An introduction of sorts

My name is Leonie Joubert, and this podcast is a bit of an experiment.

I’m a science writer based in Cape Town, South Africa, and I usually work in the written form. 

I’ve spent the past 15 or so years telling stories about some of our big and often intractable environmental and social problems. The impact of climate change on our natural environment, for instance, and on vulnerable people living in those spaces. I’ve looked at energy policy issues, agriculture, and urbanisation. I’ve tried to put a human face onto the roots of hunger and nutritional illness in a cityscape.

A few months ago - in the autumn of 2017 - I started working on an article that was a bit outside of my usual area. 

The story is about an upcoming High Court case, that’s set to test the constitutionality of a part of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Controls Act here in South Africa.

This is the short version: in December 2014, a woman was arrested in Somerset West, outside Cape Town, in connection with hosting what she calls mushroom ‘ceremonies’. The self-styled traditional healer allegedly uses hallucinogenic mushrooms to take people on deep psychedelic ‘trips’. People say that these are profound mystical and healing experiences. 

But magic mushrooms are listed as a Schedule 7 drug here, the equivalent of a Schedule 1 drug in the United States and many other countries. This puts them alongside substances like heroin, mandrax, and crystal meth (what we call ‘tik’ here in South Africa). The charges brought against the traditional healer are serious: possession and dealing of a substance that could come with a minimum 15-year jail sentence.

Her argument: the law is unjust. She says that psychedelic mushrooms aren’t dangerous or addictive, as the state claims, and she argues that they have therapeutic and spiritual value. The only way she can defend herself against the charges, is to show that the Drugs Act is wrong about magic mushrooms. 

Early in 2018, the legal team that’s handling the case will start a process where they plan to show the Western Cape High Court that hallucinogenic mushrooms have powerful therapeutic and spiritual benefits for people. And they will argue that to deny South Africans access to this substance is unconstitutional. They’ll ask South African lawmakers to remove hallucinogenic mushrooms from its Schedule 7 listing in our law books, and then create regulations that’ll allow for them to be grown, distributed, sold, and used here safely.  

I started writing up this story as a single feature article for a local online newspaper. But I quickly realised that it’s a much bigger story. 

It turns out, there’s a fascinating body of science about a resurgent field called psychedelic psychiatry. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, early researchers were discovering that psychedelics might have the potential for treating depression, alcoholism and end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients. But research was shut down when the moral panic surrounding the Flower Power generation had the United Nations ban these drugs. Since then, all signatory countries to the UN 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances have to align their domestic laws and regulations with this international standard, South Africa included. 

As I dug deeper, I also found that there’s a growing movement of people who are convinced about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. But because the substances are illegal, they’re turning to underground ‘journey guides’ to help with their own healing and self-actualisation.

The US science writer and journalism professor, Michael Pollan, also dipped into this world of psychedelic psychiatry a short while ago. His summary: if the early research around the therapeutic potential of psychedelics is as promising as it looks, then these substances shouldn’t just be kept for the treatment of sick people, they should be used for the betterment of well people. 

As I said, this was all too much to squeeze into a single feature story. But turning it into a popular science book, which is my normal approach, also didn’t look viable: books take too long to get onto the shelves. And books are expensive, which limits their reach. People also don’t read long-form stories online, so that didn’t look like good option. 

I think this story is too important to let it be held back by the financial and practical constrains of the publishing industry. Because if people’s experience of psychedelics is to be believed, these substances have the potential to help us deal with more than just the painful existential stuff of being human. They might also have implications for dealing with today’s many environmental crises. Reporting back on their psychedelic ‘trips’, many people say they return 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?  

To get this story out quickly, and to reach widely, I thought I’d launch into the world of podcasting to see if we get a conversation going about psychedelics, ahead of these mushrooms going on trial in 2018.

This series will look at the history of the therapeutic use of psychedelics for treating mood disorders and addiction, and why research was shut down in the 1970s. It’ll look at how these substances are used therapeutically and recreationally by a subculture that has echoes of the peacenik movement of the 1960s. It will consider the renaissance of psychedelic psychiatry. It will draw on what people are learning about the potential risks of using these substances, And it will describe the world that people find when they go on these journeys. 

There’s a heap of information to get through in this series. We’ll only be able to get to the risks associated with taking psychedelics in a later episode, so keep an eye out for that. This may temper some of the excitement of these findings a bit, with a frank discussion about what the risks are, and how to reduce them.

The psychedelic experience isn’t something you dip into, the way you have a glass of wine next to the braai fire. And it’s also not like taking a pill to get rid of a headache. Psychedelics work because of the subjective experience you have while you're on the trip, by all accounts. That means having the right setting, the right people around you, and an experienced ‘sitter’ or therapist. Deep psychedelics trips are hard work, and can be overwhelming at times for some.

This experience isn't for everyone. Some people may just be too fragile. Others might have conditions that make it unsafe to try psychedelics. Anyone with a history of psychosis or schizophrenia, either personally or in their families, should stay clear. But more of this later. 

Remember the astronomer Carl Sagan? One of his favourite catchphrases was that we must be open minded, but not so open minded that our brains fall out. 

The psychedelic psychiatry community is calling for regulations and laws to be loosened up around these substances, so that the claims about their effectiveness in treating mood disorders and addictions can be tested in the lab. And if they’re found to work alongside other treatments, how can we then get them safely into the therapy room? 

The Psychonauts podcast is an attempt to get this conversation going here in South Africa. It’s a call to set aside some of what drugs policy activists and researchers say are the misconception about psychedelics, so we can test to see if they might actually have some health benefits for us. And at the same time as calling for us to be open minded about them, let’s not to be so open minded that our brains fall out. 

In the mean time, let’s get talking.