South Africa

Ambrosini’s ghost: The ongoing challenge to decriminalise dagga and other sacramental substances

By Marianne Thamm 28 January 2015

The arrest in December of a 70-year-old Somerset West woman who had been offering psilocybin - known also as sacred mushrooms – during spiritual growth sessions involving hundreds of people over the past five years has highlighted the ongoing question of the illegal use of psychoactive sacraments in religious and traditional rituals or for personal adult consumption. A current constitutional court challenge by the ‘dagga couple’, Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, might help her case. By MARIANNE THAMM.

For the past five years in her home, located only three blocks from the Somerset West police station, the 70-year-old Monica Cromhout has openly hosted SOMA ceremonies – where a small quantity of the hallucinogenic psilocybin found in mushrooms – is ingested by participants, some of whom make the journey from overseas – hoping to find healing and spiritual enlightenment.

On the night of 20 December 2014, Cromhout hosted one such session at The Healing House, as Monica’s home is known. The house is surrounded by an unfenced verdant garden with pathways, a tree house for those who wish to stargaze, as well as a ceremony room lined with comfortable cushions for reclining. Those attending usually do so by invitation or through introduction. Participants are offered between two and four grams of psilocybin while those who facilitate the session, including Monica, take about one gram.

One of the 16 participants that night was a retired 77-year-old academic who was curious to learn about the spiritual and medical – rather than recreational – use of psilocybin and who had been invited by one of Monica’s regulars. But shortly after ingesting the mushrooms the academic appeared to have taken fright and fled from the house in a panic. By all accounts he wandered the streets of Somerset West, disorientated, until he stumbled into the charge office where he informed startled police of what was happening in Monica’s home just down the road.

“I’m not sure what they were expecting but I think they thought it was some kind of orgy,” Cromhout recalls. “They barged in and seemed surprised to find a group of lucid people quietly sitting, fully clothed, in the ceremony room.”

Cromhout says she calmed police and invited them to her office to ask what it was they wanted. They searched her home and found a quantity of psilocybin mushrooms in her freezer. She did not resist arrest.

But before they could book her, the cops needed to weigh the evidence and what followed was a search of the small town – with Cromhout in the back of the van – for a scale on which to do so. Eventually, around 4am, police headed for a local supermarket with a bakery that was open and used the scale there to weigh the bag of mushrooms. Cromhout subsequently spent two nights in jail – an experience she used, she says, to learn – before she was released on bail. Her case will be heard on March 23. Cromhout was charged with dealing in an illegal substance.

Police were no doubt baffled by the mild-mannered and calm Cromhout who is, in person, more of a kind, grandmotherly figure than the tie-dyed neo-hippies who usually consume hallucinogenic mushrooms regularly (and often openly) at trance parties across the country – albeit incorrectly and for the wrong reasons, according to Cromhout.

The moment he heard of Cromhout’s arrest, advocate Robin James Stransham-Ford, who was briefed in 2014 to represent the Lenasia “dagga couple” Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke in the Constitutional Court, offered to assist. Stransham-Ford, who is living with terminal cancer, was a friend and close confidante of IFP MP Mario Ambrosini and co-authored the Private Members Medical Innovation Bill that was introduced last February by Ambrosini, shortly before his death.

The bill hopes to widen the scope of patient-practitioner rights to medical treatment in cases of dread, incurable and terminal disease and to legalise the use of medical and industrial cannabis. IFP chief whip, Narend Singh, has subsequently undertaken to revive the Bill and see it through Parliament this year.

Stransham-Ford is also the lead counsel in the current Traditional Healers and Leaders Constitutional Challenge of the 1965 Medicines Act, the South African Health Products Regulatory Agency Bill and Medical Regulations affecting complementary and alternative medicine on the basis that the legislation is discriminatory.

Stransham-Ford, who uses medicinal marijuana to alleviate and treat his cancer, is determined to leave a legacy of altered legislation with regard to marijuana as well as other traditional medicinal substances. As a result he will also lead a judicial review application against SARS classifying Traditional Chinese Medicines as food rather than medicines. The basis of this challenge is that the legislation violates bilateral treaties and is also “discriminatory and unworkable”. Last year he successfully procured stays of prosecution against hundreds of cannabis offenders in South Africa pending the outcome of Stobbs and Clarke’s constitutional challenge in the “#JoinTheQueue” legal process.

Stransham-Ford believes Cromhout’s therapeutic use of psilocybin – one of several psychoactive sacraments that have been used for centuries by many cultures across the world – falls within the ambit of complimentary and alternative medicine. He is of the opinion that her prosecution under current drug laws is unconstitutional, but Cromhout, like the “dagga couple”, still has a lengthy legal journey to undertake before any changes to the law are likely to recognise this. As it is, she faces a possible jail term of 15 years, a prospect she is currently confronting with stoic acceptance while she gathers the required legal, scientific, religious and cultural evidence to back her bid to allow her to operate legally.

