers. Seven of these people concluded that the university’s decisions [were] patently unreasonable. The eighth believe [those involved] were negligent, warranting only minor discipline.”6

Although it is illegal to possess ibogaine, it is not clear whether that restriction also applies to possession of the iboga plant. Both legal and botanical experts have noted that some plants contain controlled substances that are illegal to possess and distribute, while the plants themselves are not, citing examples like the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae), which contains opium, and even nutmeg (Myristica fragrans, Myristicaceae), which contains myristicin, a natural compound that in large doses can produce psychoactive effects.9

Hall wrote that the status of iboga is unclear and also noted that many plants do have dangerous and/or mind-altering properties but are not necessarily classified as controlled substances. He cited plants, all of which grow in Ohio, including jimson weed (Datura stramonium, Solanaceae) and the seeds of morning glory (Ipomoea spp., Convolvulaceae), both of which have hallucinogenic properties, and hemlock (Conium maculatum, Apiaceae), which is poisonous.6

In addition, it is disputed whether the seeds of the MUH iboga shrub were brought into the United States legally. One of the university’s suspension letters reportedly suggests that Cinnamon illegally imported the iboga seeds from Gabon in 2004 before giving them to Gladish for the conservatory.3

If this is true, that would be significant, according to ethnobotanist Michael J. Balick, Ph.D., vice president for botanical science, director, and philology curator at the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). “Not clearing [the seeds] through customs, if that is [the case in this situation], would be a serious mistake by the person who brought in the seeds,” Balick explained (oral communication, October 2, 2019). “Any plant collector or, for that matter, any traveler who comes into the US via air, land, or sea must declare any plant materials and clear these through the US Department of Agriculture, including having import permits stating the genus and species. It is a complicated but necessary process.”

According to a report in The Miami Student, Cinnamon’s lawyer, Erin Heidrich, said that the professor does not remember receiving the seeds, but, if he had, he would have given them to the conservatory for research.10

One might say that Gladish should have known that iboga contains a controlled substance that might be of questionable legality. Hall counters, however, that iboga shrubs have been found at various other university conservatories and greenhouses, including at Gladish’s alma mater, the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).6

The study of obscure plants, including iboga, in university programs, is relatively common, according to Ernesto Sandoval, director of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory (oral communication, October 29, 2019). But it is complicated, he said and getting more so. Sandoval noted, for example, that the San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi, Cactaceae) is abundant in public and private gardens throughout the West and is not listed as a Schedule I substance even though it contains some of the same compounds as peyote (Lophophora williamsii, Cactaceae), which is a Schedule I substance (oral communication, December 5, 2019).

Nevertheless, the presence of such plants may be getting less common as universities weigh the pros and cons. “I have talked to several colleagues at other universities, before and during this incident,” Sandoval said, “and they have been speaking to their administrations and deciding that it is best to get these plants out of the institution due to the potential for legal issues.” While he would not name the universities with which he spoke, Sandoval said that at UC Davis, after internal discussions with people on campus who deal with controlled substances, a mutual decision was made to remove or destroy any plants that may cause legal problems for the university. UC Davis did have an iboga plant for a couple of years, he added, “but they are difficult to grow, and we didn’t figure out its climatic needs.”

The University of Colorado (CU) in Boulder, Colorado, also was reported to have an iboga plant in its conservatory. When asked to confirm whether the plant was still present, Tim Hogan, collection manager of the CU Museum of Natural History’s herbarium, said: “I have looked into this, and it appears the CU greenhouses no longer have the iboga tree to which you refer. It is unfortunate there are sentiments at an institute of higher learning that [caused] such a unique specimen in the living plant collection [to be] deaccessioned” (email, October 30, 2019).

If this becomes the norm, it may indeed be unfortunate. While ibogaine currently is not used in medical practice in the United States, studies suggest that it may be useful for drug detoxification and treating substance abuse. For example, the compound has been found to reduce symptoms associated with opioid withdrawal, post-acute withdrawal syndrome, and cravings for opioids, alcohol, and cocaine, to name a few.1 The plant also has significance from a cultural and ethnobotanical perspective. The name “iboga” translates to “to care for” or “to heal” in various tribal dialects of the Congo Basin, where the plant has been used for centuries as a medicine and sacrament in the traditional spiritual discipline of Bwiti.1

‘Ibogagate’

Back at MU, the case of the professors and the iboga plant prompted backlash and came to be known as “Ibogagate.” Many individuals and organizations in the academic community have favored reversing the decision, including the university’s chapter of the AAUP, a group whose mission is to support faculty welfare and encourage their involvement in governance. In addition to articles in The Cincinnati Enquirer and other local and national media, the AAUP published an article expressing concern over the possibility of the professors’ terminations and also circulated a petition in their support.11 The petition was submitted to MU leadership on September 15, 2019, with 2,300 signatures from MU faculty, students, and community members, as well as botanists and anthropologists in the United States and beyond.12

