Sh­room ac­tivist aims to change law


They are not re­ally pop­u­lar be­cause they do not give the de­sired kick Dr Jan Cha­bal­ala Jo­han­nes­burg psy­chi­a­trist who said magic mush­rooms were not an is­sue com­pared with drugs such as nyaope

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

Pic­ture: Ru­van Boshoff

Mon­ica Cromhout in her gar­den where those on her ‘mush­room jour­neys’ are mon­i­tored by ’watch­ers’ .

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