Thursday, 10 January 2008

Liberty capped

I’ve had a fair bit of experience of recreational drug taking over the years, legal and illegal, and by far and away the most benign substance I’ve come across in terms of its physical after-effects is psilocybin.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, psilocybin is the active ingredient in the most popular forms of ‘magic mushrooms’. These include Psilocybe semilanceata, the ‘liberty cap’, whose distinctive nipple-topped conical heads can be found poking through the grass in well-watered meadows throughout the northern hemisphere.

For years there was an old-fashioned sort of blind tolerance towards psilocybin in Britain. It was illegal in its ‘processed’ form, but this was held not to include the fresh mushrooms, and as long as those who consumed them didn’t make too much of a public spectacle of the fact the authorities tended to turn a blind eye towards the practice.

That was all bound to change as soon as every trader with an eye for a quick profit started to exploit the loophole in the law in what turned into a hallucinogenic free-for-all at places like London’s Camden Market. A few well-publicised cases of teenagers going temporarily whacko after being sold too strong a dose of ’shrooms was all it took to provoke the inevitable moral panic and the speedy classification of psilocybes as Class A controlled substances.

Now Amsterdam, home to the ’shroom-selling ‘smart shop’, is going the same way, and those of us who enjoy the occasional entheogen experience are going to have to go back to finding or growing our own. Most people can’t be bothered with all that palaver, and since prohibition never did put a stop to the human desire for super-sensory experiences, they’ll turn to the most readily available substitutes – which will mean a quick boost in sales of manufactured chemicals from ecstasy to ketamine instead.

Holland’s conservative government has recently led a clampdown on marijuana suppliers and prostitutes, to the great delight of organised crime, which always prefers these things underground. So it was no surprise when it seized on the death of the 17-year-old French girl, Gaelle Caroff, who jumped from a building after taking mushrooms on a school visit, to order a review of the law on psilocybes.

A study published in January 2007 revealed that the emergency services in Amsterdam were called on to deal with 148 adverse reactions to psilocybes in 2004-2006. All but 14 involved foreigners, most of them Britons, who seem to possess a cultural incapacity to consume any kind of mood-altering substances in moderation.

Of course a couple of call-outs a week amounts to a tiny problem in comparison with the consequences of alcohol consumption. And no one would dream of banning alcohol because someone killed themselves as a result of drinking too much. The sensible response to such a tragedy would be proper regulation and education.

But the psilocybes, whose effects can range from the mildly giggly to the profoundly spiritual, are caught up in the international ‘war on drugs’. So despite the fact that they are neither addictive nor toxic, they will soon be declared illegal in once-liberal Holland in the same way that they were in Denmark in 2001, Japan in 2002, Britain in 2005 and Ireland in 2006. And we will have had another little liberty capped on top of the many others that have already been denied to us.

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