Let’s change SA’s mind on psychedelics




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equality, dignity, bodily and psychological integrity, privacy and freedom of belief and opinion, would it not be outdated thinking if we continued to criminally prohibit the use of psychedelics?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

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

Restaurants and taverns traded in alcohol despite the bans

An entirely new supply chain has now been created, and of course it’s untaxed

SA must fix its ‘dop system’

The Covid-19 lockdown has exposed the effects of South Africa’s weak alcohol regulations. Government and health campaigners want tougher policies, but the liquor giants are pushing back

Level one loading: Almost back to normal

President Cyril Ramaphosa announces South Africa will move to level one of lockdown on September 20 after nearly six months of restrictions on movement, trade, learning and socialising

Homegrown vs Big Pharma: Who stands to benefit from the legal market for medical marijuana?

Cannabis is scheduled for its South African parole on September 18. Kelly McQue’s handy medical marijuana producers’ guide is an opening salvo against corporate medicine’s demand for exclusive rights to the plant’s healing powers

‘Jobs vs health’: What will shape public-health policies after Covid-19?

Comorbidities, particularly noncommunicable diseases have been put into the spotlight during the Covid-19 pandemic. How we approach preventing NCDs in the future will depend on how the effects of the coronavirus are framed

South Africa goes to Covid-19 level 2 on Monday

President Ramaphosa drops most of the restrictions that have been in place for the last five months, citing ‘signs of hope’

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

Zuma maintains his true colours at Zondo commission

The former president’s escapades at the commission of inquiry into state capture are a far cry from Nelson Mandela’s response when summonsed to testify in the high court

Gordhan tells Zondo how Moyane wanted to advance the objectives...

The public enterprises minister is being cross-examined by Tom Moyane’s lawyers at the state capture inquiry, as both men seek to defend their reputations

Burundian refugees in Tanzania face increasing danger

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of Burundian refugees being tortured and forcibly returned by Tanzanian authorities

Exclusive: Top-secret testimonies implicate Rwanda’s president in war crimes

Explosive witness testimony from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda implicates Paul Kagame and the RPF in mass killings before, during and after the 1994 genocide.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…