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Drugs Bill


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Caroline Flint: Magic mushrooms fall into two categories, essentially. The first category is indigenous to the United Kingdom and is known as liberty cap. It has a short harvest in autumn. The sale of those mushrooms is not known to be significant or systematic. The second category is Psilocybe cubensis. Types available are usually Mexican, Indian and Colombian, and they are often grown in
 
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Holland and imported to the UK. They are cultivated specifically to be turned into a marketable product.

Hon. Members have suggested that we are making an act unlawful. The problem is that the Government were pretty clear about where we thought the law on magic mushrooms stood; we thought that capturing mushrooms, in the sense of preparing or producing them to be acquired and used for their hallucinogenic qualities, was enough. However, in one way or another people have tried to find a way round the law, which is what we are trying to deal with.

In many respects we are not really suddenly making magic mushrooms illegal. I spoke earlier, on the amendments, about the legal position. People might have a different point of view about the classification, but the law is clear about the properties of the mushrooms when fresh and when prepared. We are trying to deal with people who try to find a way round the law, which has made law enforcement difficult. The judge in a case in a case in Gloucester Crown court on 14 December recommended that Parliament consider new legislation to clarify the legal position and put matters beyond doubt.

Dr. Iddon: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware that the industry has asked the Government to consider regulating the sale of the products and licensing them. Would not that be a more acceptable way forward, and would not it protect young children from using magic mushrooms?

Caroline Flint: If I were to accept that, it would be tantamount to accepting that the properties of the mushrooms in use present no problem. I shall expand in a moment on the relative harm of the products. We should be aware that it is because of their hallucinogenic properties, and the consequences of those when the mushrooms are used in the same way as LSD, that they have been placed in class A by previous UK Governments and internationally. That is not to say that the effects are exactly the same as heroin or crack. One is very much a stimulant; the other has a much more ''downing'' effect on individuals. It is recognised, however, that these mushrooms have harmful properties. To go down the route of regulation is not, therefore, a direction that the Government are minded to take.

Mr. Carmichael: The Minister is outlining a very interesting and important line of reasoning here. There are all sorts of substances and preparations that have harmful effects. On the basis of what she knows about these substances, how would she rate the harm caused by them as against that caused by alcohol or tobacco?

Caroline Flint: We could have a discussion on every single substance this afternoon. There is a problem with the hon. Gentleman's line of argument.

Mr. Carmichael: It was a question.

Caroline Flint: Question and line of argument, then. In his earlier contribution, one could almost infer that he was saying the failure of our system of classification and prohibition meant that we should legalise all these drugs. I understand that some people hold that view.

I am not saying for one instant that navigating our way through the issues of substance abuse is easy. It is
 
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not. One of the things we must constantly look at is the way in which substances are used and abused. I do not know what synthetic drugs might come on to our radar in five or ten years' time. The fact that there is no perfect answer to all these situations does not mean we should not do something about some of the substances of which it is felt, in the national and international arena, Governments need to be mindful. I will talk about some estimates of the use of these drugs, and the escalating problem due to the nature of the selling of these fresh mushrooms in some of the 400-plus outlets I have described, a little later.

Dr. Iddon: I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that there is a great deal of controversy over the use of the word ''hallucinogen'' attached to psilocin and psilocybin. With hallucinogens, there is a great danger that people will harm themselves. I have mentioned one of the effects of LSD—it was fed to some members of the Army at Porton Down more than 30 years ago, and they developed tremendous energy and even chopped down trees while under its influence.

Psychedelics do not fall into that class, however. They do not give people that urge to have great strength or to harm themselves. I mentioned that these two compounds, psilocin and psilocybin, give people a deep feeling of spiritual contentment. I know the Minister has been in correspondence with Professor David Nichols, who has also objected to her frequently using the word ''hallucinogen'' attached to psilocin and psilocybin. He has admitted to her that, occasionally, a person will have an hallucination while on psilocin or psilocybin, but that it is very rare indeed.

Caroline Flint: I am not a scientist, but I have looked into some of these areas. My hon. Friend talked about the entheogenic properties of these mushrooms, which literally means ''the god within''. In that sense, people who apply this term are talking about the effect of any drug creating an uplifting spiritual experience. I have had a letter or two from people who clearly refer to this experience they have when they are partaking of magic mushrooms.

