Magic Mushrooms

UK: Trip Over?

Author: datamining by Freeminder
Date: Dec 22, 2004
Views: 6315

Magic Mushrooms Have Never Been More Popular. More Than 400 Apparently
Legal \'shroom\' Shops Have Sprung Up In The Past Two Years, And Growing
Kits Have Become A Must-have Christmas Present. So Why Has The
Government Suddenly Turned Tough On Sellers? Stephen Moss

Six months ago, when the NME described 2004 as \"the third summer of
love\", it put the benign mood down to one thing - the return of magic
mushrooms. The drug idolised by cult author and psychologist Timothy
Leary in the 1960s - he said that his first experience of mushrooms in
Mexico in 1960 taught him more than all his years of study - was back.
According to the NME, which produced a \"top tips for top trips\" guide,
mushrooms were a safe alternative to ecstasy, and what\'s more - they
were legal. It was time to \"turn on, tune in, drop out\" all over

Except that nobody told the Home Office and the police, which have now
declared war on magic mushrooms. In Gloucester, two local men have
been charged with supplying a class A drug by selling them. It
promises to be the start of a long and complicated legal battle to
determine the status of Britain\'s latest drug of choice. Other cases
are pending in Birmingham and Canterbury - cases which the Home Office
hopes will establish once and for all whether magic mushrooms are
innocent, hippy-dippy playthings, or a menace to be stamped on.

The nation\'s mushroom sellers are confused. Two years ago, a more
easy-going Home Office sent out a letter advising them that \"the
growing of psilocybe mushrooms\" and their \"gathering and possession\"
did not contravene the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. It was not illegal,
the letter went on, to sell or give away a growing kit, or to sell or
give away a freshly picked mushroom, \"provided that it has not been
prepared in any way\". Recipients of the letter took it as a green
light to sell fresh mushrooms, and there are now an estimated 400
\"shroom\" shops in the UK.

This distinction - between a fresh mushroom and one that has been
\"prepared\" - is crucial. It is not an offence to possess or consume a
mushroom, because it occurs naturally, but a psilocybe mushroom
contains the hallucinogen psilocin and its byproduct psilocybin, both
of which are deemed to be class A drugs under the 1971 Act. Any
\"preparation\" or any attempt to turn the mushroom into a \"product\" (
the Gloucester case and others like it may hinge on the definition of
those words ) could constitute the supply of a class A drug. Maximum
sentence: life imprisonment.

The Home Office has now, in effect, disowned the original
softly-softly guidance note. \"The Home Office judges that a mushroom
that has been cultivated, transported to the marketplace, packaged,
weighed and labelled constitutes a product,\" reads the latest
guidelines. Applied literally, this would appear to rule out all trade
in magic mushrooms, which at present are being cultivated,
transported, weighed and sold openly in shops and on market stalls all
over the country. Even grow-kits, which allow you to grow your own
mushrooms, appear to be ruled out under the Home Office advice - a
grow-kit, by definition, means cultivation. The tougher guidelines
have led to a rash of arrests across the country, and to cases that
will determine whether the nascent industry has a future

One retailer caught in the police crackdown was Andy Burgess, who runs
the Headz \"alternative gift shop\" in Folkestone. Burgess, a former
builder, is 61 and admits to being \"the oldest swinger in town\". His
shop, with its blue and purple frontage, is an exotic exception to the
drabness of the rest of the town. It smells of incense, has a large
reclining Buddha in the window and is plastered with leaflets for
psychic fayres, spiritual healing and medieval fencing. Strangely,
there is also an advertisement for a model railway exhibition.

In late September, Burgess had a visit from the local police - and
they hadn\'t come for the Indian head massage. \"When I arrived here in
the morning, there were two police vans outside my door,\" he recalls.
\"I said to a policeman, \'Do you want to speak to me?\' He said, \'I\'m
afraid so.\' There were at least eight policemen - they were like a
Swat team.

\"I said, \'What do you want?\' He said, \'I want your mushrooms. Where
are they?\' They ended up taking my fridge, all my invoices, all my
paraphernalia regarding mushroom selling.\"

Burgess was arrested on suspicion of supplying a class A drug and
spent the rest of the day in the cells. He was interviewed, then
bailed, but a few days later he was told that the case had been
dropped. No explanation or apology was offered. \"I can\'t understand
it,\" he says. \"I can\'t understand why they\'re hassling people.\" He
also sells a range of replica firearms in his shop, but these do not
seem to have excited the interest of the police.

