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DoubleBlind: Image of psilocybin shrooms on shadowed background. In this article, DoubleBlind explores why magic mushrooms are illegal.
DoubleBlind: Image of psilocybin shrooms on shadowed background. In this article, DoubleBlind explores why magic mushrooms are illegal.

Why are Shrooms Illegal?

It’s been almost 50 years since shrooms were banned internationally, but recent developments suggest that the days of prohibition are numbered.

James McClure // July 15, 2020

Magic mushrooms are illegal in nearly every country thanks to the Convention on Psychotropic Substances—an international treaty developed in 1971 by the United Nations to prohibit the production, distribution, and consumption of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelic substances. Since the Seventies, more than 180 countries have pledged support to the treaty.

But the United Nations doesn’t have the power or resources to police the streets in all of those countries, so the onus has been on each member state to develop its own laws to prohibit shrooms and other psychedelics.

Here’s how shrooms became illegal in America, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. 

Why are shrooms illegal in America?

The United States was one of the first countries to prohibit psilocybin, but thanks to the efforts of psychedelic researchers and grassroots advocates, America might also become one of the very first nations to knock down prohibition through local reform legislation and nationwide FDA approval of psilocybin in assisted psychotherapy. 

America officially outlawed shrooms in 1968 through an amendment to the Food, Drug and Narcotics Act known as the Staggers-Dodd bill, which banned the possession of psilocybin (the main compound in shrooms) as well as psilocin (the compound that psilocybin metabolizes into after being ingested).

Psilocybin prohibition, however, wasn’t seriously enforced until the passage of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1971, which marked the beginning of America’s disastrous War on Drugs. Under the CSA, psilocybin and psilocin are listed alongside heroin as Schedule I drugs, meaning that they have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use—at least, according to the federal government. 

Scientific research (both from present day clinical trials and pre-Drug War experimentation) and centuries of ritualistic use in indigenous communities, however, have proven otherwise. Classifying magic mushrooms as Schedule I defied the findings of psychedelic research from the 1950s through the 1970s, showing that mushrooms carried promise as a potential treatment for alcoholism, schizophrenia, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and other conditions. 

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But the Nixon administration’s decision to ban magic mushrooms and other psychedelics might’ve had more to do with politics than with public safety. In 1994, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s former domestic-policy advisor and Watergate co-conspirator, told journalist Dan Baum that the War on Drugs was really an attempt to disrupt and oppress the president’s political enemies.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman said. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

While Ehrlichman didn’t comment on shrooms specifically, psilocybin’s affiliation with the psychedelic counterculture—led in part by Timothy Leary, who Nixon dubbed “the most dangerous man in America”—and the “antiwar left” makes it reasonable to view it as part of this political ploy. 

Read: Everything You Should Know About the Campaign to Decriminalize Naturally Occurring Psychedelics

Prohibition hasn’t stopped American psychonauts from enjoying shrooms over the last 50 years though. As psilocybin mushroom spores are legal in most states, many psychonauts are able to cultivate them—although, this spore loophole doesn’t mean that the fruits of their labor will be later once they spawn. 

But that could change thanks to the efforts of psychedelic policy reform advocates. In May of 2019, Denver voters approved a ballot initiative that bans the county from arresting or prosecuting anyone caught growing or possessing shrooms for personal use. The initiative made Denver the first American city to decriminalize magic mushrooms.

Then a month later, the city council of Oakland, California passed a resolution to ban law enforcement from using city money to arrest people for possessing magic mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca or other entheogenic plants. More recently, the city of Santa Cruz, California effectively decriminalized shrooms in January of 2020 by unanimously passing a resolution to make busting people for possessing or cultivating magic mushrooms for personal use one of the lowest priorities for law enforcers. Other cities like Chicago or New York, where Decriminalize Nature activists are planning their own campaigns, may follow suit with Oakland and Santa Cruz. 

Read: How Oregon is Leading the Country in Drug Policy Reform

Those three cities could soon be joined by the entire state of Oregon, which is on track to vote on legalizing psilocybin therapy statewide through a ballot initiative this fall. Meanwhile, a recent poll from the cannabis research firm Green Horizons found that 76 percent of Americans support legalizing magic mushrooms in some form. 

If these trends continue, then psilocybin prohibition could fade away, effectively ending the “bad trip” that is the War on Drugs—at least as it pertains to shrooms. 

Concurrently, psilocybin—in synthetic form—has also been placed on the FDA fast track to becoming a prescription medication in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of depression.

Why are shrooms illegal in the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom declared war on magic mushrooms in the Seventies, but thanks to a loophole in the UK’s drug laws, British psychonauts were able to grow and sell shrooms without fear of prosecution until the turn of the 21st century. 

In 1971, the UK tried to suppress shrooms and other psychedelics by launching the British version of the War on Drugs. Before that, the UK had unsuccessfully prohibited the recreational use of cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other substances through a “rigid and ramshackle collection of Drugs Acts,” according to Harvey Teff, a Durham University law professor who critiqued the country’s haphazard drug policies in a 1972 article for the Modern Law Review.

Teff believed that the UK wasn’t overly concerned about drugs before the 1960s because recreational use was rare and mostly limited to cannabis. But the Sixties saw both a dramatic increase in illicit drug consumption, as well as an influx in the availability of shrooms and other substances that were new to Britain. Although magic mushrooms have been around for thousands of years, they were relatively unknown in the UK and other parts of the western world until the mid 1950s, with media like banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson’s account of an indigenous mushroom ceremony in Mexico with curandera Maria Sabina, published in LIFE Magazine in 1957. 

