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No fun for fungus fans: Home Office rethink could drive magic mushrooms underground By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent
23 July 2004
Timothy Leary, the intellectual cheerleader of chemical transcendence, said that when he ate magic mushrooms in Mexico in 1960 he learnt more in four hours than in all his years as a psychologist.
Forty-four years later, seekers of knowledge need only take a stroll along one of London's famous high streets and visit one of the many "shroom shops" to test his theory. Furthermore, they can do it without breaking the law.
To prove the point, many of the shop owners display copies of a letter written by a Home Office official which makes it clear that there is nothing illegal in the trade of freshly picked magic mushrooms.
But their legal sale appears to be about to end after ministers moved to tighten the loophole.
Under the current law the psilocybe mushroom, or magic mushroom is not a controlled substance but the hallucinogen, psilocin, that it contains, is classified as Class A drug.
Provided the gatherer does not commercially "prepare" the mushroom - by freezing them, drying them or using them to make tea - before selling them they are not committing a criminal offence.
But the shift in policy signals a new zero-tolerance, meaning the sale of unprepared mushrooms could now be illegal.
The Home Office minister, Caroline Flint, has told shop owners that if they are selling magic mushrooms they are probably breaking the law.
Anti-drug groups have long warned that this legal loophole encourages young people to experiment with an hallucinogenic substance that can lead to nightmarish trips, stomach pains, sickness and, in some case, psychiatric problems.
In a letter to the Labour MP Paul Flynn, the minister advises: "In the Home Office's view, a form of preparation and production has occurred by the sale of magic mushrooms in market places and shops or at other premises or at other sale points. Accordingly, those selling, or seeking to sell, the mushrooms at such premises are unlawfully supplying a product containing psilocin and/ or psilocybin."
She adds: "My officials are in contact with the enforcement agencies about how the law can be more effectively enforced."
Her words have been backed up by action. On 7 July police raided three "shroom shops" in Birmingham and one in Guildford, Surrey.
Other cases are already being prepared for court. In Canterbury, Kent, two defendants are facing the first ever Crown Court trial for intent to supply psilocin.
Celia Strange, the solicitor representing the defendants in the Canterbury case, detects a hardening of policy.
"It seems that it depends which police force you are dealing with. Some of the arrests have led to no further action even after the police have sent the mushrooms off for forensic tests. Others, however, appear to be going further."
The Home Office letter displayed by owners of "shroom shops", which was sent by the drug licensing section, spells out the long-accepted liberal position. It says: "The courts have held that a person is not in possession of a controlled drug solely by reason of him being in possession of a naturally occurring substance - the mushroom ... It is not illegal to sell or give away a freshly picked mushroom provided it has not been prepared in any way."
The magic mushroom industry understandably interpreted that as a green light to step-up trading. Advertising hoardings have sprung up across the capital promising a 24-hour door-to-door delivery service.
There are now estimated to be between 200 to 300 shops selling mushrooms and many other businesses trading online. Some of the mushrooms are home-grown but the bulk of the produce is imported from Holland.
The BBC Radio 4 programme, Law in Action, has reported that Customs and Excise makes hundreds of thousands profit in duty and VAT payable on the import and sale of the magic mushroom.
The new shift in policy has led magic mushroom shop owners to detect a whiff of government hypocrisy. "How can one arm of government be criminalising the trade of mushroom and another be making thousands of pounds in revenues?" asked one shroom shop owner yesterday.
Paul Flynn describes the legal position as irrational: "As far as I understand, it's legal to graze for mushrooms and go down on your hands and knees and eat them. But the key to the letter seems to be that the hand of man must not be involved. So does that mean it would be OK for chimpanzees or women and children to collect them?"
A HALLUCINOGENIC HISTORY
A group of mushroom statues found in Guatemala and thought to date as far back as 500BC has been interpreted as evidence that ancient people once worshipped the mushroom.
The first documented hallucinogenic mushroom experience in Britain took place in Green Park in London on 3 October 1799. A man identified only as "JS" picked and ate a magic mushroom for his breakfast. It was reported that he found odd flashes of colour bursting across his vision.
But it wasn't until the 1960s that Western cultures began to use mushrooms recreationally as an alternative to LSD.
The banker and amateur mycologist R Gordon Wasson journeyed around Mexico and South America in a quest for magic mushrooms and spent a "wondrous" evening after ingesting them in a shamanic ritual. He was later disgusted by the popularity and misuse of his "discovery".
Traders selling magic mushrooms could be jailed despite the fact it is legal to sell them in their natural state, the Home Office says. It is only illegal to possess or supply magic mushrooms that have been "processed", such as frozen or dried.
Numerous online and high street traders have begun operating in recent months.
But the Home Office has looked at the law and now believes "if fresh magic mushrooms are packaged as a product and are offered for sale that is unlawful".
A Home Office spokesman said: "It is an operational matter for the police whether or not to initiate a prosecution. If they decide to do so, it would then be a matter for the courts to determine whether any misuse of drugs offence has been committed".
Magic mushrooms contain the substances psilocin and psilocybin, and these are controlled as a Class A drugs in "processed" mushrooms.
Most common form is Liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) Can be eaten raw, dried, cooked in food or stewed in tea Similar effects to LSD, though shorter, milder "trip" Not addictive Can make people feel sick, tired and disoriented
People convicted of supplying them could be jailed for life and face an unlimited fine. A possession conviction could earn seven years in jail and a fine.
National Drug Prevention Alliance director Peter Stoker said that eliminating magic mushroom trading would be "a move in the right direction".
"We need to look at [magic mushrooms] in the same way as other drugs of abuse," he said.
"With any kind of intoxication you have got risks of accident either to the person involved or to other people and that has got to be a health and safety issue.
"But the main thing is that it is the thin end of the drug abuse wedge. It preconditions people to getting their highs and kicks in life by putting toxic chemicals inside themselves."
But Chris Territt, business manager of magic mushroom retailer Psyche Deli, said: "Whilst the government is moving to relax the laws on cannabis in order to free up police time, this seems to be a contradictory move.
"We would obviously welcome regulation or licensing to bring the industry up to recognised standards, but a total ban would be incredibly draconian.
"We do not sell to under-18s and we give all our customers all the advice they need to enjoy mushrooms in a responsible way."
He added that Psyche Deli had received a ruling from Customs and Excise saying that the sale of fresh psilocybe mushrooms was liable for VAT.
"If the government is taking 17.5% of every transaction we make, how can they say our product is not legal?"