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Trip down the high street

Hallucinogenic mushrooms are now sold freely across Britain, but the legalities of buying them are still far from clear.

When I visited the flagship stall of the Camden Mushroom Company, the wholesome-looking vendors were eager to help. They described the "shrooms" like true aficionados. I could start off light with some Mexican psilocybe cubensis, or go for a mind melt with a truffle called "philosopher's stone".

When I visited the flagship stall of the Camden Mushroom Company, the wholesome-looking vendors were eager to help. They described the "shrooms" like true aficionados. I could start off light with some Mexican psilocybe cubensis, or go for a mind melt with a truffle called "philosopher's stone".

Last summer, four entrepreneurs stuck their necks out and opened England's first magic mushroom retail outlet. The founders of The Camden Mushroom Company, The Portobello Mushroom Company and Psyche Deli LLP took advantage of a loophole in British law, which says that hallucinogenic mushrooms aren't classed as a drug, unless they're processed or prepared (by freezing or drying, for example). It couldn't last, I thought.

How wrong I was. Strolling round London last week, I saw dozens of shops on Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and Neal Street openly advertising the sale of magic mushrooms. It was as if I'd gone to sleep in London and woken up in Amsterdam. With all these shroom shops springing up, there must be a huge market for this stuff. But who is buying it?

At The Camden Mushroom Company's Oxford Street outlet (which operates out of a shop selling suitcases), there didn't appear to be anyone manning the stall, let alone any customers. A prominent sign said: "Over-18s only." It also warned users not to operate any hardware more complex than a spoon. The proprietor of the suitcase shop told me that the owner of the stall didn't start work until 12noon, but suggested I try one of the many other shroom shops on Oxford Street. A few doors down, there was a sign outside Promise Hair and Nail Extensions offering mushrooms for "ornamental and research purposes only". Again, an assistant told me that the shroom salesman hadn't started work yet.

Next stop was a shop on the Charing Cross Road. A Chinese lady started to lead me to the mushrooms, but when I asked her if she would mind answering a few questions for the press, she started yelling in Cantonese. I had no idea what she was saying, but I knew it was time to leave. I trudged back to Oxford Street to give one last shop a try. Inside Rainbow Accessories, a discreet sign points mushroom devotees to the basement. There, inside a silver fridge, lay dozens of Tupperware boxes filled with blackened magic mushrooms. They looked well past their sell-by-date.

But does the demand justify this proliferation of hopeful retailers? Paul Galbraith, the co-founder of Psyche Deli, confirms that business is booming: "Over the last year we have grown from the original four friends and partners to having 11 office-based staff, and 15 based out on the stalls." Galbraith believes that the UK market is already bigger than the Dutch, with further growth to come. Psyche Deli started off buying their grow kits and mushrooms from Dutch wholesalers; now, they sell to the Dutch.

"Our customers range from wholesalers, to members of the public who buy from us retail," says Galbraith. "We sell to all types: doctors, lawyers, architects, and even the odd policeman. The response has generally been positive, even among non-shroomers."

Interesting as it may be to imagine British bobbies off their faces on magic mushrooms, I'm not sure I'd be pleased if my nine-year-old son bought a bag of magic mushrooms with his pocket money. And yet, legally, he could. After all, the refusal to sell to under-18s is an ethical guideline implemented by Psyche Deli; it has no legal precedent. If an unscrupulous vendor decided to sell these drugs to minors, there'd be no comeback. And although shrooms are about as safe as drugs come, they are not risk free.

Dr Frank van der Heijden, of the Vincent van Gogh Institute for Psychiatry in the Netherlands, says that persistent psilocybin-induced psychosis is not very common, but that brief psychotic disturbances, like transient hallucinations or "dysperceptions", are more frequent among shroom users than in the general population. Mushroom use can also exacerbate chronic psychoses. The sale of shrooms is reasonably controlled in the Netherlands. Recently, the Dutch Supreme Court decided not to include psilocybin mushrooms in its list of drugs banned under the Opium Act, as long as they are still fresh. However, as in the UK, all dried or processed varieties are strictly forbidden. "Of course, from a pharmacological point of view this distinction between fresh and processed is absurd," says Dr van der Heijden. "You just take more fresh mushrooms to get the same effect."

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is an offence to possess a "preparation" or "product" of the controlled drugs psilocin and psilocybin, the active ingredients in magic mushrooms. The courts have ruled that freezing mushrooms constitutes a "preparation". If I were to buy some mushrooms and accidentally put them in my freezer instead of the fridge (fresh mushrooms need to be kept cool), I would then be in possession of a Class A drug, for which I could get seven years in prison. If I gave the frozen mushrooms to a friend, I could be arrested for supplying a Class A drug and could, in theory, get life imprisonment.

When I called the Home Office, a spokesperson informed me that the mushroom sellers are, in fact, breaking the law. "If fresh magic mushrooms are packaged and offered for sale, that is unlawful," he said. However, it's down to the local police force to decide what action they take, if any. So I phoned the Metropolitan Police to find out what their stance is on the sale of magic mushrooms. "What? They're sold through shops?" asked an incredulous Met Police spokesman. "I really don't know. I think it's a question best answered by the Home Office." I mentioned that I'd just called them. The spokesperson said that perhaps I should try the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), as they take abstruse laws and translate them into something that's intelligible to police constables. ACPO said: "You'd need to speak to the Home Office on that one." Back at the Home Office, a different spokesperson said that putting mushrooms in a bag did not constitute preparation, and that shops selling fresh magic mushrooms were acting within the law.

So if fresh magic mushrooms aren't a drug, what are they? I asked a Food Standards Agency spokesman if they were classed as a foodstuff. He replied: "We haven't the faintest idea, but if it's a prohibited substance, it's nothing to do with us." I explained that, as the fresh mushrooms weren't classed as a drug, they must be a foodstuff. In that case, he said, environmental health officers should be doing routine checks to ensure the food is being kept in proper conditions. Westminster City Council could not confirm that this was being done.

"The over-18s policy is one we have implemented ourselves, and it is one that we insist our wholesale customers adhere to," says Galbraith. "Many of the major wholesalers act responsibly and follow the same guidelines. We would certainly be in favour of some kind of regulation, but as the authorities have not provided this, we are keen to self-regulate." And with government departments unable to agree whose responsibility it is to monitor the sale of magic mushrooms, self-regulation sounds like the best solution.