Saturday November 29, 2003
The GuardianHigh times in magic mushroom business - and it's perfectly legal
Sales of psychedelic fungi and growing kits are booming as retailers take advantage of a loophole in British law
The Aztecs dubbed them "the flesh of the gods", Siberian shamans used them to enlighten their path to the spirit world, and they were the preserve of hippies and the pioneers of the psychedelic movement in the 1960s. But now magic mushrooms are at the centre of a new - and legal - retail boom.
On the Portobello Road, in Notting Hill, west London, a stall opened for business in August, openly advertising varieties of psychedelic fungi and growing kits for sale. Psyche Deli, the company behind it, now runs two similar market stalls elsewhere and supplies more than 30 shops across the country. The company estimates that its turnover and that of its competitors in London is running at 50kg (134lb) a week, the equivalent of 5,000 individual doses or five-hour "trips".
"We sell to all types - doctors, architects, lawyers, even the odd policeman," said Chris Territt, one of the directors of Psyche Deli, which operates out of a refrigerated storeroom in Dalston, north London. "In our opinion it's only a matter of time before the fad becomes mainstream."
The consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms is probably as old as human society. In Algeria, 7,000-year-old drawings of "round headed" figures holding mushroom-like objects have been found daubed on rocks on a plateau high above the Sahara.
But the existence of the modern trade owes less to history and more to a curious loophole in British law.
When the directors of Psyche Deli decided to test the market for Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms in Britain, they were unsure how far the authorities would allow them to go.
Although psilocin and psilocybin, the psychoactive constituents of the mushrooms, are considered class A drugs under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the gathering and possession of fresh mushrooms has never been an offence in Britain. However, the courts have ruled that mushrooms that have been dried or "altered by the hand of man" do constitute a class A drug, as might mushrooms that have been frozen and packaged for sale.
Nevertheless, when the company checked with the Home Office last March it received a letter from a licensing officer saying it was "not illegal to sell or give away a freshly picked mushroom" or mushroom growing kits.
Psyche Deli promptly placed an order for mushrooms and terrariums with growers in Holland. It is not the only company thriving thanks to Britain's new-found fondness for fungi. Amolon, a Birmingham-based operation, has a burgeoning delivery and mail-order business that supplies customers across the country, while the Shroomshop, a collective of 20 UK growers, sends mushrooms direct to head-shops in the Midlands.
At Psyche Deli's Portobello Road stall, the queues confirm the broad appeal of mushrooms. Sarah, 35, who works in information technology, had not used magic mushrooms since she was a student in her twenties until she found the stall.
"They had four different varieties," she said. "I asked them what the mildest one was and they recommended the Mexicans. Within 15 minutes I started to get this warm, tingly feeling. Within half an hour the market had become this vibrant and colourful place."
Sarah, who declined to give her last name for fear of shocking her work colleagues, now visits the stall every weekend. A confirmed "shroomer", her fungus of choice is a gnarled truffle the colour and texture of congealed muesli known as the Philosopher's Stone.
Like many operators, Psyche Deli is careful not to promote the mushrooms as hallucinogens, saying they are being sold for "ornamental" and "research purposes" only. The stall also carries a prominent sign prohibiting the sale of mushrooms to under-18s.
On the advice of the Medicines Control Agency, the Camden Mushroom Company has been told it cannot distribute information about the mushrooms because they are not qualified herbalists. However, they are allowed to respond to questions from customers and, asked to describe the effects of the various strains on sale, the young men behind the stall will happily provide the mushroom equivalent of wine notes.
Although the effects of psilocybin can vary, from feelings of euphoria and excitement to mild or strong visual hallucinations, for most people mushroom munching appears to be a pleasant experience.
Alex Levine, 26, a sales professional, has been using psilocybin mushrooms on and off for two years with no apparent ill-effects. "I tend to do them with a group of friends before I get out clubbing," he said. "With LSD or ecstasy you definitely feel as though you've done some damage, but with mushrooms you feel right as rain afterwards. It's just an all-round positive experience."
But others tell a different story. Chris, 40, a songwriter from west London, who is used to other recreational drugs, decided to try 10g (0.32oz) of the Mexicans but found it was more than he could handle.
"I dropped them at home with my wife at 7pm. By 8pm the room was pulsating and I had to lie down. I felt I was no longer in control."
Concerned by the lack of regulation and the growth in mail-order deliveries from Holland, Shroomshop has proposed that British retailers and distributors adopt a voluntary "safe sale" protocol.
This would require them to inform purchasers about unpleasant side effects such as anxiety and paranoia, restrict sales to over 17s, and impose maximum dosages of 35g a person.
Many retailers, worried about their uncertain legal position, have already adopted similar measures. Dave Clayton-Wright, the manager of Planet Bong, a shop in Leamington Spa specialising in drug-related paraphernalia, began offering mushrooms as a novelty to selected customers earlier this year.
"We have a little chat with each person beforehand to make sure they understand what they are doing and know what the law says," he said. "The response has been amazing. We're seeing the same groups of shroomers every week."
However, drug policy experts argue that it is unrealistic to expect the market to regulate itself and that the current laws should be reformed. "The idea that fresh mushrooms are legal but if they're prepared in a mug of tea then it's punishable with 14 years in prison is patently absurd," said Steve Rolls, a spokesman for drugs policy thinktank Transform.
"The Home Office should reduce the controls and issue proper regulations to ensure they're only sold to adults and that customers are given correct dosage and health information."
The most popular mushroom sold on stalls and by mail-order is Stropharia cubensis. Unlike Liberty Cap or Psilocybe semilanceata (the mushroom variety that grows wild in the UK), the cubensis strain is easy to cultivate in terrariums, and its low water content means it remains fresh for up to seven to 10 days.
The fungus is sold in four common varieties:
A variety of shapes and sizes but with a white stem and a tan-orange cap. As with all varieties of cubensis, the stem on contact with the air turns a bluish colour because of its psilocybin content. A 10 gram dose will result in a 'trip' of four to six hours -giggly and sociable, with colourful visuals
Cost £10 for 10g
Same tan orange-tan cap and blue-hued stem as the Mexican variety, but generally slightly larger in size; they also give a slightly stronger, slightly more hallucinogenic trip
Cost £10 for 10g
Mainly imported from the Netherlands, they have longer, thicker stalk and a green hue to the cap. The overall experience is 'trippier' than either the Mexican or Colombian strains, with visuals that are more colourful and intense
Cost £12.50 for 10g
A truffle, rather than a toadstool, this grows in the roots of a normal mushroom, and has a higher percentage of psilocybin by weight. Resembling congealed muesli, it tastes like slightly bitter walnut and produces a more physical and euphoric buzz
Cost £15 for 10g
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