MARCH 2020. IN a darkened room in a Melbourne hospital, a slight, dark-haired woman sits at the bedside of a lone patient. Outside, COVID-19 webs its way silently through the city; inside, the patient rests back on the day bed, eyes covered with a soft eye mask, ears enclosed in noise-cancelling headphones through which a specially curated playlist will rise and fall over the next six hours or so. The seated woman – watching, listening, close enough to touch – is a clinical psychologist named Margaret Ross. After eighteen months of intense negotiations, preparations, crossing of fingers and dotting of i’s, she and a colleague, psychiatrist Justin Dwyer, have just given their charge a small white capsule containing a substantial dose of the mind-altering compound psilocybin, best known as the active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’.
It is a small but historic moment. And a strange one. Psilocybin and the fungi from which the compound is derived have been used in shamanic and other Indigenous rituals for centuries. The mushrooms are said to be depicted in artworks thousands of years old. They have been consumed by hippies in the Summer of Love, decried by former US president Richard Nixon and eventually outlawed. They have even informed their own theory of human evolution (US ethnobotanist Terence McKenna’s ‘Stoned Ape Theory’). But today they are being harnessed by Western medicine to try to ease the terror of dying.
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