HAMILTON, Ohio (Cincinnati Enquirer) - For more than a decade, an iboga tree grew inside The Conservatory at Miami University’s Hamilton campus, our media partners with the Cincinnati Enquirer say.
The iboga tree is skinny, short – more like a shrub – and grows fruit that looks like orange peppers.
But inside the tree’s roots is something called ibogaine – a controlled substance that causes a hallucinogenic reaction if consumed.
The iboga tree, native to Africa, attracted little attention at The Conservatory, which is filled with plants.
Until last year.
Now, two Miami University professors are suspended and one staff member has been forced to resign over how the tree got there and how it was used. The union representing the professors has taken up their cause, arguing the punishments were needlessly harsh, especially considering no one was harmed.
“The university’s response has been out of proportion to any possible offense," reads a petition from the union.
And the little tree was confiscated by police.
What happened according to MUPD
On Nov. 20, 2018, an employee of the university's alumni office, Ryan Anthony Young, stopped by The Conservatory.
According to a report filed by the Miami University Police Department (MUPD), Young spoke about the tree with Kelsey Lovelace, a botany student who worked at The Conservatory. It’s not clear why Young was there or why he was interested in the tree; Young declined to comment.
Young said Lovelace told him about the tree’s hallucinogenic properties, that she was growing her own iboga tree at home and that she and her friends intended on consuming the plant when it became mature enough to produce the ibogaine, according to the police report. Lovelace could not be reached.
The day after Young visited The Conservatory he emailed the dean of Miami’s regional campuses, Catherine Bishop-Clark, and told her about the iboga tree being on university property and that Lovelace told him she intended to consume the ibogaine.
A few days later, Bishop-Clark sent a copy of the email to MUPD, which contacted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA sent two agents to The Conservatory to investigate.
Cody Dooley, group supervisor at Cincinnati’s DEA office, said the DEA agents told Miami police the plant was able to produce a controlled substance, but they did not confiscate it.
Miami University police opted to prune and confiscate the tree. It's not clear what happened to it after that, but Miami spokeswoman Claire Wagner said "contraband" is usually burned.
MUPD then went to Lovelace’s Hamilton home to question her.
In the end, the DEA and MUPD chose not to press any criminal charges against anyone.
Lovelace was suspended from the university in the fall semester and, according to Wagner, is not currently enrolled as a student.
How the professors became involved
Daniel Gladish, a professor of botany, and John Cinnamon, a professor of anthropology, were both suspended after Provost Phyllis Callahan read MUPD's report.
They were banned from stepping foot on any Miami campus or having contact with their students.
Gladish had been director of The Conservatory since it opened in 2005; Cinnamon gave the iboga seeds to The Conservatory.
Callahan charged them both with violating the university’s drug-free workplace policy, professional incompetence and for violating the reporting and addressing illegal activity and misconduct policy.
Essentially, the provost's charges said Gladish and Cinnamon had an illegal substance, failed to tell the university they had it and should have known the iboga plant contained a controlled substance.
Callahan then recommended the two tenured professors be fired. Records show in 2018 Gladish earned $88,332 and Cinnamon earned $99,870.
Is the iboga tree illegal?
What is unclear is if the iboga tree itself is illegal, or if it is just the ibogaine inside its roots that is illegal.
Because ibogaine is a controlled substance, it is illegal to manufacture, possess, buy or sell it in the United States without a DEA license.
But is it illegal to possess the plant that makes ibogaine?
According to an article published by Erowid, a non-profit source for information regarding psychoactive drugs, plants and chemicals, “clearly the isolated chemical and the whole plant are two different things.”
They argue this because the DEA listing that classifies ibogaine as a controlled substance includes the name of the hallucinogenic chemical but not the plant’s botanical name.
It is unclear if any courts have clarified whether the iboga tree itself is a controlled substance or just the ibogaine it contains since the iboga tree is native to Western Africa and is not common in the United States.
The tree can, however, be found on other college campuses, including the University of California-Davis, Gladish’s alma mater.
Should they have known it was a controlled substance?
Brian Grubb, former manager of The Conservatory, wrote in a letter to Dean Bishop-Clark, obtained by The Enquirer through a public records request, that it was common practice for someone in his job to work with plants like the iboga tree.
"Much like a research chemist works with substances that can adversely affect humans, it is not unusual for professional horticulturists and botanists to work with plants that have medical, psychogenic or even toxic properties," Grubb wrote.
Grubb told The Enquirer that after the DEA confiscated the iboga tree and he was forced to resign, he learned it wasn’t the only plant that could raise concerns in The Conservatory.
“Other plants in the collection are capable of producing schedule I hallucinogens, other types of psychoactive properties, or even lethal effects to human beings,” Grubb said.
Grubb noted that potentially lethalhemlock is “abundant” on Hamilton’s campus, which was much more concerning to him than the iboga tree.
Grubb also said it was never determined if the iboga tree in The Conservatory was healthy enough to produce ibogaine. Even if it was determined the tree had the active ingredient needed to produce ibogaine, it is unclear if the plant could produce enough to cause a hallucinogenic or psychedelic response if consumed.
He said that to his knowledge Miami University never tested the plant for an active ingredient.
He also said none of his colleagues ever said anything to him about the iboga tree being illegal to cultivate.
“It is a very, very obscure plant,” Grubb said. “I never once received any directions of the sort from any individual at Miami University. I am trained as a horticulturist, not an ethno-botanist. There is a significant difference.”
According to Grubb, if Lovelace did take the iboga seedling home with the intention to get high off of the ibogaine, it would take over a decade to produce a plant big enough to extract the hallucinogen.
“In my professional opinion, it would be near impossible to produce this plant in someone’s home without expert horticultural knowledge and equipment,” Grubb said.
“The harshest possible penalties”
Grubb said he was told by Bishop-Clark that he could either resign or the university would not renew his contract when it expired at the end of the school year. In 2018, Grubb made $61,796 as conservatory manager, records show. .
He chose to resign, and his last day as manager of The Conservatory was May 10, 2019.
He said he was also told that if he didn't resign, the university would have to put records in his personnel file that would jeopardize his chance at future employment.
Gladish, the director of The Conservatory, sent an appeal to the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities and will have a hearing this fall when Miami faculty members will decide whether to uphold the now-retired Callahan’s decision.
Cinnamon is on medical leave and being treated for cancer. He will not have a hearing to determine his future at Miami University until he returns from medical leave.
According to an official university statement provided by Wagner, "This matter is being handled following established university procedures – part of an important obligation to treat all of our employees fairly. In affording employees the right to have the allegations heard in an impartial manner, Miami University does not discuss personnel matters."
Miami’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a petition on June 29 to reverse what they call the “unnecessary termination” of the two professors and staff member.
It adds, “there was a rush to apply the harshest possible penalties to actions that have harmed no one.”
The AAUP’s post concluded by saying, “The case raises serious questions about the direction of Miami University. The apparent willingness to squander its own resources –dedicated and respected faculty, the well-being of students, a collection of scientific value, and community goodwill – does not inspire confidence.”