The harm of magic mushrooms may be disputed but, as far as I understand it, their hallucinogenic properties are not. Hallucinations are one of the main effects that make the drug user want to use these mushrooms. Hallucinations are one of the main effects that make the drug user want to use these mushrooms. A recent Dutch government study in 2000, to which my hon. Friend referred, states that a usual dose of 10 g

    ''leads to illusions and hallucinations . . . LSD and psilocybin work according to the same pharmacological principle.''

A recent Swiss study in 2003 refers to hallucinogenic mushrooms. Dr. Sam Bonnet of Bristol university accepts that there are hallucinogenic effects among users.

There is clearly a body of evidence that recognises that hallucinations are part and parcel of the experience of using these mushrooms. For certain people, that can be incredibly harmful. The Dutch report refers to the impact of people using mushrooms
 
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if there is an underlying heart condition, or mental health problems.

Mrs. Gillan: I have been listening to what the Minister has been saying on this subject. Although I did not touch on it when I made my remarks, I looked into some of the alleged effects of these drugs.

4.16 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.31 pm

On resuming—

Mrs. Gillan: Just before we were interrupted, I was going to support the Minister. I, too, used the same tried-and-tested means as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and went on to the internet, because I needed to understand what we were dealing with. I found relevant descriptions of the psychedelic experience, as it applies to mushrooms, at www.thegooddrugsguide.com. In some cases, the effects are very alarming and include strong hallucinations, with objects morphing into other objects, and some loss of reality—time becomes meaningless and senses blend into one. [Interruption.] I think that that sounds absolutely terrifying. It is said that that experience is rare, but it involves an almost total loss of the visual connection with reality. The senses cease to function in a normal way and the loss of reality becomes so severe that it defies explanation.

I hope that the Minister agrees with that description, knowing what the effects are on people who may have a disposition to mental illness. We are talking about the severe outcomes of taking such drugs.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that hallucinations are dangerous. There is an increased risk of self-harm, paranoia attacks and highly disturbing experiences, because hallucinations distort people's sense of what is around them. Depending on where someone takes drugs that cause hallucinations, the dangers can be very serious.

It is easy to say that because some substances have been used in some cultures and in certain situations, they can be applicable to our society, but that is not always the case. For instance, there have been debates about what is appropriate with khat and whether it is a stimulant. In certain societies and under certain conditions, a wraparound culture applies to the use of certain substances, but it is not necessarily applicable in the UK in the 21st century, given how we work, live and socialise. Let us think about the issue—if somebody was having hallucinations and got inside a car, I would be very worried if I was driving down the same street.

The proprietors of the outlets, which are sometimes in the head shops that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned, or in street or market stalls, believe that they have found a loophole in the law, in that an offence is committed under the 1971 Act only if the mushrooms are prepared in any way, such as being frozen or powdered. Those who have prepared mushrooms in that manner have been successfully prosecuted, so the law is clearly seen to work. However, mushrooms that are packaged and
 
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preserved are technically fresh at the point of sale and therefore not caught by that legal definition. That has caused problems with law enforcement and for the courts, which is why we are trying to tackle the situation.

The legislation makes it an offence to make the active ingredients of mushrooms—psilocybin and psilocin—into a product. Psilocin and its ester psilocybin are both controlled under the 1971 Act as class A drugs. Magic mushrooms can contain both of those properties, but are not controlled; it is not illegal to possess, supply or cultivate them in their raw state. That was partly because it was not seen to be a problem. However, the British crime survey of 2002–03 shows that about 180,000 of 16-year-olds and upwards—the definition in the survey is usually those aged 16 to 59—have taken mushrooms. All the indications are that that trend could be going up due to the massive expansion of sales in the form that I have described. Clearly, that is of concern.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham talked about fly agaric or Amanita muscaria mushrooms. For those who do not know those terms, they are the red and white mushrooms that we have seen as children in our fairy-tale books, sometimes with a little elf sitting on top of them. The fly agaric, or fairy, mushroom does not contain psilocin or psilocybin, but produces a powerful hallucinatory effect. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the substance muscaria is highly poisonous if taken in its raw state, and that has been a sufficient deterrent to prevent drug users from experimenting with it. Its prevalence in the UK is extremely low, and there are no plans to control it because the fact that it is highly poisonous has, thank goodness, been enough of a deterrent. When I was growing up, we did not pick or take any mushrooms, but relied on local supermarkets or market stalls to provide us with ones that could be eaten safely.

The hon. Lady also asked when the measure will come into force. The answer is as soon as we have made the regulations. As I said, we have to consider the situation with indigenous mushrooms growing in the wild and on people's land. I hope that we can sort that out a short time after Royal Assent, so that there is no delay.

 
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