Burgess has been selling magic mushrooms for seven or eight months to
a wide range of aficionados: \"I get teachers, even policemen coming in
to buy them,\" he says. \"Most people don\'t buy them in large
quantities; they buy a small amount and share them with their friends
to have a giggle. I sell them in 30g bags, which is the maximum dose
for any one person, but if you do half of it you just get a giggle.
Things may look a bit surreal, but that\'s as far as it goes. It\'s
quite harmless.\"

Not everyone agrees. \"Magic mushrooms are potentially dangerous,\"
insists Professor John Henry, an expert in toxicology at Imperial
College and St Mary\'s Hospital, London. \"They clearly cause
hallucinations. The hallucinations are usually short term, but there
is a danger of flashbacks.\" Professor Henry says mushrooms have
contributed to several deaths, with people suffering hallucinations
being killed in accidents. \"I advise people never to take magic
mushrooms as a form of escape. I tell them your hang-ups will always
chase you. Experienced users might just feel a bit trippy, but naive
users may feel sick, spacy, quite ill. It is also frightening if they
are fed to you without you knowing. That can be very scary.\"

Mushroom sellers, unsurprisingly, refuse to accept that mushrooms can
do long-term damage. Psyche Deli, one of the biggest companies in the
industry, was started by three people who enjoyed taking mushrooms and
decided to turn their hobby into a business. They quote a Dutch
scientific report that claims mushrooms are safe. \"We never set out to
do anything illegal,\" says co-founder Paul Galbraith. \"We asked all
the requisite authorities what we were able to do, and it looks like
many other traders did the same. Over the past two years, although
nothing has actually changed in the law, the Home Office\'s
interpretation appears to have changed.\" Chris Territt, also from
Psyche Deli, argues that it may be the increased size and organisation
of the business - the Home Office is especially exercised by the
growing volume of imports, mainly from Holland - - that has triggered
the clampdown.

\"The law on magic mushrooms is madness,\" says Paul Flynn, Labour MP
for Newport West. \"It seems to have been written by somebody who was
on a hallucinogenic drug.\" In May, Flynn wrote to Home Office minister
Caroline Flint asking for clarification. Her reply - that the very act
of selling them constitutes \"preparation\" - showed how far the Home
Office had moved away from its original view that \"preparation\" meant
a change in the physical nature of the mushroom, turning it into a
tea, a paste or a powder, for example, to make the effect of the
psilocin more concentrated.

The change of heart does not, however, appear to have penetrated the
Metropolitan police, which has so far taken no action in London, where
magic mushrooms are sold openly in street markets. When I visited a
stall in Portobello Road, business was fairly brisk, with family
groups clustered round the stall choosing from among the mushroom
varieties - Mexican, Colombian, Hawaiian, Thai. Christmas is a busy
time, apparently, with grow-kits rivalling iPods as the must-have
present last year.

Flynn is scathing about the government\'s handling of the issue. \"It\'s
crazy: if you pick them, that\'s legal; if you keep them overnight,
that\'s illegal because they dry out. The effect of magic mushrooms is
minor compared with other drugs. There is a market for them and it
would be better to allow it to operate. There are plenty of medicinal
drugs that cause far more damage than magic mushrooms. But there are
no signs of any intelligence in drug policy from the government. When
they say the word \'drugs\', you can be sure that the word \'tough\' won\'t
be far behind.\"

Even Professor Henry, while backing a ban on their cultivation,
believes the law has become hopelessly confused. \"They\'re not a food -
VAT has to be paid on them - so what are they? They\'re in some other
category, but nobody seems to know what.\"

The VAT issue is vexing to mushroom retailers. In February, one wrote
to Customs and Excise to ask whether he should be charging VAT. It
replied that he should and was then embarrassed when the retailer made
the letter public. It appeared that it was levying a tax on a
\"product\" which the Home Office wanted to ban. Joined-up government it

\"We did state that fresh mushrooms were subject to VAT,\" says Customs
and Excise spokesman Paul Matthews, \"but we are also aware of the Home
Office view that their packaging for sale is illegal. We are really
waiting for case law on this.\" Mushroom retailers argue that if VAT is
being levied, the product per se cannot be illegal; it seems this is
not the case. \"Just because something is illegal doesn\'t mean that it
can\'t be taxed,\" says Matthews.

Proponents of magic mushrooms are frustrated at what they see as the
Home Office\'s reluctance to consider changing the law, and are
critical of a policy that appears to be based on nudging the police
and the courts to establish precedent. \"If someone was going to make
policy on this, then there would at least be a debate,\" says Territt,
\"but currently there is no debate. The crown prosecution service is
not a relevant authority to be making health and safety and drugs

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