Originally published in Arthur No. 14 (Jan. 2005)
The fungal kingdom is making a bold incursion into British streets markets where, through a curious legal twist, magic mushrooms are openly available for sale. MARK PILKINGTON reports back from a trip to the shops.
Photos by Mark Pilkington
Drawings by Matthew Greene
On the morning of October 3, 1799 a man known only as JS was found wandering in a state of delirium around London’s Green Park, not far from what would soon be Piccadilly Circus. He complained of waves of giddiness, odd flashes of color across his eyes and a cramped stomach. His family suffered the same effects and feared that they were dying. All that is, except their eight-year-old son, Edward, who seemed to find their situation hysterically funny.
A passing doctor, Everard Brande, was summoned to the scene, where JS told him that the symptoms had begun not long after the family had picked and eaten their usual breakfast of wild mushrooms. Intrigued by this puzzling scenario, Brande would write in The Medical and Physical Journal that the family’s condition was caused by the “deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric (i.e. mushroom), not hitherto suspected to be poisonous.”
Family S hold a unique position in history, as the United Kingdom’s first recorded shroomers.
England’s most common indigenous psychoactive mushroom is the Psilocybe semilanceata, known to its friends as the Liberty Cap. Four to eight centimetres tall, nipple-headed and a rich cream colour, following the Autumn rains of September and October they dot our green and pleasant land in their millions. Individually they won’t do anything for you—though veteran shroomers may eat one or two as they pick in a fresh field, claiming that it helps them to spot other mushrooms—but in doses of 20 or more, eaten as is, or brewed in boiling water, the effects can be potent. In fact, they’re more or less indistinguishable from the effects of the 120 or so other psilocybian mushrooms found the world over—including the cubensis and mexicana, which are no doubt familiar to many Arthur readers.
The sight of plastic bag-carrying longhairs bent double, scrutinizing our autumnal pastures for a taste of freedom has been a common one for the past three decades or so. But recently the fungal landscape has taken a dramatic and surprising turn.
About two miles north from where Family JS took their historic trip into the fungal kingdom is Camden Town, a legendary pilgrimage site for punks and Goths the world over. Here the once-thriving Counterculture of independent book and record shops has been firmly superceded by the ever-familiar counter culture of Gap and co. Shifty-eyed, muttering passers-by offer you all manner of illegal substances, but we’ll ignore them and head for one of the many stalls offering an altogether more rewarding—and currently legal—psychoactive experience: magic mushrooms.
Conspicuously moist in unmarked plastic tubs are a range of mycological exotica that would, as little as three years ago, have seemed inaccessible to all but the most adventurous ethnobotanist. Psilocybe cubensis strains from Mexico, Columbia, Peru, Ecuador and Thailand sit alongside the connoisseur’s choice, Hawaiian Copelandia cyanescens, and what’s known as Philosopher’s Stone: “truffles” or sclerotica—underground growths—of the Psilocybe tampanensis or mexicana. Prices are typically £10 ($18) for 10g, depending on what and where you buy. Some stalls now also sell mescaline-containing cacti like San Pedro and Peyote, though these are slower to grow and so more expensive.
The mushrooms’ packaging tends to contain little or no information: the more organized suppliers will include a label identifying the country of origin, alongside a variety of legal warnings, but you won’t find any dosage or storage recommendations and no tripping tips. Only qualified herbalists can legally distribute such information, though most stallholders will answer specific questions and the better stalls display generalized notes about each strain of shroom. However, depending on the psychedelic scruples of a particular stall’s owner, the person selling you your magic kingdom pass may or may not know anything about what it is they are selling.
As well as key locations in London—Camden High St, Portobello Road & Covent Garden being your best bets—the mushrooms’ glittering domain now stretches to an estimated 300 vendors in towns and cities all around the country. Enterprising sorts are also offering online and telephone deliveries to your front door. But for how long?
The legal situation regarding magic mushroom sales is a precarious one. According to the UK’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the active ingredients of the mushrooms, psilocybin and psilocin, are classified Class A. This places them alongside heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and speed (if it’s prepared for injection). The maximum sentence for possession is seven years in prison or, for intent to supply, life. This strikingly neo-gnostic approach to drug law is shared by the United States and much of Europe: it’s the mushroom’s soul that concerns the authorities, not its body.
But, because they grow more or less anywhere that sheep and cows shit, including on land owned by the military and the royal family, liberty caps and the other psychoactive mushrooms that grow here—such as the Amanita muscaria, or Fly Agaric—are only considered illegal if they have been prepared. And it’s this word that has proved to be the semantic loophole through which the fungi have taken to the streets.