Most people have never heard of Tabernanthe iboga, an African shrub that produces an orange fruit, but one grew inside of the Miami University conservatory for more than a decade. Now the small shrub threatens the careers of two tenured Miami University professors.
John Cinnamon is an Associate Professor of anthropology at Miami University. Dr. Cinnamon has conducted academic research on religious practices in Gabon, a country in Central Africa. In Gabon, the root of the iboga plant is called “the sacred wood.” The root bark of the iboga plant is consumed in small quantities, which produces a hallucinogenic effect. The root bark is used in religious initiations and healing ceremonies. When chemically refined, the hallucinogenic compound in the root bark is called ibogaine, which has recently attracted attention for its potential in treating opioid addictions. Ibogaine is currently a scheduled controlled substance in the United States, although the Tabernanthe iboga plant is not.
In 2004 or 2005, the Miami University Conservatory received Tabernanthe iboga seeds. Dr. Cinnamon has made many research trips to Gabon and has hosted Gabonese visitors in his home. While he has no specific memory of acquiring Tabernathe iboga seeds, he believes it is possible that they were given to him during a research trip or by a visitor to his home. Dr. Cinnamon believes he may have given the seeds to the conservatory manager at the time, who worked under Dan Gladish, the Director of Miami University’s Conservatory. Dr. Cinnamon believed the plant may be of some academic interest to the Conservatory and the University community. The Conservatory proceeded to grow a Tabernanthe iboga plant from the seeds, and the shrub was displayed in the Conservatory along with other rare and exotic plants.
In late 2018, when the plant had been growing at the Conservatory for more than a decade, the Miami University Police Department (MUPD) and United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) received reports that a student in the conservatory had taken Tabernanthe iboga seedlings home. On November 28, 2018, DEA agents confronted Dr. Cinnamon in his office and asked him questions about the plant. Dr. Cinnamon told the DEA agent what he knew. Neither the MUPD nor the DEA charged Dr. Cinnamon with any crimes, likely because the plant itself is not a scheduled drug, and because the plant was grown solely as a matter of academic interest, and not for any nefarious purposes.
Despite this, Provost Phyllis Callahan has recommended that Dr. Cinnamon and Dr. Gladish be terminated. The University also forced the Conservatory Manager, Brian Grubb, to resign under threat of termination.
This matter has important implications for First Amendment rights and academic freedom. Tabernanthe iboga is a rare plant of academic interest. The AAUP reports that the University of Colorado, U. C. Davis, the New York Botanical Garden, The Ohio State University, Smith College, The University of Connecticut, and the U.S. Botanical Gardens house or have housed specimens of the shrub.
This matter has received significant media attention. Miami University’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors has initiated a petition in support of Dr. Cinnamon and Dr. Gladish that has over 2,200 signatures. Professional scientists, alumni, faculty, parents, donors, and professional organizations have expressed support by signing the petition and writing letters to the University President. The American Anthropological Association has stated that the “cultivation and curation of the iboga plant” at Miami University “was clearly in the spirit of advancing ethnobotanical knowledge,” and that Miami University’s decision to pursue termination of these valued professors is “serious overcorrection” that is in “direct contradiction” of principles of academic freedom. Miami University’s severe approach to the Tabernanthe iboga shrub threatens to chill academic research across the country.
It remains to be seen whether Miami University will follow Dr. Callahan’s recommendation to terminate Dr. Cinnamon’s and Dr. Gladish’s employment. Dr. Gladish will face a termination hearing in the fall. Dr. Cinnamon is on extended medical leave, but will face his own hearing when he returns, likely in the spring of 2020. Freking Myers & Reul is proud to provide legal representation to Dr. Cinnamon in this process, and to protect these invaluable academic liberties.
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