Escaping reality has been a human conquest for as long as we have records of our existence. Artistic depictions of sensory deprivation and hallucination are recorded on the walls of the Blombos Cave on the Southern Cape coast that date back 100 000 years. Humans have, for millennia, sought the tools offered by the natural world to aid in their explorations of that which we cannot see. Ritual, trance and communal gatherings continue to be enhanced by mind altering plants. Whether these doors opened grant us entry and access to other realms of being, or if they are just tricks of the pleasure centres of the brain, we will never know. It is my childish hope that it’s the former.
The sheer volume of people seeking the potential balms of psychiatric medicines communicates very clearly our discordance with reality as we know it. It makes sense, that the bounty of Earth might offer us an escape from this reality or an alternative viewpoint to materially change our perspective. The pre–Columbian Mayans used Lonchocarpus longistylus Pittier to make an alcoholic drink used in rites and ceremonies; the Olmecs used the secretion of a toad, Bufus alvarius, as a ritual intoxicant; and pre-Inca culture in Peru drank the tea of the San Pedro cactus, Echinopsis pachanoi. We have a long and distinct history of finding these doors in perception in unusual places. How the toad made it to the menu is a wonder in itself.
In the 1960s, a burgeoning counterculture emerged with anti-war, anti-bureaucratic and anti-sexist ideology. Loosening of the more traditional views on sex, pleasure and the role of the woman in society was accompanied by use of recreational drugs such as LSD, psilocybin and marujuana.
A revolutionary type movement of people was emerging under the influence of these “criminalised” drugs, questioning political rhetoric and objecting to the Vietnam War. The US government response was to incarcerate these individuals.
In the early 1970s the American government, led by President Richard Nixon, declared drug use to be “public enemy number one” and the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent, recreational drug use went from numbers in the thousands to numbers in the hundreds of thousands. President Ronald Reagan took this even further with Nancy Reagan’s “Just say No” campaign.
The US government made it its mandate to extinguish any resistance to its own political narrative and in so doing, they spread to the Western world a fear and mistrust of all mind-altering drugs.
It’s ironic that one of the symptoms of this political tsunami was the birth of prescription drug abuse, which far exceeds any plant medicine troubles the world might have. Prescription opiates and benzodiazepines are an ongoing struggle in many communities. The Last Prisoner Project is an American organisation whose reason to be is to liberate all of the remaining 400 000 people who were incarcerated at the time for recreational cannabis use. Cannabis is now a burgeoning, global, legal business.
This backdrop is important to undo some of the indoctrination that Western culture has suffered regarding our perception of plant medicines such as magic mushrooms, scientifically known as psilocybin. In 2018, the United Nations conceded that the “war on drugs” had failed and instead had spurned monster offshoots of criminal activity, violence and gangsterism, giving birth to a multi-billion dollar underbelly. Similar measures were implemented in South Africa in the early 1970s by the apartheid administration affording up to 15 year sentences for nonviolent drug related “crimes”, sentences comparable with those for certain categories of murder. Prohibition of any substance or behaviour is often an invitation for rebellion. Education is a far more powerful tool.
Research into the medicinal properties of psilocybin and cannabis started in the 1950s, but was abruptly ended by the “war on drugs”. In 2000, the US John Hopkins Institute for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research obtained approval to reinvestigate these medicines and opened the global conversation again with a landmark study citing the sustained benefits of single dose psilocybin for depressive disorders. But psilocybin remains an illegal substance in most countries, including South Africa.
Most drug risk analyses cite alcohol as the leading drug for a causal relationship with harm to self and harm to others. No one beats their wife while enjoying a psychedelic experience. They are more likely to be found with their face in a flower. In a search for articles exploring the effect of psilocybin on society, these are the kinds of words that came up on the first page: transformative, social connectedness, relieving treatment resistant depression, connection to the natural world. A paper published in 2020 proposes that psychedelic mushrooms were likely to have been instrumental in the evolution of human’s expansion of social bonding mechanisms such as laughter, music, storytelling, and religion.
A person would need to consume more than 70kg of magic mushrooms to die. This is not humanly possible. For those facing death, several small studies have looked at the role of psilocybin in relieving end of life psychological crises with great promise. Areas of potential benefit for psilocybin use include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, end of life anxiety, trauma and substance use disorder.
It must be acknowledged that there is always a risk for harm when administering any kind of drug. Prescribers have large tomes on their desks citing lists of possible adverse effects. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly prescribed anxiolytics and antidepressants are known for increased anxiety, irritability and suicidality in the first two weeks that a person starts taking them; many antipsychotics cite “sudden death” as a potential outcome when initiated. And yes, psilocybin can induce unpleasant somatic and traumatic psychological experiences in the wrong setting or dose. We need to have more reverence for all drugs to avoid the risks associated with ingesting them. Persons who are already on psychiatric medicines and have a history of psychiatric pathology should be cautioned and never change their medicines without expert support.
Ongoing research supports psilocybin’s ability to stimulate synaptogenesis and neuroplasticity in the brain. This is the ability of the brain to create new patterns of connection, thinking and being; many studies have shown the effects of a single dose of psilocybin have shown a sustained benefit for weeks.
But there is no single elixir and there are certainly other avenues to enlightenment. Extensive breathwork and meditation might land you on a similar shore. We are complex creatures and need to invest in our mental wellbeing through the choices that we make and the practices that we perpetuate.
Are small doses of these naturally occurring compounds safe or even safer than their prescribed counterparts? Do they more often than not inspire more peace loving, less egoic humans? Should they be illegal or classed similarly to harder, addictive drugs? Should anyone be imprisoned for using them? Do they cultivate a deeper connection to a higher sense of self and a sense of continuity of life after death?