In many ways the targeting of people like the “dagga couple” and Cromhout is easier for police. It is well known that South African traditional healers employ and use hallucinogenic herbs, including the herb Silene Capensis, or the African dream root, that is widely grown in the Eastern Cape. Raiding a suburban home for substances which by law are still considered illegal is much easier than targeting traditional traders at the Mai Mai market in Joburg and certainly likely to be less controversial.

Cromhout says the academic who laid the original charge has subsequently expressed deep remorse for his actions that night and has attempted to have this withdrawn. But it is all too late; her costly and tortuous journey through the legal system has only just begun.

Cromhout, who grew up on a mission station in Zimbabwe, said she had always been religious as a young person but changed her mind in her 30s. After she “moved away” from formal religion she worked for eight years as director at two different LifeLine counselling centres in South Africa.

She joined the corporate world as a training manager for an insurance company and then later studied astrology and began writing regular forecasts for a local magazine. When she turned 62, riddled with arthritis, she undertook a traditional South American Ayahuasca spiritual journey – using the hallucinogen Dimethyltriptamine (DMT) – along with several others in a ritual that took place in the mountains of Ceres near Cape Town. These rituals are performed in various countries throughout the world and attract large numbers of people who are aware of them.

The experience, Cromhout says, was life-altering. It not only alleviated the most severe symptoms of her arthritis but also returned her once-grey hair to a lustrous brown. Apart from that it set her on a newfound spiritual journey.

“At first it was scary and I had no idea how to handle it. It was quite overwhelming and I found myself having to leave the group. I walked into the mountains. I felt this searing, burning sensation coursing through my body. Eventually I resolved not to fight it but to go along with it,” she recalls.

The Ayahuasca ceremony, she said, also awakened her to the ancient uses of sacramental medicines in healing and other spiritual rituals and that is how she crossed paths with psilocybin. Cromhout has travelled to Durban and Johannesburg facilitating healing sessions and, until her arrest, regularly flew with her supply of mushrooms in a plastic bag in her handbag that was always zapped through airport x-ray machines without question or curiosity.

Those who used to regularly attend her healing sessions included mature adults between 25 and 50, many of them professionals, many elderly people and three or four young people, accompanied by their parents. The beneficial qualities of the fungus, she says, cannot be disputed and there is ongoing research that seems to back her claims.

There has been a resurgence in research into the therapeutic value of substances that have been used for centuries throughout the world – and some of which are noted in sacred texts – but which are currently rendered illegal through various international drug laws that classify these along with hard-core, dangerous manufactured drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

In the UK, David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at the Imperial College in London, is one of the scientists at the forefront of ongoing research into the beneficial, medicinal applications of psilocybin, including in the treatment of depression. In 2007 Nutt was asked to resign from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because of his claim that the drugs ecstasy and LSD – contrary to the dominant narrative – were less dangerous than alcohol.

In an interview with The Guardian, Nutt explained that because “magic mushrooms” are considered a class-A drug in that country, the active chemical ingredient could not be manufactured.

“We haven’t started the study because finding companies that could manufacture the drug and who are prepared to go through the regulatory hoops to get the licence is proving very difficult,” said Nutt. “The whole field is so bedevilled by primitive old-fashioned attitudes. Even if you have a good idea, you may never get it into the clinic, it seems.”

Internationally, debate about the return to researching the possible benevolent potential of some of these drugs is bogged down in ideology and politics, much of it firmly lodged in the anti-drug rhetoric of the 1960s.

In 2006 Dr Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted a study titled “Psilocybin and Spirituality” and funded by NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) and the Council on Spiritual Practices.

Griffiths found that although psilocybin is regulated by the federal government under the most restrictive category (Schedule I) of the Controlled Substances Act, the National Institute on Drug Abuse did not consider it and the other classical hallucinogens to be drugs of ‘addiction’ as it did not produce “compulsive drug-seeking behavior as do classic addicting drugs such as cocaine, amphetamine, heroin, and alcohol.”

He concluded that when administered to volunteers under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical (or religious) experiences and had a substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance to those who had taken it.

Watch Dr Griffiths’ TedX talk on psilocybin

The heated debate about the decriminalisation or the legalisation of cannabis or marijuana has continued for years. Cannabis has been decriminalised in a number of countries including Argentina, Austria, the Netherlands, Cambodia, Canada, Columbia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Jamaica, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal.

It was legalised in Uruguay in 2013 and 2014 in the states of Colorado, Oregon and Washington in the US. Increasingly “tolerant” attitudes towards the legalisation of marijuana are not, one study, found only about “liberal values” but also to do with the considerable tax revenues that can be collected.

Monica Cromhout finds herself to be an unlikely public activist for sacred mushrooms but is prepared to endure the coming travails in the interest of what she believes to be one of the most significant and powerful spiritual and psychological tools known to humankind. For now she is approaching the looming legal battle as one she was perhaps meant to endure. DM

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Photo: Monica Cromhout.


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