Legalisation … Decriminalisation … Misinformation … Disinformation … Confusion! What is going on in the mushroom world?
Let’s start at the start: Why are magic mushrooms illegal? And what does it have to do with bicycles, or Vietnam?
We live in a world where mushrooms (and some other naturally occurring substances) are illegal. There was a time, before these laws, when these substances were not illegal. Who decided to outlaw these substances? When did this happen? And why did someone think that ingesting a mushroom that grows wild in nature, should be a criminal offence … of the highest order?
This is an interesting story, which needs a bit of historical context to make sense.
We need to start many many years ago. Before I was born. Before the Republic of South Africa was born. Even before Jesus Christ was born…
I would like to take you down this rabbit hole, which gets more and more interesting around every corner!
Paul Stamets tells a great story: He was 12 years old when his brother, then at university, came home for the holidays. He got hold of his brother’s book about mushrooms, and showed it to his best friend. A few days later he asked his friend for the book, to return it to his brother. The friend said “I can’t give you the book, because my father burnt it”…! Paul Stamets says that was the trigger for his interest in mushrooms. If someone would burn a book about mushrooms, there must be something really interesting behind it!
We’re in a similar situation. If someone thought it necessary to make a law against mushrooms, one should wonder what is behind it…?
Let’s try to unravel the story.
The oldest documented use of mushrooms is a cave painting called the “Bee man”, found in a cave in Algeria in Northern Africa. Why the “bee man”? Because his head and face look like a bee, and mushrooms are sprouting from all over his body and he is holding a bouquet of mushrooms in each hand. The petroglyph is dated to 9000 years ago.
It seems every culture around the world has traditions and rituals and uses techniques to attain an altered state. Some of these date back thousands of years.
Think of the Eleusinian mystery schools of ancient Greece – their sacrament was possibly a brew which contained the ergot fungus. Plato and Aristotle are among the students who attended these mystery schools. Divulging the mysteries that people learnt at these gatherings, was punishable by death! Some of our civilisation’s cornerstone ideas, like democracy and the rule of law, were formulated in this community … under the influence of altered states of consciousness!
To learn more about the ancient use of mind altering substances, I recommend a recent book by Brian Maruresku The Immortality Key, and an older publication by John and Julie Brown The Psychedelic Gospels.
When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century, they found that the Aztecs and Maya used psychoactive substances in their rituals and ceremonies. This practice was forcibly suppressed by the Roman Catholic priests. Probably with good reason, because some of their rituals included human sacrifice.
In Meso and South America there is no shortage of naturally occurring psychoactive substances. Mexico has several options. You can trip on magic mushrooms, or toad venom, or cactus juice. And going to the Amazon your options also include ayahuasca.
Closer to home in Southern Africa, the Khoisan used different plants and other techniques to induce an altered state. Rhythmic drumming and dancing around the fire, and chewing mesembrium containing succulents will also put you on a trip.
There are many references to substance use in the literature – medicinally and recreationally. Opium was “the aspirin of the 19th century”. Published in 1865, even Alice encountered “hookah-smoking caterpillars and magical mushrooms” in her Wonderland.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) Sherlock Holmes stories, the great detective occasionally shoots himself up with cocaine because he believes that it stimulates his brain when he is not on a case.
Queen Victoria loved her drugs. She was a regular user of opium and cocaine. She preferred her heroin in tincture form. The tincture was opium dissolved in 90% alcohol! She took chloroform during childbirth, and said it was “enjoyable”. She used to chew gum together with a young Winston Churchill. Gum with a difference … laced with cocaine!
In Victorian Britain psychoactive drugs (particularly opium) enjoyed widespread use among all classes of society, but their use was not regarded as a serious social and medical problem until the early twentieth century, when doctors began to warn about the dangers of addiction. The recreational use of drugs was banned in Britain by the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1920.
Gordon Wasson was a banker in New York. He had a hobbyist interest in mushrooms. He heard stories about psychoactive mushrooms in Mexico, and went to look for them. After several unsuccessful trips, he met Maria Sabina, who reluctantly introduced him to psilocybin containing mushrooms. It was he who coined the term “magic mushrooms” when he wrote an article, published in Life magazine in 1957. (I wonder if he was inspired by Alice…?)
It was the Swiss pharmacologist Albert Hofmann who identified the psychoactive substance in magic mushrooms and called the principal metabolites psilocybin and psilocin. The same Albert Hofmann synthesised lysergic acid diethylamide, trying to find a respiratory and circulatory stimulant for his employer, Sandoz Laboratories. He unintentionally absorbed some of the substance through his fingertips – it gave him a pleasant sensation. Three days later, on 19 April 1943 he intentionally ingested a larger dose. Riding his bicycle home after work, the effects of the substance kicked in – hence “Bicycle Day” – the first intentional LSD trip in history!
LSD was distributed free of charge to psychiatrists around the world. This was the new mind-manifesting or mind-expanding (= “psychedelic”) wonder drug. Until it escaped the psychiatrist’s couch, and became the sacrament of the hippie movement of the 1960s.
Keep in mind that throughout all of this, all of these substances were completely legal.
