Magic mushrooms: journey or a trip?
Traditional healer takes her battle for the fungi to court
Every night for more than 30 years Jim* suffered nightmares from the Angolan war. In his 60s he took magic mushrooms and never had a bad dream again.
Fred* was a meth user. He joined a mushroom ceremony and stopped using the drug.
Pat* was raped as a six-year-old and never confronted the trauma until she went on a "mushroom journey". Her life was transformed by this psychedelic experience.
Some of these stories are told by former LifeLine director-turned-traditional practitioner Monica Cromhout, from Somerset West, who goes to court next year in her crusade for the unbanning of mushrooms containing psilocybin, which induces hallucinogenic effects.They promote healing and are not addictive, said 72-year-old Cromhout, who was arrested in December 2014 and again in March this year.
She wants the High Court in Cape Town to declare the law prohibiting the use of psilocybin unconstitutional.
Neuropsychopharmacologist Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London will testify in support of psilocybin's therapeutic benefits.
"Many studies have found that psilocybin used once or twice only can markedly improve mental state and reduce mental illness," said Nutt.
Small scientific trials, Medical Research Council data and psychiatrists corroborate Cromhout's conviction that, for most people, mushrooms are safer than other illegal substances, and even legal ones such as nicotine and alcohol. Vulnerable individuals could have a negative psychedelic experience but this is rare. Nearly 200 people who had joined Cromhout's "sacred mushroom journeys" would support the case, said her attorney, Johan Bester.
Increasingly, scientific evidence shows that psilocybin has the potential to help treat addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, treatment-resistant depression and other conditions.Scans have shown that muchrooms act on a serotonin receptor which regulates mood and consciousness, said Nutt. This appears to dampen the regions of the brain associated with fear and rumination and allows neural connections to be formed.
Professor Charles Parry, director of drug research at the MRC, said magic mushrooms were low on its list of concerns.
"They barely featured in the 'other drug' category in the reports from treatment centres over more than 20 years," he said.
Cape Town psychiatrist and addiction expert Dr Mike West said: "From a public health point of view there is very little rationale to prohibit them."
Mushrooms are not physiologically addictive and no overdoses or fatalities have been documented, he said.
"If taken recklessly at the wrong place with the wrong people, people could have rapid anxiety and fear losing control or going insane, colloquially referred to as a bad trip ... but these are uncommon," he said. "They could also make poor decisions at the time and, very infrequently, have flashbacks."
The concentration determines the intensity of the experience, said a Cape Town psychiatrist who has used magic mushrooms. He said they were powerful and unpredictable, with the potential to do great good or possibly harm to vulnerable individuals.
"The experience is very dose dependent. Mild amounts can make you coherent, but with huge amounts you disappear from reality," he said.
West said several small clinical trials in the past 10 years had shown promising results using mushrooms with psilocybin for treatment. Bigger trials were needed.
Johannesburg psychiatrist Dr Jan Chabalala said magic mushrooms were not an issue compared with drugs such as nyaope.
"They are not really popular because they do not give the desired kick," he said, warning, however, that many mushrooms were toxic.Although not indigenous to South Africa, magic mushrooms grow on the east coast and in the Drakensberg. Typically people ingest them as a powder ground from dried plants. It can also be put in tea.
During her mushroom journeys, which started in 2009, Cromhout has trained sober "watchers" who monitor the wellbeing of participants. They journey in the living room, where sacred music plays, and then they overflow into her garden.
Another woman in Cape Town conducts journeys at different levels.
"I have clients who need healing from trauma, addiction and depression and then I have clients who want to push alternate realities," she said.
One Cape Town man was glowing about her ceremonies. "It offers a unique perspective from which you can approach life, yourself and others in a much more loving and understanding way. The experience can be so overwhelming," he said.
Cromhout's lawyer said she wanted mushrooms legalised so South Africans could use them for spiritual purposes, but did not think they should be unregulated.
"They should not be mixed with other drugs, or driving, or given to underage children. We are not asking to be allowed to sell them in Checkers in the vegetable aisle."
* Not their real names
• Magic mushrooms pose the lowest potential risk to users (and those around them) out of 20 drugs reviewed by drug authorities in the UK (2010) and Europe (2015)
• Mushrooms can be ingested as “magic truffles” in the Netherlands and are widely available in South America, along with other mindaltering substances such as ayahuasca
• The ancient Greeks, Incas and Aztecs used natural products containing psilocybin in rituals