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Local leading the charge to bring psychedelic medicines out of the shadows

Paul Bibby

‘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.

An image from the film Trip of Compassion about the use of psychedelic medicines to treat Israelis suffering trauma. The film is showing in Byron on March 7. Image supplied.

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.’

Steve’s story 

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.’

In a statement to The Echo, the office of the Governor-General confirmed the meeting with Mr McDonald and that they served together in Somalia. The statement also confirmed that His Excellency contacted the Department of Defence and DVA, asking them to contact Mr McDonald.

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6 responses to “Local leading the charge to bring psychedelic medicines out of the shadows”

  1. Kerry Stevens says:

    I have read with interest about the inclusion of what is legalized procedure of a psychedelic substance to be administered and investigated as a substance to abate symptoms that afflicts war veterans so acutely. In Sydney. I was introduced to acid. Initially I did not know what to expect. Via observation in a private setting I experienced physical, spiritual cognitive auditory hallucinations. Being able to deduce the information I discovered things as animal souls past life experiences Origin of pain and trauma. I came up here via request and was introduced to Mushrooms. it enabled me to amplify my sensitivity and assist people to find closure understanding. and most of all;healing..You cannot synthesize the active component anymore than the DNA. By subscribing one pill to be taken after meal. It is a process of allowing the patient 100% spiritual, physical mental and psychological expression and delivery so that nothing is left. Over a session that takes hours progress was made. The patient was rescued from anxiety, guilt and pain.

  2. Len Heggarty says:

    To a Byron local last year the greeting he received was just as thrilling to him as the famed “Dr Livingstone I presume.”
    Steve McDonald on the steps of Yarralumla Canberra last year shook the hand of the government general as he heard his words: ‘Hi Steve, I believe you’re here to speak to me about Ayahuasca.’

  3. Ken says:

    Well whoopidoo !
    Yes there is tremendous potential for resetting the psyche of these war criminals, as it is extremely difficult for these war criminals to come to terms with their atrocities ,especally when the comanders are lauding their efforts in fighting woman and children in an effort to procure a’ just peace’.
    PSTD is a condition defined by an inability to justify actions taken for money, over morality. So total ego annihilation is the only treatment, and a last resort, to justify the actions of our Mercenaries..
    G”)

  4. Yes plants like ayahuasca have been used for thousands of years for healing and more recently in the last 2 decades to help people release traumas that phycologists have not been able to get to. It will be good to see this powerful practice be available to more people in need without the ridicules war on drugs preventing genuine healing. Go Steve.

  5. Awesome and exciting news……here comes the future.

  6. Jeremy Nanson says:

    Firstly wow!
    Someone can’t spell or articulate and that’s the first comment made about this article.
    Really good article didn’t quite cut it with the following statement.
    I would have thought enthusiasm instead of criticism may have been more appropriate?
    George take a chill pill or am I missing something?
    Ken.
    Yes correct point!
    War criminals.
    How where they made into war criminals that need the realm of elves to repair their own tortured souls.
    Nice point but hardly using the technology and promoting it.
    Instead
    Promote more of the same.
    Personally I had too many shakes(mushys)at the end of a well named lane in Kuta and had my own amazing interaction with the “unknown”.
    For critics.
    Elves
    Terence McKenna
    My delusion according to some.
    For ones that experienced..
    A reality that transcends our experience here.
    Well done article
    And in the current geo political environment.
    Where the clock just counted again to if I believe corrorectly…
    100 seconds to midnight.
    I suggest this may be our only hope.
    Well needed!

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