Your guide to natural highs

Naturally occurring hallucinogenic and narcotic plants have played an important role in religious and cultural practices throughout history — and many young South Africans are experimenting with these “organic highs”.

Unlike marijuana and most laboratory-synthesised narcotics, these mind-altering plants are not “proscribed” in terms of the Drugs and Drugs Trafficking Act of 1992. They include Salvia divinorum, Trichocereus pachanoi (San Pedro cactus), Lophophora williamsi (peyote cactus), Sceletium tortuosum (“Bushman’s ecstasy”) and Catha edulis (khat). The last two are indigenous to South Africa, while the others are available from nurseries and specialised shops.

Iboga, used in the rituals of West Africa’s Yoruba people, is permitted but not readily available here.
The individual ingredients in ayahuasca, an Amazonian plant brew, are legal, but are listed as a drug when combined to make the brew. It is legal to own the spores of the Psilocybe (“magic”) mushroom, but the fully grown fungus is listed.

Frequently, users partake of these substances as a form of psychotherapy or spiritual exploration. Simon Duke* is a twentysomething Johannesburg nursery owner, self-confessed psychotropic plant enthusiast and walking encyclopedia of ethno-botanical knowledge. “I started eating plants at the age of 12 and my interest started from there,” said Duke. “We get a lot of customers from the trance community, New Age hippies and other esoteric communities looking for natural alternatives to designer chemicals.”

One of Duke’s customers is John Kasbins*, who says he has “a huge affinity with and respect for the natural world. When I consume something that is going to alter me as a person, I would rather have a connection with it.”

Kasbins believes psychotropic plants should be treated with respect, and should not be used for recreational purposes. “These plants have been used for many years and have developed certain rituals and processes [around them] that guide the experience.”

Kasbins hopes to experiment with these hallucinogens under a shaman’s guidance one day. Shamans from South America were brought out by certain South African communities to conduct peyote rituals, he said. “They feed you lots of peyote and guide you through a healing spiritual journey using chanting, drumming and other techniques.”

Steven Kris*, another of Duke’s customers, said people use these hallucinogens for “personal exploration”. Those who use them recreationally are courting danger, as irresponsible consumption could result in bad experiences.

The most widely consumed psychotropic plants and fungi in South Africa are:

l Psilocybe semilanceata (magic mushrooms) grow in Europe, Australia and North America. Its primary psychoactive substances are psilocybin and psilocin.

It is legal to own mushroom spores, and they can be purchased from nurseries or even bought online by mail order. However, it is illegal to have Psilocybe in one’s possession.

Kris and another student Jack Moore* cultivate mushrooms at home because they could not buy them regularly. Kris said it takes about a month to cultivate a harvest of mushrooms, which are then dried for preservation. “We only grow for our personal use and that of friends.”

He said he now uses the fungus less often, preferring to accumulate it for larger doses. On its effects, Moore said: “You feel that everything you are has been scattered, and that you are trying to piece yourself back together again. You get to see every piece, and to sift out the bad things. It’s like psychotherapy for yourself.” Added Kris: “You can look at yourself objectively.”

Kasbins also began experimenting with imported fungi but progressed to naturally occurring mushrooms, which are “up to 10 times stronger”.

He warned that natural hallucinogens often had poisonous lookalikes. “I once ended up puking for three days. It was insane; I thought I was going to die.”

l Salvia divinorum has been used by the Mazatec Indians in Mexico in divinatory rituals for centuries. Its active ingredient is Salvinorin-A, regarded as the world’s most potent naturally occurring psychoactive substance.

It is legal to buy Salvia divinorum plants and leaves anywhere in the world except Australia.

The Salvia divinorum leaves are smoked or chewed in a quiet dark room, and hallucinations are said to last 10 to 15 minutes, with mild after-effects lasting between 30 minutes and an hour. Users recommend that a friend who is not partaking is present.

Duke said the drug induced an “out of body” experience quite unlike any other. “My dream state and conscious state started to merge. I would call people up and continue a conversation that I had started with them in my trip, and they had no idea what I was talking about.”

l Peyote, which grows between southern Texas and the Mexican state of San Lusi Potosi, is traditionally used by the Kiowa Indians in ceremonies. They slice off the top of the cactus, often referred to as a “mescal button”, and consume it while sitting around a fire. Participants sing and beat drums throughout the night, and in the morning discuss their visions.

Most users chew and swallow four or five fresh or dried buttons, and the effects are felt between 30 minutes and an hour after consumption.

Users, famously including Aldous Huxley, say they feel religious serenity and oneness with life, a rapid thought flow and visual hallucinations of brilliant colours and shapes, as well as auras around objects.

The experience may last between six and 12 hours.

*Real names not used at sources’ request

The lowdown on getting high

Salvia divinorum

  • Not readily available in South Africa until recently. A Johannesburg nursery now sells leaves and an extract of the plant.

  • An extract derived from 40 times the weight of plant material sells in 100mg packages for R100.

Peyote and San Pedro cactus

  • A five-year-old peyote cactus sells for between R250 and R350, but a single dose of mescaline could require up to 10 such plants, making it an expensive hallucinogen.

  • One metre of San Pedro cactus is said to be sufficient to produce enough mescaline for four people.

  • Both peyote and San Pedro cacti are readily available at nurseries across the country.

  • Extracting mescaline from the cactus is simple and the equipment and chemicals are easily obtained.

  • It is only legal to own the peyote or San Pedro cactus as a plant — sections of the plant are illegal.

‘Magic mushrooms’

  • Can be found naturally, but are mostly sold by a dealer.

  • Mostly cultivated using imported spores, which can be bought via mail order. Commonly sold as “mushroom chocolate”, which contains about 3g of the fungus and costs R50.

  • Possesion of the fungus is illegal

‘Bushman’s ecstasy’

  • Grows naturally in the Western Cape and can be legally bought at nurseries.

  • Sceletium comes from a shrub that grows up to 30cm in height.

  • Sceletium’s main alkaloids are mesembine and mesembrenine, and the plant has been used as a natural anti-depressant.


  • Khat is available from many nurseries, especially in the Cape. Khat leaves can be found for sale on the streets of Johannesburg.

  • The leaves contain a psychoactive ingredient known as cathinone, released when chewed.

  • It can also be smoked or brewed as tea. The stimulant generates euphoria, and consumers become talkative and laugh a lot.

Lloyd Gedye

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