Parties united on swift 'magic' mushroom ban

  • 15 February 2006
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The knee-jerk ban on the sale or possession of mushrooms containing psilocybin has been backed by five of the six major parties in the Dáil, despite none having any evidence to support their stance. Peter McGuire reports

Opposition spokespersons, Liz McManus, Liam Twomey and Aengus Ó Snodaigh, who each supported the ban on magic mushrooms, do not know of any evidence to suggest "magic" mushrooms are dangerous to public or individual health. They were also unaware of academic studies which conclude that "magic" mushrooms are not dangerous. The majority of politicians – despite being uninformed about magic mushrooms – have supported the stance of Minister for Health, Mary Harney, and the Government, who banned them recently.

TDs from the main opposition parties – Fine Gael, Labour, and Sinn Féin – all backed the ban on "magic" mushrooms, while only the Green Party broke the political consensus and questioned the ban. The party's spokesperson on health, John Gormley TD, argued alcohol was the most serious drug in Ireland and that Harney had ignored this while pursuing a ban on "magic" mushrooms.

Research carried out by CAM (Coordination Centre for the Assessment and Monitoring of New Drugs), an organisation established by the Dutch government found that "the use of paddos (hallucinogenic mushrooms) does not, on balance, present any risk to the health of the individual." They found that they are not addictive; the worst outcome of taking them may be flashbacks; there is a very low risk to public order, especially compared to other drugs; and there is a very low risk to the individual taking them, especially compared to other drugs.

CAM established a board consisting of toxicology professors, law enforcement officials, doctors, prosecutors, addiction specialists, and representatives of the EU body, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), to investigate all aspects of "magic" mushrooms.

CAM expressed concern that a ban would lead to users picking wild mushrooms, where they may confuse "magic" mushrooms with poisonous varieties. They stated that the legalised status of "magic" mushrooms kept people away from "other, possibly more risky products". CAM concluded that "the results of the risk assessment do not present any need for a statutory ban."

A separate study by Swiss psychiatrists attached to a university, stated: "there is no cause for concern that administration of PY (psilocybin) to healthy subjects is hazardous with respect to somatic health." This contrasts with similar studies on tobacco and alcohol.

Studies on the effects of psilocybin on the human brain have also been carried out in the US, Israel and Spain, linking it with successful treatment of post-traumatic stress, obsessive compulsive disorder, alleviation of distress in the dying, alcoholism and severe migraine.

When questioned whether Mary Harney was aware of any of these specific studies, a spokesperson for the Department of Health replied, in a prepared statement, "If the Department is made aware of the abuse of certain products, it investigates to see if changes in the law are required, as was the position in the case of magic mushrooms in their raw state where it was brought to the attention of the Department that a young man had died following the consumption of raw mushrooms."

The department failed to answer whether Harney expected to meet her statutory obligations under the National Drugs Strategy to provide "education, information, and awareness" about magic mushrooms.

Fine Gael spokesperson on health, Liam Twomey TD, said, "what you have to ask with any drug is whether they are addictive, and magic mushrooms have this addictiveness."

When questioned by Village, Twomey could not provide any evidence whatsoever to support his own statements. "I think any substance that has some form of stimulant effect, whether it's cigarettes, alcohol, magic mushrooms, cocaine or heroin, can always have some addictive effect on individuals. I can't quote any specific evidence for it, but these are substances which do have a stimulant effect on people." Twomey was also unaware of the studies which suggest "magic" mushrooms are not dangerous.

Liz McManus, TD, Labour spokesperson on health, said that she did not know whether magic mushrooms were addictive, but that there "does seem to be some evidence that they are", and that she supported the decision to label them as Class A drugs alongside heroin, crack cocaine, cocaine and ecstacy. She added, "What I would worry about is some people reacting badly to them."

Also supporting the ban, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, TD, Sinn Féin justice spokesperson, was unaware of the research which indicates that magic mushrooms are not a danger to the health of society or the individual, and stated, "I don't think that any research would change my mind." However, he did indicate that he did not support them being designated a Class A drug.

Twomey, McManus and Ó Snodaigh all agreed the Government had not adequately tackled the problem of alcohol in Irish society.

Criticising the "magic" mushroom ban, Green TD John Gormley said, "The decision came very suddenly, and I was surprised that there was no debate. I am still trying to establish if there was a need to ban them. From what I have read – and I am still reading and learning about the issue – they are not as unsafe as Harney is making out."

Comparing the speed of her decision to ban "magic" mushrooms with her decision not to implement the promised Alcohol Products Bill, which would have banned alcohol advertising, he added, "Now she comes in with this ban on a product that, frankly, we don't know that much about. I'm going to be raising this with her in the house, and what I want to find out is how much research she has done on this herself, or is it simply a knee-jerk reaction?"

Mushrooms played magic in Irish history

"In the months of July, August and September when the mushrooms would be plenty there used to be great fun at the wakes. Nearly every lad who was going would have his pocket full of mushrooms. They would all wait then until about twelve o'clock when the Rosary and the supper would be over and they would all crowd around the fire. All the women would be gone to bed or gone home and they would have the place to themselves. They would all then take out their mushrooms… When they would be cooked to their satisfaction the fun would begin. There would be a regular row over the whole affair. They would not know which of them was their own and they would burn their fingers trying to get them out of the flames. The people of the house would know well enough that they would be at this game and they would hide the frying pan when they would be going to bed."

The above quote, from the National Folklore Collection in UCD (NFC 460: 118), is one of many which hint that Ireland's interest in magic mushrooms precedes the (now banned) commercial sales of the past few years.

Internationally, the natural hallucinogenic phenomenon took off in the late 1950s with the discovery by anthropologist and botanist Gordon Wasson of their widespread use in Native American religious rituals. This led to an international reawakening of interest in the tiny fungi, including in Ireland. With this, more people discreetly took to the fields every September and October to pick Ireland's native psilocybe semilanceata (liberty cap).

There is widespread evidence that the mushrooms, while officially frowned upon by the powerful church and largely overlooked by the systematic Irish folklore collectors of the 1920s and 30s, had formed a quiet subculture in Ireland for thousands of years. A prestigious Harvard academic, Thomas Reidlinger, has linked some of Ireland's most important myths and mythical characters, especially the CuChulainn tales, to "magic" mushrooms. Other research by Irish historians and folklorists suggests further links to ancient Celtic druids. Peter McGuire