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Magic mushrooms: Journeying into one’s psyche

Magic mushrooms: Journeying into one’s psyche
Image: Mathew Schwartz / Unsplash

Magic mushrooms are categorised as a psychedelic drug, also known as entheogens. Other psychedelics include mescaline, found in some cacti, and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) which is synthesised from the ergot fungus found in rye.

After more than 30 years, during which very little research has been done, there is a worldwide revival to find out more about this fungus that shows the potential to treat various mental conditions. These include opioid addiction, Lyme disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, nicotine and alcohol dependency and depression, among many other ailments. 

Dr Tiaan Schutte, a psychiatrist and head of the Dual Diagnosis Unit at Sterkfontein Hospital, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit for those suffering from addiction and mental illness, says psilocybin is found in more than 100 species of mushrooms. It is categorised as a psychedelic that has the ability to induce a mind-altering state. Early results have confirmed that the benefits of one or two doses of psilocybin can be “extraordinary”: it apparently has few side-effects and there is allegedly no risk of dependence. If used together with psychotherapy in a controlled and safe environment, it has the potential to significantly improve those suffering from treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, racial trauma and addiction. 

The gut converts psilocybin into another chemical, psilocin. Once this is metabolised by the liver and released into the bloodstream, it produces an altered sense of consciousness or perception. These psychedelic effects occur through the stimulation of serotonin 2A receptors (5-HT2ARs). 

Advanced brain-imaging techniques allow researchers to gain new insight into layers of the psyche that have not been explored previously. They have learnt that during the day, neurotransmitters in the brain constantly travel well-trodden paths to perform routine tasks; this allows one to decide what is right and what is wrong. These paths become streamlined. The brainwaves or paths that are not necessary to perform our routine tasks become unused. By taking 5mg to 30mg of psilocybin the brain’s networks, or paths, are shaken up. 

The brain starts to communicate within well-trodden brainwave networks but also across unused networks. It is this “shaking up of the system” that allows one to perceive the world in a broader context and change one’s perceptions. It means one is able to switch between different cognitive operations in reaction to the changing environment and not remain stuck in rigid perceptions of what is right and what is wrong. 

And for some, the results are striking; on the Facebook page of psilocybin proponents, one can read: “Thank you for the most meaningful and deeply magical experience of my life, I am speechless”; “My heart is open, my mind is quieter and I enjoy life so much more and care less about petty things”; “It has helped me heal and process emotional trauma”; “The experience was deep and profound. It gave me the tools for my onward journey to healing and to what it means to be purposeful and energised.”

Dr Makgati Mokwena, who refers to herself as a “pilgrim in heels”,  describes her journey with magic mushrooms in a documentary series, Pilgrim, which was broadcast on SABC 3 earlier this year. It is also available on YouTube

Mokwena’s journey was sparked by an insatiable desire to delve deep inside herself and discover her divine nature. She says: “This longing could not be filled from outside. I could not achieve it through a relationship, food or a job. Magic mushrooms helped me connect with God, that is in everything and everyone. One experiences a glimpse of the unquantifiable divinity. It filled me with overwhelming euphoria. It has transformed me and brought me to a new understanding of why I am on this Earth.” Mokwena believes this sacred medicine was given to us as a gift by “the One who knows us”. It is “a sacrament and not for any juicy trips at a party”. 

The next step for Mokwena as an art therapist and leadership mentor is to travel throughout Africa to explore and rediscover the deep indigenous wisdom found on the continent before colonialism. She hopes to meet like-minded healers who can help her in her calling “to awaken humanity to our real purpose”.

Magic mushrooms are categorised as a psychedelic drug, also known as entheogens. Other psychedelics include mescaline, found in some cacti, and lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, which is synthesised from the ergot fungus found in rye. They were used by medicine men in North Africa and Central America during religious rituals, dating back thousands of years. 

Today indigenous people in Central America still use it for healing and religious rituals. It was only around the 1950s that Westerners discovered their effect. In the Sixties, many started combining magic mushrooms with other drugs. They became the symbol of the counterculture of the 1960s and were eventually banned. 

Dr Rykie Liebenberg, a psychiatrist in private practice, says that although the use of psilocybin shows huge potential, the research is not conclusive. It is important for anyone wanting to try the magic mushrooms to be screened beforehand. They are not suitable for those with a family history of psychosis or schizophrenia, she says, adding that she won’t use it until there is more research into it. 

Monica Cromhout is a 76-year-old astrologer and former Lifeline director. She has been facilitating magic mushroom journeys for people in the safety of  her Western Cape home for more than 12 years. She was introduced to magic mushrooms many years ago when she battled to overcome the loss of her husband. At the time she prayed for death. Until then she had not touched alcohol or drugs. She says magic mushrooms unlocked new dimensions she never imagined possible; they connected her to “the wonder of the universe and cleared me of suppressed grief”. 

Although they are illegal, their use is growing exponentially. Cromhout’s clients include rich and poor, male and female. She charges R1,500 per journey. She has been arrested twice for possession and dealing in psilocybin, and her case has been postponed several times. She believes a court judgment isn’t necessarily the best answer. Magic mushrooms have a worldwide following and it is impossible to control it with laws. The important thing is to take them in a safe setting and not mix it with other drugs. 

One of the lawyers defending Cromhout, Nardus Grové, says they hope that the Constitutional Court will decriminalise magic mushrooms. They are currently regarded as hard drugs like Mandrax, tik and heroin, even though some current scientific research shows they might not be addictive and could have real medical value. 

Cromhout’s lawyers argue broadly that it is outdated thinking to criminally ban magic mushrooms when more harmful substances like alcohol and tobacco are legal. In light of the 2018 Constitutional Court judgment that decriminalised the personal and private use, possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults in South Africa, lawyers hope for more reasonable and rational drug policies. If magic mushrooms are given the green light, it would allow for more research into an industry which shows massive potential. This could bring hope for sufferers of treatment-resistant depression.

These sentiments are supported by retired Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, now inspecting judge of  prisons, who has joined former president Kgalema Motlanthe in calling for an end to the vicious and pointless “war on drugs”, as well as for drug use and distribution to be treated as public health issues, not criminalised. DM/ML

An earlier version of this article stated that fungi were plants; a correction was made on 12 January 2023.

Go deeper: Read “‘Microdosers’ of LSD and magic mushrooms are wiser and more creative“, a story by The Conversation.

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