Saturday April 16, 2005
Peers and MPs join furore over 'rushed' ban on magic mushrooms
Retailers to challenge class A classification amid claims that new law will drive trade underground
Peers, MPs and drug advocacy groups have rounded on a new law reclassifying magic mushrooms as a class A drug, saying the legislation was rushed through parliament in last week's "wash-up" without adequate debate and will criminalise a group of people who were doing no harm to themselves or others.
Home Office sources have indicated that clause 21 of the new drug bill could come into effect in time for the Glastonbury festival in June. Magic mushroom retailers have vowed to challenge the ban, saying the statute contravenes European free trade regulations and is deeply flawed.
They also point out that the bill would create a grey area for other naturally occurring hallucinogens, many of which are traded on the internet and just as hallucinogenic as the banned cubensis mushrooms. Mescaline, for instance, like psilocin and pscilocybin, the active constituents of cubensis mushrooms, is identified as a class A drug under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. But the drug bill says nothing about the peyote cactus from which it is derived.
The bill also makes no reference to the fly agaric toadstool, a highly poisonous red and white spotted fungus which the Home Office warns about on its drug education website, Talk to Frank, and which grows wild in British forests. It also makes no mention of Salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic plant from Mexico which Potseeds, a Totnes-based internet retailer, advertises as "the legal high our politicians forgot to ban."
But opponents of clause 21 say the main objection is that it would be unenforceable and would drive the trade in cubensis mushrooms - which, because of a loophole in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, are considered legal - underground.
"By no stretch of the imagination can you equate magic mushrooms with heroin or cocaine," said Lord Mancroft, a member of the all-party group on the misuse of drugs and chairman of Mentor UK, which aims to prevent drug misuse by young people. "There's no evidence magic mushrooms are addictive, cause harm to people or are a public order problem. The bill is completely disproportionate.'
Lord Mancroft, one of three backbench peers who opposed the bill on its second reading in the Lords last week, also condemned the way government whips had rushed the the legislation back to the Commons before it could be properly scrutinised, claiming the process smacked of an election deal between the three main parties.
His comments were echoed by Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West and an advocate of the legalisation of magic mushrooms and cannabis, who on the bill's return to the Commons on April 7 condemned the law as having been "conceived in prejudice, written in ignorance and ... enacted with incompetence."
"We are banning psilocybin, a natural product that will disappear from the market, possibly to be replaced by drugs such as fly agaric, a far more dangerous drug," he said.
Mr Flynn contrasted the government's decision to ban magic mushrooms with its decision to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C and then refer the matter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, because of concerns about the dangers that powerful new strains of "skunk" posed to people with schizophrenia and those with a history of mental health problems.
No such reference to the advisory council occurred in the case of cubensis mushrooms. "It's election politics pure and simple," Mr Flynn said.
The ban, which makes the importation, possession or sale of magic mushrooms pun ishable by a life sentence, comes as lawyers prepare to defend retailers in Canterbury and Birmingham from prosecution under the 1971 law.
Barristers are seeking to have the prosecutions thrown out as an abuse of process on the grounds that the retailers were advised by the Home Office that the 1971 act only applied to the sale of dried mushrooms or their "preparations", not fresh mushrooms.
Yesterday Celia Strange of MJ Reed solicitors, representing the Canterbury and Birmingham retailers, urged the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the cases, saying it was clear from the statute change that parliament considered the previous law flawed. The firm also pointed out the new act had serious implications for people who may be unaware they have a class A drug growing on their property.
Yesterday a Home Office spokeswoman said people would not be considered to have committed an offence merely for having magic mushrooms growing on their land.