The AAUP also published letters of support written to MU President Gregory Crawford from organizations and individuals including the Botanical Society of America,13 Professor Gretchen Walters of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland,14 Eshbaugh,15 and the American Anthropological Association.16

Adding further fuel to the controversy, MU has since attempted to implement a policy for reporting arrests and illegal activity, which AAUP notes are part of a recent pattern by the university, including the iboga case. AAUP says this goes far beyond Ohio law and appears to place liability and risk reduction above other university values and at the expense of faculty members.17 The policy would require faculty to “report any formal police report, arrest, charge or indictment for alleged criminal conduct … to the Office of General Counsel, within three working days.” In a faculty assembly meeting in September 2019, 350 faculty members voted unanimously to put the policy on hold and send it back to the university Senate.18

Eshbaugh said he believes that the incident is a wakeup call for the university, noting that the presence of 350 faculty at the meeting sends a strong message that they want to be involved in governance. “I have no idea what will happen in the iboga case,” he said before Gladish’s exoneration, “but I suspect if [the appeal] goes against the professors, it would not surprise me if the faculty ends up censuring the university.” He added that such a move might damage the university’s reputation and impact enrollment and funding for years.

Dissecting a Decision

The question that remains is why MU chose to take such a hardline position. Although the university did not respond to specific questions, its communications director, Claire Wagner, contradicted concerns that the university does not value its faculty or freedom of academic research. “Teaching and research are at the heart of Miami University’s academic mission,” she wrote (email, November 18, 2019). “Miami fully supports faculty and staff in these endeavors with the expectation that all university policies and local, state, and federal laws are followed. Possession of an iboga plant is illegal in the United States to absent a federally approved research permit.”

Wagner added that “Miami also is committed to treating all employees fairly. This includes giving accused faculty the opportunity to present their case in an impartial hearing before a decision and/or potential discipline are determined. This matter is being handled following this university process.”

Those close to the situation have offered some speculation about the university’s harsh reaction. Eshbaugh, for example, believes that it is reflective of how the US government thinks about drug plants. He noted that there was such paranoia, particularly about plants with hallucinogenic properties, that a 1976 book, Hallucinogenic Plants (A Golden Guide) (Golden Press) by Richard E. Schultes, Ph.D., a Harvard University ethnobotanist who was considered a preeminent authority on hallucinogenic and medicinal plants, was limited to a first edition printing, the only guide so limited in a series of more than forty publications.19

The way people study plants has been hampered for many years, Eshbaugh said. He cited cannabis (Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae) as another example. Because of its legal status, it was, for many years, legally grown and studied at only one place in the United States: the University of Mississippi. Meanwhile, Eshbaugh added, researchers in other countries like Israel, Germany, Italy, and Thailand have studied these plants in a meaningful way and advanced the use of compounds from cannabis for children with epilepsy, for example. “I don’t know where we would be today if we had allowed that. The Europeans and Asians have pioneered much of the science on drug plants we rely on today.”

Sandoval thinks “it is a shame that they made this decision that affected four people and careers when no DEA or local sheriff charges were filed.” He noted that the issue hits close to home for him because Gladish is a UC Davis alumnus and a 30-year friend. “If you read between the lines, I think there were non-academic issues involved, and it’s a disappointment that this would happen, especially considering it would take years and a lot of processing to make any drugs from this plant.”

The university “completely overreacted,” according to NYBG’s Balick. “If they did this for everything a university administration faces, there wouldn’t be a university left,” he said. “They need a botany lesson about how plants work and the importance of teaching students by touching, feeling, and smelling plants. Sometimes for students, it is much better to see the plant than to look at a PowerPoint presentation or read a PDF. It brings the plant and its cultural importance to life. This was just a plant in a collection. We don’t know that any nefarious use was intended or made.”

Balick also attributed the decision to a “moral panic” at the university. “Perhaps someone is bending over backward to ensure that they have no culpability.”

Hall sees the hardline approach as a form of risk and reputation management. “Some people believe that can’t be the case because it is hurting the university,” he said. “But that is only because the story has gone public. I don’t think they thought it would generate so much interest.”

Sandoval is thankful that other institutions are taking a different approach. “They are looking at the problem and taking plants out of the collection, but faculty and staff are not being ejected.”

No matter how Cinnamon’s appeal turns out, there are implications for both this university and beyond. Eshbaugh said that the situation already has caused a loss of years of institutional knowledge and will likely have a financial impact on the conservatory and the university.

For some, it may be impractical to keep controversial plants. “The legal lines have been drawn, and they will create a barrier of access to these things,” said Sandoval. “In my situation, I won’t grow certain plants, and students won’t see them if I have to go through serious legal hoops to grow them, keep them under lock and key, and spend an inordinate amount of time because of the legal requirements. It makes more sense not to have them.”

Hall said he is not surprised that universities are getting rid of the plants. “This is reflective of a larger problem at universities — excessive corporatization,” he said. “They fear and react to any news that they perceive as diminishing their brands or putting them at odds with accrediting or legal authorities, even when there isn’t evidence that the feared outcome will occur. In this environment, brand and risk management too often trump academic freedom, academic quality, and humanity” (email, November 20, 2019).

