A trip into the realm of psychedelic psychiatry, 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 psychiatry. 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.
'Bad' trips & bogeymen
They're not so much 'bad' trips, as 'difficult' trips. What does this mean, and how do people work with them?
And while psychedelic psychiatry is drawing up protocols to keep this kind of therapy safe, drug policy advocates flag what they believe is the real danger associated with psychedelics: getting caught.
New ways of knowing
From mapping our DNA, to the design of the Apple computer, psychedelics have been credited with many Eurika! moments in recent times. A leading South African environmental lawyer and activist says the issue, for him, is that these substances are a doorway to new ways of thinking, but the state holds the keys.
One with nature
Many psychonauts return from their psychedelic ‘trips’, reporting that they come back with a profound feeling of a new connectedness with nature. They say they don’t feel like outside viewers of nature anymore, but that they feel deeply rooted in it. Could this be a way to get people to realise we are part of nature, not subjugators of nature?
War on the Flats
The 'war on drugs' has fuelled an arms race between rival gangs on the 'Cape Flats', outside Cape Town. How will decriminalising certain illicit drugs shift the power struggle between these rival groups?
'Brain doping' happens daily, with drugs like Ritalin used to bring greater focus as we try to canalise our technology-scattered attention spans. Some psychonauts claim that psychedelics appear to do the opposite for them - creating expansive thinking while not losing focus.
Researchers from abroad say it’s a matter of when psilocybin mushrooms become medicine, not if. Where to from here? What's on the cards for bringing the psychedelic psychiatry to South Africa.