Curiouser and curiouser: A legal oddity allows access to some 'natural' drugs but not others

After Glastonbury and other free festivals several plaited-haired friends of mine have been prodding ceaselessly through the deer droppings in Richmond Park and among the finer grasses of Hampstead Heath. They are looking for magic mushrooms, Psilocybe semilanceata, which, they claim, even thrive amid the police horse droppings of Wormwood Scrubs.

The strange thing about this powerful hallucinogenic drug is that in its naturally occurring form it is legal. New Age travellers traditionally start chugging in their converted ambulances towards deepest central Wales at this time of year. (One Pennine-bound bus in Sheffield has been renamed the Magic Bus by the city's jobless).

But there are 'significant growths' in the capital, even 'premier crus', and the police are powerless to stop anyone eating the untreated mind-blower.

Our thin blue line, many of whose bosses agree with decriminalising cannabis, have the Law Lords to thank for a ruling that renders our drug laws absurd. In 1978, with Lord Diplock presiding, the lords, doubtless concerned for their own herbacious borders full of foxglove and datura, ruled it was not an offence to have a naturally occurring material which incidentally contained a controlled drug. In subsequent legislation cannabis plants were made an exception. The Alice in Wonderland result can only be described as Toad's Law.

The natterjack toad, beloved by witches, has glands on it back which release a lysergide similar to LSD. While it is illegal to possess a bottle of lysergide, it is legal under the drug laws to have a pet toad. No one has ever been seized by a London drug squad for having a 'toadlike substance in their possession. At present it is only when the user tries to separate the drug from its natural base, in this case the natterjack, that an offence is committed.

The same is true of the mushroom. Psilocybe fungi contain psilocybin and psilocin, both class A drugs. To possess psilocin carries a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment and an unlimited fine; the maximum sentence for supply is 14 years in jail. Toad's Law makes an ass of these stern penalties, though, to be fair, the implications for festivals and raves were not realised by the Law Lords in 1978, even if the mushrooms had been used enthusiastically by previous generations, from Aldous Huxley back to the Aztecs.

Parliament initially ruled out as illegal naturally occurring substances because it opened a legal pandora's box. Everyone would be breaking the law when they watered their morning glory, which contains an extremely powerful hallucinogen.

At the moment if you crush psilly mushrooms or process them in any way you can be prosecuted. Anyone who eats them au natural is let off. Wrapping the mushrooms in silver foil and baking them in a quiche have brought successful prosecutions because this is deemed processing. Selling a magic mushroom quiche is deemed dealing and can attract the full penalty of 14 years imprisonment. 'It's a very grey area,' said a man from Release, the drugs and legal advice agency. 'We have known people prosecuted for freezing them.

Taking these mushrooms is also not without medical hazards, as there is a similarity to the dangerous panther cap mushroom. Some years ago Hill End Hospital, near St Albans, treated a 23-year-old man who went berserk with a knife at a party. Afterwards he attempted suicide. 'We had to give him electroconvulsive therapy,' warned the doctor who treated him. 'The mushrooms are there for the picking. They are free and legal and it's very alarming.'

The effect of magic mushrooms is similar to LSD, causing objects to seemingly move and shimmer and appear more brilliant. The mushroom was often given to those about to be sacrificed to the Aztec gods so that they would happily saunter up the steps of the temple to have their hearts cut out.

The problem of these mushrooms, which sell for up to pounds 50 a gram in Germany and Holland, has been known about by the experts for some time.

In a report in The Lancet in the 1980s a group of doctors who treated 49 patients with an average age of 17 talked of 'an unprecedented epidemic of the abuse of indigenous fungi'. Dr Tony Harries and Dr Valmai Evans, of University Hospital, Cardiff, had to see 100 children who went on a mass mushroom hunt. Ten had to be treated in hospital. 'The present legal position is absurd,' commented Dr Harries. 'The mushrooms can cause convulsions, coma and even death if eaten in any quantity.'

So while I would not want, in any way, to get between a consenting adult and his psychedelic nibble, why is it that this drug is legal and mild cannabis is not? With judicial decisions like this, it is no wonder our drug problems, like Alice, are getting ever bigger.