It is difficult to estimate the long-term impacts of these kinds of decisions. The study of ethnobotany, and in particular plants with psychoactive effects, is of interest to students. “Over the years, our society, including students, has developed what is referred to as plant blindness,” said Balick. “They don’t recognize the importance of the green world or choose to learn about plants, and only a few degrees in botany are awarded at US universities. So, our job as professors and teachers of botany is to change that. Ethnobotany, I think, is a ‘gateway subject’ to bring in students and get them excited about the plant world and to stand at the vanguard of people who defend the earth from what is happening today.

“Students get excited about the relationships between plants and people and culture,” Balick continued. And ultimately, he added, the study of psychoactive plants is a legitimate area of inquiry, and it is time to think about it differently. “Every culture has psychoactive plants or substances. It is ubiquitous through human culture and history. In Western culture, these include alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, and coffee — all of which are derived from plants and have an impact on the mind. So, understanding how these are processed and used traditionally gives us a cultural perspective that is an essential theme of ethnobotany.”

We need academic disciplines, he added, “to bring people out of the Middle Ages and treat plant blindness to help make them more aware of nature. Without students working on conservation and on the front lines of environmental issues, we are in trouble.”

References

  1. Dickinson J. Iboga Root: Dynamics of Iboga’s Origins and Modern Medical Use. HerbalGram. 2016;109:48-57. Available at: http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue109/hg109-feat-iboga.html. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  2. Drug Scheduling. US Drug Enforcement Administration. Available at: www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  3. Anderson M. Miami University Hamilton Campus fight over Iboga Tree. Cincinnati Enquirer. July 3, 2019. Available at: www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2019/07/03/miami-university-hamilton-campus-fight-over-iboga-tree/1629703001/. Accessed November 5, 2019.
  4. Fink J. A DEA Visit, a Psychedelic Plant, and a Controversy Bloom at Miami University. Newsweek. July 7, 2019. Available at: www.newsweek.com/miami-university-professor-iboga-tree-controversy-1449791. Accessed October 21, 2019.
  5. Dr. Daniel Gladish. Miami University Department of Biology. Available at: https://miamioh.edu/cas/academics/departments/biology/about/faculty/gladish/index.html. Accessed November 5, 2019.
  6. Hall D. Opinion: Miami University must reverse unjust decision to terminate professors. Cincinnati Enquirer. July 5, 2019. Available at: www.cincinnati.com/story/opinion/2019/07/05/opinion-miami-university-must-reverse-unjust-decision-terminate-professors/1557192001/. Accessed on Oct. 22, 2019.
  7. Ethnography. The New World Encyclopedia. Available at www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ethnography. Accessed Nov. 29, 2019.
  8. Dr. John Cinnamon. Miami University Department of Anthropology. Available at: https://miamioh.edu/cas/academics/departments/anthropology/about/faculty-staff/cinnamon/. Accessed November 5, 2019.
  9. Weil AT. Nutmeg as a Psychoactive Drug. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. 2012;3(2):72-80. Available at: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.1971.10471380. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  10. Carlin T. Iboga Plant Controversy Petition Captures International Attention. The Miami Student. September 10, 2019. Available at: www.miamistudent.net/article/2019/09/iboga-plant-controversy-petition-captures-international-attention. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  11. MU Faculty at risk of unjust termination. Miami Chapter, American Association of University Professors (AAUP) website. June 29, 2019. Available at: www.miamiaaup.org/?p=937. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  12. Ibogagate Petition sent — over 2,300 signatures. Miami AAUP website. September 1, 2019. Available at: www.miamiaaup.org/?p=1125. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  13. Botanical Society of America letter of support. Miami AAUP website. August 9, 2019. Available at: www.miamiaaup.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BSA-BoardLetterofSupport_Gladish.pdf. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  14. Walters G. University of Lausanne, Switzerland letter of support. July 26, 2019. Miami AAUP website. Available at: www.miamiaaup.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/IbogaLetterMiami.pdf. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  15. Eshbaugh H. Miami University professor emeritus letter of support. July 18, 2019. Miami AAUP website. Available at: www.miamiaaup.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Eshbaugh-letter-MU-Crawford-LTR-7-18-2019-.pdf. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  16. American Anthropological Association. Letter of support. July 12, 2019. Miami AAUP website. Available at: www.miamiaaup.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/AAA-letter-to-PresCrawford.pdf. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  17. Briefing on Reporting Arrest Policy. Miami AAUP website. Available at: www.miamiaaup.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/AAUP-Brief_-Reporting-Arrests-Policy.pdf. Accessed on November 14, 2019.
  18. Bey S. Proposed Reporting Arrests Policy Sent back to University Senate. The Miami Student. September 17 2019. Available at: www.miamistudent.net/article/2019/09/proposed-reporting-arrests-policy-sent-back-to-university-senate. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  19. Schultes RE, Smith RW. Hallucinogenic Plants (A Golden Guide). New York, NY: Golden Press; 1976.