Entheogen journeys, next step: Decriminalisation of magic mushrooms
'Drugs is drugs,' according to a Facebooker in response to a psilocybin post on my Facebook page. But are all drugs equal, and should some or all be legalised and/or decriminalised, and to what end?
A year ago, I listened to journalist Glynis Horning talk on the radio so tenderly and bravely about her book Waterboy: Making Sense of My Son’s Suicide. At the time, I was investigating the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) in a personal capacity. I wondered tentatively whether perhaps it might have had a positive impact on this young man’s depression and possibly saved his life. Given that studies at Johns Hopkins University into psilocybin suggest that accompanied by supportive psychotherapy and “under controlled conditions [psilocybin], can lead to significant and durable improvements in depression”.
In my subsequent readings and conversations with those for whom no amount of “chimney sweeping” (talk therapy) or big pharma conjurings could shift, it was experiences with ketamine, psilocybin and MDMA which seemed to be able to reach those dark corners and bring about healing — possibly because so much trauma happens preverbally.
Interest in and usage of psilocybin is spreading like the threads of underground mycelium. This has been aided and abetted by books and movies of the author and self-described “reluctant psychonaut” Michael Pollan and his personal journey with psychedelics, and the mushroom-hatted mycologist advocate of medicinal fungi and mycoremediation Paul Stamets. A new vocabulary has mushroomed, and individuals are earnestly sharing written accounts of their life-changing journeys using entheogens (psychoactive substances used in ritual).
In her latest book, Bamboozled, Melinda Ferguson writes of learning about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) founder Bill Wilson’s experience with entheogens, which led to her profound experiences with “magic mushrooms” and her subsequent recovery from serious addiction, which had been caused by an underlying PTSD. While it may be common knowledge now, the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous occurred when Wilson was given a preparation of belladonna, a highly hallucinogenic substance, after his third hospitalisation for alcoholism. This information was repressed by AA as it conflicted with the principles of sobriety.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Magic mushrooms: A Wild Coast journey
This spread of the use of entheogens could also be read as a pushback against the failure of big pharma and its sibling psychiatry. The film The Crime of the Century provides a harrowing account of greed and political power and scant regard for citizens enabling the opioid epidemic in the US.
Another movie, Psychedelia: The History and Science of Mystical Experience, provides a cook’s tour of the history of psychedelics and the players involved.
It talks about the use of the earliest hallucinogenic mushrooms by pre-Columbians and the pushback by the colonial invaders, defenders of the possessive Catholic Church for whom there was only one sacrament — and it didn’t come in mushroom form.
It unpacks the word “psychedelic”, which was coined in the 1950s by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond from the Greek for “mind-manifesting”. It introduces the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann who first synthesised and accidentally ingested LSD in the 1930s, it unpacks the role of author and amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson who invented the term ‘magic mushroom’.
Along with his wife, Wasson was the first outsider to experience mushroom sessions, which he did with the Mexican shaman Maria Sabina. Unfortunately, the story didn’t end well as Wasson’s careless exposure of Sabina’s location resulted in her being blamed for rupturing the Mazatec community, leading to her subsequent ostracisation.
The film covers the CIA’s interest in LSD as a potential mind control drug, the 1960s explosion of LSD use in the West, the roles of Ken Kesey and pied piper Timothy Leary, Nixon’s anti-drug war, the 1970s psychedelic shutdown and a resurgence or second renaissance of psychedelics and their therapeutic applications.
Twenty years ago, Portugal (often incorrectly regarded as the first country to do so), Belgium, Estonia, Australia, Mexico, Uruguay and the Netherlands were the first countries to use a counterintuitive approach by decriminalising drugs. Portugal still has the lowest drug problem in Europe. However, it must be recognised that the decriminalisation was “part of a wider reorientation of policy towards a health-led approach”, including harm reduction and treatment services.
Decreminilisation of psychedelic drugs
Last year, the UN member states set targets on the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use, and on the elimination of stigma and discrimination against those who use drugs. South Africa “recognises that the punitive approach has not been successful in tackling drug-related problems” — and has ratified all three targets.
For the past four years, the use of cannabis in a recreational role, restricted to private and personal settings for adults, has been legal in South Africa. Non-compliance with the restrictions carries a sentence of up to 25 years.
While cannabis has been legalised, subject to certain conditions, a group of individuals including Shelly Faulds, attorneys Nardus Grove, Paul-Michael Keichel (one of those who helped to legalise cannabis in South Africa, citing that its criminalisation was unconstitutional) and Johan Bester want psilocybin to be decriminalised. In other words, while these substances are still prohibited by law, partakers will not be prosecuted.