The curiosity around psychedelics spread from academic circles into hippie culture and by the mid Sixties, members of the counterculture on both sides of the Atlantic were experimenting with the mind-expanding fungus.

Read: What’s the Difference between “Legalization” and “Decriminalization”?

The British establishment responded by introducing the Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) in 1971. The MDA categorized illicit drugs into three groups (Class A, B and C) based on “harmfulness and danger,” according to former Home Secretary James Callaghan, who assured Parliament that the new approach was developed based on recommendations from the World Health Organization and modeled on the international drug treaty known as the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotics. 

Under the MDA, psilocin (one of the  psychoactive compounds in magic mushrooms) was lumped together with heroin and meth into Class A—the category for the most harmful substances, which also received the harshest punishments under the new law.

But the MDA failed to suppress magic mushrooms due to two major flaws: First, the act banned psilocin, but not the fungus containing it. That loophole meant that shroom spores, which do not contain psilocin, could be legally bought and cultivated in the UK. Moreover, the MDA stressed cracking down on magic mushrooms that were prepared for consumption (e.g. dried), which allowed British psychonauts to continue possessing and selling fresh (i.e. unprepared) shrooms. 

Unfortunately, those loopholes closed in 2005 when the British government added all strains of magic mushrooms to the MDA. As a result, anyone caught selling shrooms (fresh or prepared) or spores in the UK now faces a potential life sentence in prison. 

While recreational mushroom use probably won’t be legal in the UK anytime soon, there is hope for medicinal use thanks to a revival in psychedelic research. Like in most western nations, prohibition stifled psychedelic studies in the UK for decades. Then in 2019, Imperial College London helped revive interest in the maligned topic by opening the Centre for Psychedelic Research, which is dedicated to studying the usefulness of magic mushrooms, LSD, DMT, and other substances for treating depression and other disorders. 

Why Are Shrooms Illegal in Amsterdam?

For decades, Amsterdam has been seen as a safe haven for cannabis enthusiasts and psychonauts, thanks to the Netherlands’ tolerant approach to shrooms and other illicit substances. Instead of trying to suppress recreational drug use by threatening offenders with prison sentences, the Netherlands has treated the consumption of illicit substances as an issue of public health. That’s why people caught with small amounts of marijuana or magic mushrooms are far more likely to be fined than jailed for breaking the law. But a recent crackdown on shrooms is threatening Amsterdam’s liberal reputation and could signal the end of the era of tolerance in the Netherlands.

This tolerant drug policy began in the mid Seventies, when Dutch lawmakers responded to the rise of recreational drug use by revising the country’s laws for illicit substances (known as the Opium Act). The revised Opium Act of 1976 added psilocybin and psilocin to the list of prohibited substances, but the government didn’t include the shrooms that contain those psychedelic compounds. As a result, psychonauts could legally purchase fresh (i.e. unprocessed) magic mushrooms from specialty stores known as “smart shops,” which also sell herbal medicines. 

Those shroom-selling smart shops operated in a gray area alongside Amsterdam’s cannabis cafes until 2008, when the Dutch government launched a crackdown on magic mushrooms. That abrupt change in policy was prompted by the death of Gaelle Caroff, a 17-year-old French student who purchased shrooms from a smart shop during a school trip to Amsterdam in 2007 and jumped off a building while under the influence.

Read: The Definitive History of Psilocybin Mushrooms

The country’s approach to magic mushrooms had already drawn negative criticism in the press following a slew of incidents in which tourists injured themselves or others after taking shrooms. But Caroff’s death sparked more outrage and public protests than the lesser incidents. In response, Dutch politicians added 186 strains of magic mushrooms to the Opium Act (see the full list here). Lawmakers showed some restraint by placing those strains on List II of the act, which is for soft drugs like cannabis, instead of lumping them in with potentially more lethal substances like heroin and meth on List I. But that distinction was cold comfort for the psychedelic advocates and the owners of smart shops.

One such owner opined that lawmakers had been looking for an excuse to launch the crackdown. 

“Every two months they’re banning something,” Chloe Collette, owner of the FullMoon Smart Shop, told the Associated Press in 2008. “Ephedra, yohimbe, herbal ‘ecstasy,’ and now this. I don’t know if we can survive in the future.”

The store has survived, but it no longer advertises magic mushrooms. Instead, FullMoon offers a selection of “magic truffles.”

What’s the difference between a magic mushroom and a magic truffle? It’s not so much about what they are, but where they’re grown. Truffles are the part of the mushroom that grows underground, which makes them technically legal in the Netherlands since the 2007 update to the Opium Act didn’t add truffles to the list of prohibited substances.

Since truffles contain the same psychoactive compounds as magic mushrooms (psilocybin and psilocin), the experience is much the same, though some find that tripping on truffles is milder and less introspective than on regular shrooms. They can be purchased at smart shops or consumed at psilocybin retreats such as Synthesis in Amsterdam.

James McClure is a journalist, playwright and scholar based in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada who specializes in cannabis culture, international drug policy, hockey and English literature. His work has appeared in Civilized, Mental Floss and other publications.

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