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, for 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 experiences for them.
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 meth (what we call ‘tik’ here in South Africa). The charges brought against her are serious: possession and dealing of a substance which 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 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 plans 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 the Schedule 7 listing in the Drugs Act, 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 that it’s a much bigger story.
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 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. And it will consider the renaissance of psychedelic psychiatry. And it will describe the world that people find when they go on these journeys.
The late astronomer Carl Sagan was a top notch science communicator and debunker of pseudoscience. His catchphrase: we must be open minded, but not so open minded that our brains fall out.
The world of health and wellbeing is filled with alternative health treatments, many of which are unverified and hocus. Claims about their effectiveness are often based on anecdote and wishful thinking. Self-reported anecdotes aren’t the basis for making any sweeping scientific claims. But if you have enough anecdotes that confirm one another, they might point to a trend. And if you have a trend, you have the basis for doing some rigorous, structured scientific research to test these whether or not there’s some validity in those claims.
The psychedelic psychiatry community is calling for regulations and laws to be loosened up around these substances, so that these claims can be tested in the lab. If they’re found to work to treat mood disorders and addictions, 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.
Let the credits roll
By the time this podcast is done, there’ll be many people to thank for their input and guidance. I’ll list all them on the website as we go. But in the meantime, thank you to Karin Schimke for her first-eyes view of the idea, Sam Kelly for helping take it to a creative project level, and Neroli Price for unwittingly giving me technical advice on how to become a rookie podcaster. Huge gratitude to every single expert who gave their time and input, and to all the ‘underground’ trippers who were bold enough to report back from the frontiers of their own psychedelic journeys.
And to my partner in crime, Ben Schoeman: I hope this work reflects what I’ve learned from you about empathy, generosity, and the fundamental kindness that we’re capable of as humans.