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The Aztecs referred to them as "the flesh of the gods". Lewis Carroll based whole passages of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland on them. And the Glastonbury organisers have found that, unlike Ecstasy, "shrooms" (as the psychedelic fungi sold across the country are known) do not fill the medical tent with dehydrated zombies. Indeed, magic mushrooms seem to have no adverse health consequences (unless you take them while operating heavy machinery). Which makes it curious, as Alice might have put it, that next month's Glastonbury will be the last where devotees can journey to the spirit world without fear of ending up in a prison cell.
The reason is that some time this summer - the Home Office won't specify - magic mushrooms, hitherto illegal only when dried or otherwise prepared, will, thanks to clause 21 of the new Drugs Act, be illegal in their fresh state - and classified as a class A drug alongside heroin and crack. Clause 21 was rushed through by the last Labour government in what critics saw as a blatant attempt to appear tough on drugs. But the legislation is so flawed it could even see Her Majesty banged up at her own pleasure for permitting psycilocybe mushrooms to flourish at Windsor and Balmoral.
The government made no reference to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), the body that is meeting tomorrow to reconsider the downgrading of cannabis to class C. This raises two points: first, in the case of cannabis, but not magic mushrooms, the government has been willing to defer to the ACMD not once but twice; second, while it has been careful to be seen responding to concerns about the dangers of criminalising cannabis, it has acted in precisely the opposite fashion with mushrooms.
Indeed, as groups such as Release and Transform argued during the act's hasty passage through parliament, the main effect of clause 21 will be to criminalise a trade that, on current evidence, poses little danger to anyone.
"If you have mental health problems then using a hallucinogen or any recreational drug is a bad idea," says Steve Rolles of Transform. "But what about the majority of people who do not have mental health problems? It's like banning peanut butter because a tiny minority of people are allergic to it."
Magic mushrooms have a long and noble history of ritualistic use - rock paintings in Tassili, Algeria, dating back 8,000 years depict dancing shamans with what seem to be toadstools sprouting from their heads.
According to Simon Powell, author of a new book on magic mushrooms, the first westerner to study mushrooms found the experience as different from alcohol "as night and day". "How do you tell a man who has been born blind what seeing is like?" asked the New York banker-turned-ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson, after a visit to a Mexican shaman in 1955.
Thanks to the ingenuity of Dutch mycologists, fresh shrooms are now as ubiquitous as incense and patchouli oil. But an unlicensed trade via festivals, market stalls and internet outlets nudging ?10m a year is not a form of anarchy New Labour could tolerate. Hence the remarks of the Home Office minister Caroline Flint during the act's committee stage that mushroom users were vulnerable to "self-harm" and LSD-style "flashbacks".
In fact, as Brian Iddon, an organic chemist and the only committee member qualified to give a scientific view, told Flint, mushrooms are psychedelics, not hallucinogens, and cannot be compared to LSD. And he could find no evidence that mushrooms were addictive or harmful.
Indeed, the act has missed the one shroom that can be dangerous. Fly agaric, the toadstool that inspired Carroll, is poisonous in high doses, but botched drafting means that it has been left out of the reclassification.