A UK Magic Mushroom Flashback
At a time when we’re being encouraged to have our say politically, it seems appropriate to have a little Magic Mushroom flashback. The active ingredients of Psilocybe mushrooms (psilocybin and psilocin) were made schedule 1 drugs in the UK, in 1971, meaning possession and supply could land you a very long prison sentence, on a par with cocaine and heroin. Due to a legal loophole however, possession of the fresh mushroom remained legal and soon after the turn of the millennia head shops across the UK had begun selling them in earnest.
Picking the native UK shroom, the Psilocybe semilanceata (better known as the Liberty Cap), largely remained the preserve of the aficionado, and it was the Psilocybe cubensis species (Mexican, Thai and Colombian strains amongst others) that took pride of place in the fridges of the head shops. It was estimated that the annual turnover of this legal trade was £1000000 per annum, raking in a cool £175000 over the same period in VAT for the government (RAND, 53).
However, as a growing number of people began to consume Magic Mushrooms (estimated at 340000, aged 16-59, in 2004/5 (RAND, 46)), what had for a long time been the curiosity of the few, became large enough in number for the mainstream media to sit up and take note. As news stories began to proliferate, and the cultural meme took hold in the minds of the population, so of course did the government and parliament interest and a reclarification of the law was quickly, and with almost no consultation, enacted.
In July 2005, the British government made psilocybin mushrooms a Class A drug. Not only did this prevent the retail and importation of the shroom, it also meant that the moment you plucked one from the ground, you became a criminal, liable to a jail sentence of up to 7 years – or even a lifetime of imprisonment, if you gave it to a friend, as this in itself can be construed in a court of law as supply. In one fell swoop the 340000 people were criminalised.
The following year (2006) a report was completed, at the request of the UK House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology, by think-tank RAND entitled ‘The Evidence Base for the Classification of Drugs’. Chapter 5 of this report was a 9 page evaluation on Magic Mushrooms. The report detailed cultural features (numbers of users, nicknames, methods of consumption etc.), their legal status plus scientific, health and therapeutic issues – including the efficacy of the drugs.
Subsequently the report’s findings were debated by the committee and in their own report – the aptly titled ‘Drug Classification: making a hash of it?’ (HASH) – revealed the extent to which the decision to reclarify, as oppose reclassify, was steeped in misunderstanding and confusion. At best this could be called poor bureaucracy but at worst unmitigated bias and failure, based on moral panic and ignorance.
Sir Michael Rawlins, who at the time was the chairman of the since much-maligned Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), told the committee that he didn’t understand why psilocin was originally categorised as a Class A substance in the first place (1971 Misuse of Drugs act.) He told the committee that “it is there because it is there” (HASH, 26). A rather philosophical point, I hope you’ll agree, and not one I’d wish our legislation to be organised around.
Even more worryingly, Sir Michael Rawlins told the committee that “it was not a big issue” and that “there are bigger, more important issues to worry about than whether fresh mushrooms join the rest of the other things in Class A” (HASH 27). Granted, the whole system is faulted (though I’m not sure this is exactly what he meant) but just because a whole school is failing should you ignore the fact that one department is in disarray when you have the immediate power to solve the issue? Clearly not.
The ACMD, having since been shown to be defunct in the fracas surrounding Professor David Nutt, was not even consulted. Ultimately, Charles Clarke MP – the Home Secretary at the time – failed in his obligations as so many Home Secretaries have done since. The report then goes on to say that the Home Office has never even conducted research into psilocin use (I believe this is still the case 4 years on) and “that there is no clear evidence of a link between psilocin use and acquisitive or other crime” (ibid.). In comparison to the perceived criminal knock-on effects of other Class A drugs (like Heroin) Magic Mushrooms fall woefully short of the mark.
In concluding that there was no scientific evidence for this decision, the RAND report also pointed out that there had been only 1, according to National Statistics, death by poisoning between 1993 and 2000 and that the lethal dose is about one’s own bodyweight in mushrooms. Also the governments own drug information website FRANK states that psilocybin is non-addictive; demonstrating a lack of departmental communication. More worryingly and rather murkily, Paul Flynn MP stated: ”The Policy appears to have been driven by something other than evidence” (HASH 27).
Amazingly the HASH report finally stated: “The ACMD should have spoken out against the Government’s proposal to place magic mushrooms in Class A. Its failure to do so has undermined its credibility and made it look as though it fully endorsed the Home Office’s decision, despite the striking lack of evidence to suggest that the Class A status of magic mushrooms was merited on the basis of the harm associated with their misuse.” From almost nowhere all the blame was laid at the feet of the ACMD but it must be remembered it was the Government who themselves defunct the council by their actions and the blame should be levelled squarely at them.
It’s now been over 5 years since Magic Mushrooms were scheduled as a Class A drug. In the popular mindset it is an episode seemingly consigned to history. Sadly, since then, the mainstream news has carried very few articles on the topic, mainly celebrity stories (actor Nicolas Cage, DJ Chris Evans), the odd right-wing scare story (self-stabbing) and the occasional science report (aid to depression). More often than not, perhaps with the exception of the Guardian newspaper, these stories are negative and only serve to exacerbate the age-old moralistic model of the ‘evils of drugs’.
Recently a new coalition Government has taken up post in the Houses of Parliament. They’ve asked for the public’s opinion on which laws should be repealed in an effort to reduce the web of bureaucracy and law created under the New Labour regime. One plucky and forward-thinking individual has proposed a reclassification for Magic Mushrooms, and you’re able to comment and vote on this proposal here [public consultation has now come to an end.] Indeed, whilst the whole drugs classification system does need dissolving, there is clear evidence straight from the horses mouth, that mushrooms were done a blitheringly wrong turn. This issue should be back on the agenda by the Committee’s own admission.
Thinking frankly, free the mushroom.
House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology report – Drug Classification: Making a Hash of it http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmsctech/1031/1031.pdf
RAND Corporation: The Evidence Base for the Classification of Drugs