The Law and Shrooms

The law in the UK as far as magic mushrooms are concerned changed on 18th May 2005, with the following amendment being added to the existing Misuse of Drugs Act 1971:

"Inclusion of mushrooms containing Psilocin etc. as Class A drugs
In Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (c. 38) (Class A drugs), in paragraph 1, insert at the appropriate place —
“Fungus (of any kind) which contains Psilocin or an ester of Psilocin.”

It's hard to believe that so few words could have such a big impact and affect a large number of people's lives in such a negative and unnecessary way. And whilst this law change was ill-conceived for reasons we will outline in full later, it is important for us to understand that the history of the Law regarding magic mushrooms was equally as important in shaping its future and the present ban we now experience.

Many of the arguments and points presented come from a range of sources, but the most noteworthy contributions are derived from points extracted from the book 'Shroom, A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom', by Andy Letcher. This book represents the definitive account of the History of the magic mushroom, and its impact on the culture of humanity over time.

In the general scheme of things then, the greatest risk to health, liberty and well-being comes from the magic mushrooms’ proscribed status and the fact that using them carries the stiffest legal penalties: in law, psilocybin is typically listed alongside heroin as the most dangerous of illicit drugs (a crime in itself). In 1971, the United Nations, under considerable American pressure, introduced its Convention on Psychotropic Substances as adjunct to its earlier Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961). Though at the time illicit use of magic mushrooms in Europe and America was minimal, had not gone over ground and was probably little known to the policy-makers, psilocybin and psilocin were included in the Convention because of their structural similarity to the great drugs menace of the time, LSD. Signatories agreed to prohibit these synthetics but, following appeals from the Mexican government, not the plants that contained them: the Mexicans were understandably worried by the prospect of having to prevent indigenous mushroom use. As we shall see, it was this distinction that opened the legal loophole that exists in Holland, and that existed in Britain until 2005, allowing the sale of fresh mushrooms. For a great article regarding the law situation on magic mushrooms please also see the following about magic mushrooms in the UK, kindly borrowed from our friends at (suppliers of legal highs, rare plants and quality F1 marijuana seeds imported from Holland).

In 1976, a young couple from Reading – Michael Garland, a civil servant, aged nineteen, and his landlady, Mrs Lois Wilkinson, twenty-one – became the first people ever to appear in a British Court charged with possessing hallucinogenic fungi. Their house had been raided by the Drugs Squad the previous October as part of a crackdown on cannabis use, for which Garland was successfully prosecuted and fined.

However, the police had not expected to find magic mushrooms, and they were left scratching their heads over the legality of dried fungi they discovered wrapped in tissue and stashed away in jars. The defendants maintained that they had collected the mushroom, along with leaves and nuts , as part of a nature study, and that they were ignorant of any hallucinogenic properties. That they had stored the dried mushrooms with their cannabis supply rather undermined this line of defence and the trial eventually hinged on a point of law.

Both psilocybin and psilocin had been made illegal under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act in a move that, following the wording of the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, had outlawed all the synthetic psychedelics known at the time. The thorny question was whether the mushrooms themselves were prohibited for, following pressure from the Mexican government (who did not want to have to waste time and resources preventing indigenous mushroom use), the Convention had listed only the mushrooms’ active ingredients, and not the species themselves. After two days deliberation, the Judge, Peregrine Blomfield, directed the jury to find the pair not guilty. ‘It may or may not be that you can get psilocin out of the mushroom’, he concluded. ‘But psilocin is a chemical and mushrooms are not. You cannot find this man guilty of possessing psilocin in these circumstances’ The decision opened the first chink of the legal loophole that would eventually allow magic mushrooms to be sold openly and legally in Britain.

