/ 6 September 2019

Let’s change SA’s mind on psychedelics

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)




In about 1610, Galileo Galilei built a telescope and gazed into the heavens. He concluded that heliocentrism, the model contrary to the dogmatic belief that Earth was the centre of the universe, was fact. This displeased the Vatican, which tried him as a heretic and dismissed his telescope as a tool of evil.

In the final year of my law degree, I wrote an essay justifying the decriminalisation of cannabis. The argument went, loosely, that one could not reasonably, rationally and constitutionally prohibit cannabis, while allowing for greater harms such as tobacco and alcohol.

I would go on to represent “The Dagga Couple”, Myrtle Clarke and Jules Stobbs, at trial and in the Constitutional Court, the 2018 judgment of which decriminalised the personal and private use, possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults in South Africa. I now present widely and advise clients on this (mostly) celebrated societal shift. I advocate for reasonable and rational drug policies.

Today, I write about psychedelics, also known as entheogens. Psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin (commonly called magic mushrooms), mescaline (which occurs in various cacti), dimethyltryptamine (a brew that includes a South American vine, ayahuasca), and lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD (synthesised from the ergot fungus found on rye), act on our serotonin receptors and induce altered states of consciousness described as mystical or spiritual. They are distinguished from other classes of drugs for being consumed to achieve psychological or spiritual development, as opposed to merely for recreation.

Shamans around the world have used entheogens (and also breathwork, fasting and chanting) for millennia to induce a lens into spiritual worlds from where they say they derive their wisdom; in rites of passage; and to treat people’s psychological or spiritual needs. These medicine men are what priests and psychiatrists are in Western society.

As a hard-won constitutional democracy that guarantees all, through our Bill of Rights, among others, equality, dignity, bodily and psychological integrity, privacy and freedom of belief and opinion, would it not be outdated thinking if we continued to criminally prohibit the use of psychedelics? Are we so sure that we are correct about altered states that we ought to abandon cultural relativism and dismiss the shaman as a dangerous lunatic?

Here, I invoke the adult realisation that systems of knowledge do not automatically derive legitimacy from being Western. To commence with a palatable example, neuroscience is only now waking up to the long-known (in the East) benefits of meditation. Although it may yet take centuries to understand exactly what is occurring at a neurological and psychological level, Westerners are now (without criminal consequences) adopting this practice — achieving wellbeing, mindfulness, presence or transcendence — knowing that it works, but without knowing exactly how, or why, it works.

The same is true for psychedelics. Once celebrated by Western doctors as possible psychiatric panaceas, then suppressed in the latter 20th century, alongside the “dangerous” counterculture that was the hippies, they are, today, experiencing a renaissance among many mindful or spiritual people in the West — the “psychonauts” or “navigators of the mind”.

Science is starting to understand how (through the deconstruction and rebuilding of “the default mode network” — the habitual or mindless way of doing things) psychedelics may present as long-term, sustainable treatments for disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

They also increase creativity (by connecting parts of the brain that do not normally communicate) and empathy (through the experience of interconnectedness between everyone and everything).

While science plays catch up, countless doctors, lawyers, teachers, chief executives, artists, inventors, and other (otherwise) law-abiding citizens around the world, are turning to psychedelics (albeit, mostly clandestinely) as shortcuts to spiritual or psychological growth. Famous historical examples include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Francis Crick, Richard Feynman and The Beatles (many of whom directly attribute their creations, inventions and discoveries to psychedelics).

Is this a bad thing and ought they to have been punished? Should effective medicines only be consumed when bottled, signed off by government authorities and dispensed by pharmacists? Are we not allowed to self-elevate or self-medicate, even when not sick, or to experiment with our own minds? Are altered states of consciousness punishable? Should we suppress the potential of better and more creative, inventive people and what potential discoveries, inventions or works of art might forever be lost thereby?

Although we do not yet know all that we can, or will, know, we do know some important things about psychedelics. Primarily, they are much safer (both for their users and others) than drugs that we allow people to use without fear of criminal consequences, such as alcohol and tobacco.

They seldom cause addiction (in fact, they often cure it) and, but for what is termed a “bad trip”, or in respect of those whose predispositions render them unviable for any unsupervised mind alteration, they present as relatively safe, psychologically and physiologically.

Given that the Constitutional Court accounted for cannabis being safer than alcohol and tobacco and that entheogens are even safer than cannabis, rendering an analogous argument to that of my old varsity paper applicable to them, I differ with those who would seek to rely upon alleging “they are harmful” as justification for maintaining a criminal prohibition on the use of psychedelics.

It is not only about safety and harm reduction, it is also about fundamental human rights. Who is the government to think that it is justified in subjecting otherwise innocent people to the indignity (and invasion of privacy) of punishing them for consuming low-harm chemicals that they decide are a means through which they will achieve positive personal growth, of the kind that spills over into daily life, in the observable (and reproducible) form of happier, more empathetic people?

What is more intimate and private than an individual’s psyche and what should be more off-limits to intervention than the internal spaces that one visits when one consumes an entheogen? To maintain criminal prohibition is, in this instance, government mind control (written wearing my tinfoil hat). It is an affront to what is now termed “cognitive liberty”.

Although heavily dose dependent (experiences on a spectrum between visual sparkles to complete ego dissolution), the successful, responsible adult use of psychedelics seems, more often than not, to boil down to “set and setting”, being the mindset that one has when entering into an altered state, alongside the place that one does it and with whom (both comforts and discomforts may be amplified). Thus, pre-planned consumption of an entheogen by a stream, on a warm day, by a generally happy person, with close companions nearby, should be blissfully meditative, whereas an already paranoid person, taking unplanned, in a dodgy part of town, at night, and then losing their friends, unable to get home, would be frankly nightmarish.

That said, many of those who experience a “bad trip” seem to emerge, nonetheless, thankful for it, for reason that they have battled and conquered their inner demons, emerging stronger.

In addition to the “psychonauts” themselves, the shamans, psychiatrists and psychologists have their places in establishing correct “protocols”, but such liberal information sharing will only ever occur if entheogens emerge from the shadows and into our accepted culture and pharmacopeia.

The major hurdle to the legalisation of psychedelics is, therefore, not so much an absence of science, or safety, as it is unthinking religious, moral or cultural panic. People are afraid of what they do not know, especially if it challenges long-standing values and beliefs.

Whether we can get this through the courts, or past government, is yet to be seen, but the jurisprudential school of “judicial realism” (loosely, that law-makers, being people, are not immune from biases) suggests that the real challenge will be to convince the conservatives in court and government (those who, with respect, are unqualified to make this decision, for reason of inexperience and fear) to loosen up and allow Galileo to look through his telescope, without attacking the validity of what he sees, or the instrument used to see it.

After all, science is a process whereby we devise tools to collectively agree on “reality”. The brain is the ultimate scientific tool, as the final processor of the sensory inputs or data that allow us to construct models of “reality”. Psychedelics shift the brain’s focus to bring new perspectives into view. This is not heresy. It is alternate reality. To ban it is to ban the looking through of telescopes, or the telescopes themselves.

I have avoided burdening this article with what could be countless references but please consider Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. The information is abundant, available, credible and easy to find. Read it, process it and change your mind.

Paul-Michael Keichel is a partner at Schindlers Attorneys in Johannesburg and heads up its M&R cannabis law department. He was a speaker at the Mail & Guardian’s Cannabis: Legislation, Implications and Opportunities event in May