And then there was a turbulent era in the 1960s
- Psychedelics became popular on the streets of California
- The United Nations adopted the “Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961“
- JFK was assassinated in 1963
- The Civil Rights Movement in the US was in full swing
- MLK was assassinated in 1968
- The US was waging a war in Vietnam
- Apollo 11 put Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969
- Tulbagh, Wolseley and Ceres in the Boland bore the brunt of the most devastating earthquake in recorded South African history in 1969
- Woodstock happened in 1969
At Woodstock almost half a million people took Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”. Tim Leary (professor of psychology at Harvard University) got stripped of his academic titles and career, and together with Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) they got fired in 1963, after involving undergraduate students in their experiments with mind altering substances.
Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America”.
Nixon had a lot on his plate in the 1960s. He had to deal with the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement – the US was waging a war in Vietnam. (Does anybody know why they had to fight this war?) Some people say that Nixon couldn’t make it illegal to be black, and he couldn’t make it illegal to protest, so he decided to make the drugs illegal – and then all the unwanted people could be arrested and removed from society. And they could ship the boys off to Vietnam.
If this is correct, it is the basis for the “War on Drugs”, 1970.
Let’s see… when did the obesity epidemic in the US start? Oh yes, and what about the opioid addiction crisis in the US? Hmmm … middle 1970s …
For a very entertaining dive into the (counter) culture of the 1960s, watch the musical Hair. Great music! Great fashion! Great hair! There is even an allusion to the precession of the equinoxes: – the song Aquarius reminds us that we are moving from the age of Pisces to the age of Aquarius. Simple astronomy, but very few people understand the meaning of these “ages”.
Back to South Africa…
Researching the history of drug laws in RSA, one finds very interesting things. E.g.: –
– the first laws about cannabis were passed in 1928 (in tune with cannabis being demonised and called “marijuana” in the US)
– methaqualone (mandrax) is the second most used drug (after cannabis) in RSA
– there is no heroin or cocaine production in RSA
In 1961 a professor of medicine at the University of Pretoria, Dr H W Snyman, headed a governmental commission that bore his name. Its recommendations led to the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act, no 101 of 1965. This is the earliest reference I could find making mushrooms illegal in South Africa.
From this act:
No person shall-
acquire, use, have in his possession, manufacture or import any Schedule 8 substance except for analytical or research purposes and unless a permit for such acquisition, use, possession, manufacture or importation has been issued to him by the Director-General on the recommendation of the council; or
acquire, import, collect, cultivate, keep or export any plant or any portion thereof from which any such substance can be extracted, derived, produced or manufactured, unless a permit to acquire, import, collect, cultivate, keep or export such plant or any portion thereof, has been issued to him by the Director-General on the recommendation of the council.
The Schedule 8 substance list is … long! I highlight a few:
- Bufotenine (from the Incillius alvarius toad)
- Cannabis (and all it’s derivatives and metabolites)
- Harmaline and harmine (found in ayahuasca)(= MAOI)
- Mescaline (found in San Pedro and peyote cactus)
- Methaqualone (Mandrax)
- Psylocybin (sic: note incorrect spelling)
- Psilocin (correct spelling)
Note that under sub-heading (b) there is mention of “plant”, but no mention of fungus (mushrooms) or animal (toad). This, unfortunately, is not a loophole, because bufotenine, psilocybin and psilocin are listed explicitly later.
So, it seems South Africa had outlawed substances like psilocybin and tetrahydrocannabinoid before the US war on drugs broke out. The RSA law underwent a few iterations and the latest version can be found in the Government Gazette of 15 July 1992: Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act no 140 of 1992, signed by the then State President F W de Klerk on 2 July 1992.
Why would an authority decide that a substance should be illegal? A reference to objective criteria is hard to find. As far as I could find out, there are three reasons for making a substance illegal. It must:
- Be harmful to the individual or the community
- Have no medicinal value
- Have the potential to be addictive
If we look at the famous drug chart of Prof David Nutt, it is clear that the three criteria do not apply to alcohol and tobacco … both rank considerably higher than the lowest item on this scale:
Scientific research in respected international centres, from Johns Hopkins in Maryland to Imperial College in London, proves that psilocybin…
- Is not harmful to the individual or the community
- Has enormous medicinal value, especially in the field of mental health
- Is not addictive (actually it is often the cure for addiction)
And once in a while a spark of hope surprises us: In December 2022 a former President of South Africa, Kgalema Mothlante, calls for the legalisation of all recreational drugs.
We are left with few answers, but many questions and frustrations. It is clear that considerations other than pure medical and scientific facts were used to draft and enact these laws, whether in the RSA or the USA.
Instead of the reverence that these natural substances should inspire, they have been tainted by disinformation and propaganda to further agendas that have nothing to do with the expansion of consciousness or personal discovery or mysticism.
A substance like psilocybin or psilocin should never have been included in the list of Schedule 8 substances. That was a mistake.
Now we are campaigning to change the law. In my opinion we do not need more laws. We need something really really simple: remove the words “psilocybin” and “psilocin” from the current drug laws. Simple.
And let’s all carry on with our normal lives.