Lurid headline in the press – such as The Times’s ‘Hallucinatory fungi not illegal, judge rules’ – would have been sufficient to ensure that the news about the mushroom was broadcast far and wide. But almost as if to make sure, Britain’s biggest-selling popular science weekly, New Scientist, chose to repeat the story in an article published in September, just at the start of the mushroom season. The piece included a detailed description and a black-and-white sketch of the Liberty Cap, and helpfully repeated Peter Mantle’s portentous line about how many mushrooms one would have to consume for them to have an effect: twenty-five to thirty, it advised. The year was 1976 was famously one of drought in Britain and beyond, so mushrooms of all kinds would have been scarce everywhere. But the following year reports of a new drugs craze began spring up in the north of England, Scotland, Norway, Finland, Germany and Holland. The magic mushroom had finally gone over ground.

some lovely purple shrooms (not magic) growing by a log

Some interesting (as yet un-identified) purple mushrooms growing together, from Brett Long of the excellent

The upshot of the Goodchild case was that, by analogy, possession of a magic mushroom and of its proscribed chemical ingredients could not be regarded as the same thing. A test case in 1983 settled the matter. Kelvin Curtis, aged thirty-one, was acquitted after being tried for growing Psilocybe cubensis at home. Thereafter, fresh magic mushrooms were technically legal, with only the act of preparation rendering them otherwise.

The Camden Mushroom Company, formed in 2002, were the first to exploit this loophole by selling mushrooms cultivated at home from Dutch grow kits, and then openly from barrow stalls at Camden Market and Portobello: a move that generated a certain amount of press interest, especially amongst the more streetwise broadsheets. Other companies sprung up, and virtually overnight, it seems, mushrooms were being sold in around 400 shops and market stalls across Britain, By 2004, the Camden Mushroom Company alone was selling on average 100kg a week, with an estimated five times that amount being sold nationwide. As an average street dose of Psilocybe cubensis is 20 grams, this works out at roughly 25,000 mushroom trips per week. The second great British magic mushroom boom was underway, and inevitably it caught the attention of police and politicians alike.

It was apparent from the beginnings of mushroom-trading in Britain, however, that the legal situation was one of disarray. The Camden Mushroom Company received a letter from the Home Office to the effect that they would not be prosecuted for selling fresh magic mushrooms, a move that effectively gave them the go-ahead to begin trading. Then in August 2004, a Customs and Excise ruling decreed that magic mushrooms were not food but a drug, and therefore subject to VAT sales tax. Officials estimated that they would be looking to collect arrears in the region of £1 million from traders. At almost the same time, the Home Office performed a vault-face and sought to deter trading by warning sellers that they were breaking the law. Thus, the government foolishly appeared to be demanding tax on a product that it deemed illegal, the left hand unaware of quite what the right hand was doing.

In the same year, a small number of shops were raided by the police and charged with illegally selling hallucinogenic fungi, a Class A drug. The first of these cases concerning Dennis Mardle and Colin Evans, who ran the head-shop Collector’s Choice in Gloucester – came to trial in December, when it was promptly thrown out by the Crown court recorder, Mrs Claire Miskin. The law was so ambiguous, she ruled, that it would be an abuse of process for the two men to stand trial. In a carefully aimed rebuke, she chided the government for expecting the judiciary to sort out a legal mess of Parliament’s making. Suitably admonished, the Home Office moved quickly to add a clause about mushrooms to their Drugs Bill (now Act) 2005, though not without some lively debate in the House of Commons. In a speech that may yet come back to haunt him, the Labour MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, attacked the bill as illogical and poorly thought through.‘We cannot make nature illegal,’ he told the House. ‘Magic mushrooms are part of the natural world. Some might describe them as a gift from God.’

Flynn’s remonstrations had little impact.  Specifically, the Act has now made possession or sale of ‘all fungi containing psilocybin’ a criminal offence, so the loophole has been firmly closed. The speed with which the bill achieved royal assent, however, has left many disgruntled parties – not least the police, unhappy at having to enforce a law regarded as unnecessary burden on overstretched resource . They feel, correctly, that the matter was never properly debated in the upper and lower chambers. The imminence of the May 2005 general election meant that the bill was hurried though Parliament lest New Labour appeared to be weak on crime, weak on the causes of crime: being seen to tolerate brazen mushroom-dealing on the streets would have been an electoral liability too far.