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 again. 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.
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 investigates
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 wasn't.
"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 policy."
The Good Drug Guide
The Doors of Perception
BZP, Salvia and Kratom
MDMA: Utopian Pharmacology
Religious Teatime and the High Court
Albert Hofmann's LSD : My Problem Child
Chemical Enlightenment, Psychedelic Research