A trip into the realm of psychedelic therapy, as hallucinogenic mushrooms go on trial in South Africa
Magic mushrooms could be the kind of breakthrough for mental health treatment that penicillin was as an antibiotic nearly a century ago. Early research into the potential of psychedelics for treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and even alcoholism is so promising, some argue that these substances shouldn't be kept ‘just for the treatment of sick people, but should be used for the betterment of well people’. The Psychonauts dives into the strange new world of psychedelic-assisted therapy. It stumbles upon an underground movement of self-styled healers and self-medicators. It contemplates whether this could be a new chapter for the environmental movement. And it follows a bid in the South African courts, to have hallucinogenic mushrooms removed from a rogue’s gallery of illicit drugs.
Disclaimer: The author, Leonie Joubert, and her partners in The Psychonauts, aren't endorsing the therapeutic or recreational use of psychedelics. Please read the full disclaimer.
An introduction of sorts
Cape Town-based science writer Leonie Joubert introduces The Psychonauts, and explains why she's departed from her usual written form of storytelling.
Tripping the blues
Some neuroscientists are confirming what their colleagues were discovering in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s: that a few deep psychedelic ‘trips’, supported by conventional psychotherapy methods, may be able to unlock some crippling mood disorders and addictions. But because psychedelics are illegal everywhere, the growing movement of people in South Africa who are using them therapeutically must rely on an underground movement of traditional healers and ‘journey guides’.
The ‘drug den’
The police arrived at a suburban home, near Cape Town, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, shortly before Christmas in 2014. They thought they’d stumbled upon a drug den or some kind of sex ring. Instead, they found a odd sort of traditional healer, who looked more like a suburban grandmother than a drug kingpin, and she was minding a group of psychedelic night-trippers. This launched an upcoming bid in the South African courts to have hallucinogenic mushrooms taken off a list of illicit drugs that ranks them alongside heroin, mandrax, and crystal meth.
A traumatic event can be like an emotional sledgehammer to the brain, rewiring your nervous system, so it’s always revving in the red. It could leave you permanently edgy, your startle response on a tripwire. You’ll be quick to rage. You might struggle to concentrate or sleep. You’ll become listless and depressed. You might have flashbacks, or suppress those fossil-like memories. You might sink into the bottle, cut yourself off from others, or worse. But early efforts to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with psychedelics suggests that hallucinogenic mushrooms and MDMA - Ecstasy, on the street - might be able to rewire the brain back into a healthier, calmer state.
Bottom of the Bottle
As recently as the 1960s, the hallucinogen LSD showed promise in treating alcoholism and heroin addiction. But then the moral panic at the Flower Power generation got psychedelics frogmarched into the shadowy company of a suite of illicit drugs. For four decades, research stopped. But now scientists are back at the drawing board, testing to see if psychedelics can put the brakes on certain addictive spirals. In this episode, a man in his mid-50s goes down the rabbit hole, in search of the ghosts of his military past, his long-dead father, and the roots of his troubled relationship with the bottle.
Hacking Consciousness (Q&A)
Physical movement, like running, is to the body what meditation is to the brain, it makes us fit, agile, healthy, and strong. When used together with psychedelics, these can create a trilogy of practices that bring on the flow state, pull us back to the present, and soften of self.
In conversation with Adrian Baker, host of the podcast Hacking Consciousness. Adrian shares his own years of meditation and exploring consciousness through psychedelics, with a good dose of science and reason.
'Bad' trips & bogeymen
One of the oldest myths about psychedelics is that playing with them is like a game of Russian roulette: for every few fun trips, there’s a bad one loaded in the chamber and waiting to flip you into a kind of madness.
Researchers from a few medical labs that are licensed to work with the substances for therapeutic reasons think there’s a more nuanced story to tell. These aren’t so much ‘bad’ trips, they say, as much as they are difficult ones. And even the difficult ones often turn out to be meaningful, constructive experiences.
In South Africa, the underground psilocybin community is relatively new, and from the outside might look more like a religious group than a collective of therapists.
If we want to mainstream psilocybin-assisted therapy into day-to-day medical practice here, the medical sector will need to draw on the accumulated knowledge of the underground community which is still unregulated, self-taught, and largely answerable only to itself.
The Octopus's Garden
Human beings are hardwired to ruminate, and all to often it’s on negative thoughts. We chew away obsessively on upsetting events in our past, or catastrophise about things that might happen in the future, and it can spin us into depression, anxiety, and obsessive or even addictive rituals.
How meditation and psychedelics work together to boost our emotional wellbeing.
For some people, depression can be a terminal illness.
But what if there’s a medicine that’s proven to relieve the pain of depression, and slow down the headlong plummet into suicide? What if it’s shown to be safe, affordable, and easy to administer? But what if that treatment is illegal, and the state won’t kick into gear the legislative changes that could easily bring it to a hospital near you?
Is there scope, in all of this, for civil disobedience? Why should a potentially terminally ill person have to choose between illegally accessing this lifesaving medicine, or a jail term?
The Last Page
How psilocybin brings relief from the gripping existential terror of facing your own death.
The environmentalist George Monbiot writes about how late-stage Capitalism leads to isolation and alienation, which drives consumerism and planetary exploitation as we try to drown out our resulting existential despair. But many psychonauts return from their psychedelic ‘trips’ with a profound feeling of a new connectedness with themselves, their community, and nature. They say they don’t feel like outside viewers of nature and community anymore, but that they feel deeply rooted in it. Could a curated psychedelic culture be a way to get people to realise we are part of nature, not subjugators of nature? Could this be how we put the brakes on greedy, self-serving extraction from a crippled ecosystem?
Two forms of psychedelic assisted therapy are already legal for medical use in South Africa: ibogaine and ketamine. If the state is willing to consider two substances for psychedelic-assisted therapy, why not all psychedelics?