For many, psychedelic drugs are regarded as different from other drugs. Rather than being used for recreation, their role is seen in the service of a therapeutic or spiritual goal. According to an article by Keichel, the Constitutional Court has acknowledged cannabis to be safer than alcohol and tobacco, and entheogens are even safer than cannabis, unless you suffer from a severe mental illness.
There’s a sense that the use of psilocybin, whether for “shits and giggles” or therapeutic or spiritual use, will continue to take place whether or not it is decriminalised.
For this group, however, the push for the decriminalisation of psilocybin is in direct relation to ensuring safety checks or the reduction in harm for those who “journey” and the acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous people in keeping with their cultural belief systems.
In 2015, Monica Cromhout, a journey facilitator, was arrested and charged with dispensing mushrooms, which she did during a spiritual ritual. Her arrest carried a possible sentence of 15 years. In March last year, Faulds and her husband were arrested for illegal drug trafficking. At the time of her arrest, Faulds explained: “We were under the impression that Cromhout’s case was live.” Unaware that Cromhout’s case had gone moot, Faulds and her husband had hoped to request a stay of prosecution pending the outcome of Cromhout’s case in the High Court.
Faulds intends to push ahead to tender an application to the high court for the decriminalisation of psilocybin. The “key objective for decriminalisation is to end the punishment and stigmatisation of people who use drugs”. It is believed that decriminalisation will also reinstate the constitutional rights of indigenous people who have been compromised, implement safety protocols for those who take it and provide some control over the quality of psilocybin.
While the group’s interest in entheogens is in the realm of the therapeutic and spiritual, decriminalisation will, hopefully, go some way to protect and inform the user — whether they are doing so for recreational purposes or for going deeper into the realms of consciousness.
Faulds believes that one of the outcomes of decriminalisation may be in educating users about the types of psilocybin. She explains that, hypothetically, if she were to do a session at a retreat, she would request to see the whole fruit before it is granulated to ensure that it contains only mushroom and is not mixed with some other synthetic compound, which may induce serotonin syndrome.
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Facilitating the entheogen journey
Traditionally, Faulds explains, “plant teachers” or entheogens were administered by shamans or traditional healers. Although traditional healers often lived outside the village, they knew all the villagers well and were cognisant of their mental and physical constitutions so that they were able to effectively administer an appropriate plant sacrament. This is in stark contrast to the current idea of “everybody’s journey to their own adventure”, which Faulds considers to be a complete “abdication of responsibility” by facilitators.
Pollan talks about set and setting, or place, and intention being important, but there are factors such as pre-integration before the journey and post-integration after the journey that are equally important. Faulds believes that session or journey facilitators “need to have an understanding of the person’s experience during the session”. She explains that an entheogen journey begins with a pre-integration or preparatory stage.
In the pre-integration stage, the facilitator must consider the journeyer’s physical and mental states. This includes taking into account the condition of the journeyer’s heart — as the heart rate may be elevated during a journey, which may pose risks for someone with a pacemaker.
Also, certain entheogens, in particular, ayahuasca, can create a sugar drop, which could have a negative impact on certain conditions. Another aspect to factor in is whether the journeyer is taking anxiety or depression medication and if so, what kind, as these can create resistance to the entheogen. The facilitator also needs to take into wheelchair-bound journeyers or even those wearing contact lenses.
The facilitator needs to be aware of whether the journeyers are mentally challenged and how their current mental state presents. Of relevance are a journeyer’s mindset and psychological stability, such as whether a journeyer has had psychotic episodes, which may manifest during a session.
“It would be better to limit the number of journeyers for safety purposes so that if a journeyer is emotionally triggered there are a sufficient number of facilitators for one-on-one assistance,” she says. She believes facilitators “must ensure everyone attends willingly and no one has been subjected to peer pressure”.
Faulds reasons that “post-integration after a psychedelic mystical experience may not be necessary for everyone, but must be offered. A mystical experience differs markedly from an ordinary state of consciousness that is dominated by one’s senses.”
Faulds points out that because journeyers are currently committing a criminal offence, they do it secretly. She says: “When their experience is beneficial and significantly life-changing, they may have no one to share it with. However, decriminalisation will allow journeyers to share their experiences with those with knowledge and experience and who may provide informed and psychological support and advice.”
Faulds says that shamanic traditions regard psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms with reverence as a “sacrament”. The taking of all entheogens, she reiterates, was always done with “humility, reverence and respect”. DM/ML