Granny sticking to her shrooms

2015-03-29 15:00

Arrested for allegedly dealing in magic mushrooms, will Somerset West grandmother Monica Cromhout prove the law to be unconstitutional?

Dressed in black trousers and a bright kaftan, 69-year-old Monica Cromhout looks more like a granny in a fairy tale than a dangerous drug dealer.

But the former nurse who once headed counselling organisation Life Line appeared in the Somerset West Magistrates’ Court on Monday charged with dealing in illegal substances.

Cromhout was arrested just before Christmas last year, after eight armed police officers raided her home at 3am while she was holding one of her “sacred” ceremonies.

The “illegal substance” she was allegedly dishing out to the 18 participants in the ritual were magic mushrooms, which contain the active ingredient psilocybin, a hallucinogen.

Cromhout now faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. Although her case was struck off the roll because of the length of time it was taking to get her seized mushrooms tested, the charges against her are still pending.

Cromhout’s home, known as The Healing House, is the only property in her street not surrounded by a fence or high walls. Surely a drug dealer should have some security, or a door buzzer at the very least? A cement angel near the front door rests beside a cactus.

City Press was ushered past floor-to-ceiling bookshelves to a room lined with cushions, mattresses and comfy couches.

“This is where the mushroom ceremonies take place,” Cromhout says proudly, explaining that the “spiritual growth” sessions she facilitates, also known as Soma ceremonies, are quiet and peaceful affairs.

Mushrooms are handed out – 2g to 5g a piece and taken with dark chocolate – against a backdrop of calm, atmospheric music. During the sessions, participants often move outside and sit around a fire in the garden.

But last December, a serene Soma ceremony took a dramatic turn when a 77-year-old professor, who’d come to try the mushrooms, flipped out and ran straight to the police station three blocks away.

Cromhout says the old man suddenly became restless in the ceremony room.

“It was most unusual for someone to react that way. He was extremely agitated and began crawling out of the room, pushing all help away. I was terribly worried about him and sent my helpers out to find him.”

A little while later, there was a loud banging on the back door. “I was so relieved when I saw two policemen in the shadows – I could have kissed them! I said: ‘You’ve got John!’ I told them to come in, but I would only later find out this gave them permission to legally search the house.”

Soon, the two policemen were joined by six more armed officers who had been hiding in the darkness.

“They were convinced there was something like a sex orgy going on,” chuckles Monica.

“They stormed into the quiet house probably expecting crazy partying. Now you can imagine how the poor people who were having this calm, gentle experience must have felt when all these armed police marched in, shining torches into their faces.”

The officers eventually found Monica’s carefully packaged mushrooms in airtight containers in a small freezer in her bedroom. They also seized 10 dagga cookies and a box of dried sage.

While the cops rushed back to the station to test the haul, Cromhout was told to stay at home.

“I was calm. I felt confident. I had a clear conscience – I knew I’d done nothing wrong. You see, psilocybin has been used for thousands of years, playing a significant role in the development of philosophy and religious thought in many earlier cultures.”

Cromhout believes so strongly in her right to take psilocybin that her defence will involve interrogating the law that prohibits its use.

“Ultimately, I feel it’s my constitutional right to take psilocybin in the privacy of my home. I know it causes no harm and, in fact, its prohibition infringes upon my right to human dignity, my religious and cultural rights and individual sovereignty.”

Cromhout’s lawyer, Advocate Robin Stransham-Ford, has represented art directors Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, who mounted a Constitutional Court challenge against the laws prohibiting the possession and use of dagga. As in that case, Stransham-Ford will apply to have certain parts of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act declared unconstitutional.

“Unlike other drugs like cocaine and tik, psilocybin does not cause addiction and therefore does not belong in this dangerous and dependence-producing class. Plus, there are no recorded deaths resulting from magic mushrooms. One can’t say the same about some legal substances such as nicotine and alcohol,” Stransham-Ford said.

But the Somerset West police didn’t think so. Thirty minutes after they left The Healing House in a cacophony of sirens, two police vans full of cops returned with evidence that the mushrooms were “of the illegal kind”, and Cromhout was arrested.

At the police station, unable to establish how much the mushrooms weighed, a comedic hunt for a scale ensued. Finally, a small, floury scale was found in the bakery section of a local supermarket. Cromhout was informed her stash weighed 2kg. Oops.

“I didn’t realise I had been able to accumulate such a large amount.” She smiles impishly.

Back at the police station, Cromhout had to sign several documents she could barely read because she’d left her glasses at home.

Then she was taken to the cells, where a woman’s voice, thick with the ravages of years of Mandrax use, broke the silence. “What are you in for?”

“I told her ‘mushrooms’, and then she sighed deeply and said: ‘With mushrooms, you touch God.’”

Her cellmate, Nina, had been in Pollsmoor Prison three times on drug-related charges. She spent much of the conversation with Cromhout trying to push her teeth back into her drug-ravaged gums.

Cromhout’s path to alternative remedies and spiritual enlightenment began 10 years ago when her husband died from pancreatic cancer. Until then a teetotaller and nonsmoker, she stumbled upon information about ayahuasca, a psychedelic South American brew, and was determined to try it.

“I’d reached a point in my life where I was simply waiting to die. I didn’t want to face life without my husband. But that offered some help.”

She received a chance email about an ayahuasca ceremony in the Cederberg mountains in the Western Cape and went. The foul-tasting potion changed her life. By far the greatest benefit of taking ayahuasca was that her arthritic pain, which had crippled her for years, disappeared.

Her first experience with mushrooms came about a year later, when Monica decided to throw a huge 64th birthday celebration. More than 300 people attended the party, including a psychologist friend, who brought a little gift of magic mushrooms.

After that, her “mushroom school” was born and, by January 2010, she had 18 regular participants. By the time she was arrested, Cromhout was being asked to host ceremonies almost every Saturday night with increasingly larger groups.

Since that fateful December night, “John” the 77-year-old who caused all the police mayhem, has offered to testify for the defence. “He feels terribly bad about everything,” says Cromhout.

She seems peaceful about the possibility of going to jail.

“If I land up going to jail, which I don’t think I will, at least we will have brought attention to this issue. Sometimes we need to go through discomfort for things to change,” she says.

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