‘Hi Steve, I believe you’re here to speak to me about Ayahuasca.’
These were just about the last words Byron local Steve McDonald ever expected to hear from Australia’s Governor-General.
But that’s exactly how the GG greeted Mr McDonald late last year when they met at Yarralumla to discuss the use of psychedelics in helping to treat deeply traumatised Australian soldiers.
The meeting, the fortuitous outcome of a casual comment Mr McDonald made to a former army mate, represents a significant step forward in the push to make psychedelic-assisted treatments available to Australians suffering from mental illnesses.
‘We started talking about how Australia might prepare for the introduction of these [psychedelic] medicines as legal,’ says McDonald, a former military commander who experienced severe PTSD and depression after 15 years of service.
‘Then he asked whether I would like an introduction to the head of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA).
‘I said “yes please”, and he asked me to go and speak to the defence department as well.
‘He was cautious, but I think he was open to the possibilities offered by these treatments.’
Since the meeting, McDonald has been contacted by the senior pharmacy advisor at DVA and the director of defence health policy at the department of defence.
He is now the process of organising formal meetings to discuss the benefits offered by the use of MDMA, mushroom-derived psilocybin and Ayahuasca in the treatment of various conditions including PTSD, complex trauma, depression and anxiety.
It is significant recognition for the psychedelic medicine movement in Australia, the heart of which lies in the Byron Shire.
For years these forms of treatment have been kept on the outer by mainstream medical authorities, forcing them underground.
After having a major impact on psychiatry in the 1950s and 60s, the Nixon administration effectively strangled the movement by criminalising psychedelic substances.
It took decades, but the treatments gradually re-emerged from the wilderness and have received a growing level of respect and research funding in a number of countries in the past 10 years.
This culminated in the US Federal Drug Administration endorsing Psilocybin as a ‘breakthrough therapy’ for severe depression six weeks ago.
Psychedelic medicine explained
There are multiple psychedelic treatments being trialed for a range of different mental health conditions, including PTSD, depression and anxiety across the world.
They typically combine psychotherapy sessions with a small number of medicinal doses of a psychedelic substance, but there are also other processes being practiced, many with a strong spiritual component stemming from the use of psychedelics in shamanic healing rituals that goes back thousands of years.
A number of these processes are quietly being practiced in the Byron Shire, which is at the heart of psychedelic healing in Australia.
In terms of legal uses, Australia’s first authorised psilocybin trial is currently taking place in Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital.
It involves the use of the substance to help treat chronically ill patients who are suffering end-of-life depression and anxiety.
One of the groups co-funding this trial is Mind Medicine Australia (MMA), an organisation whose ultimate goal is to have psychedelic medicines registered by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.
‘The mental health system in this country is broken, and the consequences for our community are devastating,’ the organisation’s co-director Tania de Jong says.
‘We get heart-breaking emails and phone calls every day from people who’ve tried everything and are desperate to try psychedelic-assisted treatments.
‘The laws we currently have here force people to go overseas or to approach underground practitioners.
‘Not to take away from the many amazing therapists operating in that space, but it’s much harder to monitor the quality of treatment underground.’
It was the desire to access underground psychedelic-assisted treatment for PTSD and depression that brought McDonald to the Byron Shire.
‘I’d basically tried everything,’ he says.
‘Antidepressants, group therapy, one-to-one therapy, but it really wasn’t working.
‘In 2006 I had the opportunity to drink ayahuasca.
‘I found that it cleared up my depression really quickly. As a result I looked for more opportunities to drink ayahuasca and over time it just completely disappeared.’
Some years later, with the help of MDMA-assisted therapy, he also successfully treated his PTSD.
In a strange twist of fate, one of the experiences most responsible for McDonald’s trauma also brought him to the Governor-General’s door.
‘I served in Somalia during the civil war as a company commander,’ he says.
‘David Hurley was the commander of the first infantry battalion so I was directly answerable to him.
‘Last year I was promoting a documentary about two American army veterans, and an old army colleague saw the promo on Facebook and sent me a message.
‘We were chatting on messenger and I sent him an off-hand msg saying I’d love to speak to David Hurley.’
A week or so later Steve’s army mate passed a message on from the Governor General.
‘Tell Steve to come and see me next week,’ it read.
‘It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens.’