- 15 Mar 06
Magic mushrooms were banned in Ireland recently, effectively aiming an exocet at the local ‘head’ shop business. But even before the ban, customs officials had been waging a bizarre war against what most people accept was a legal substance – resulting in considerable losses being sustained by shop owners. No wonder some of them are considering going to court to gain redress.
Ireland’s head shops were largely invisible to the general public until November 1st last year. That was when The Sun ran a front page story, blaming magic mushrooms for the death of 33-year old Dubliner Colm Hodkinson.
We won’t know what role magic mushrooms played in Colm Hodkinson’s death until June 27. At the inquest on March 1, the coroner acceded to a Garda request to adjourn proceedings. Inspector Denis Henaghan explained that the Director of Public Prosecutions is still considering whether charges should be brought in relation to the death. It isn’t clear what the nature of those charges might be, but sources have confirmed that, if there are charges, they will be levelled at the owner of the shop in which Mr. Hodkinson bought the mushrooms.
What is clear is that on the night he died, Colm Hodkinson had also consumed alcohol – which has, of course, been a factor in hundreds of deaths every year in Ireland for as long as anyone can remember. There is no previous death recorded, relating to magic mushrooms...
Psilocybin mushrooms had quietly became more popular and widely available in Ireland. What began in 2004 as a cottage industry in two Dublin head shops had, by the beginning of 2006, mushroomed into a professional import trade, with a reported 50 outlets selling the psychedelic fungi. Then came the ban, imposed by Minister for Health, Mary Harney, in January.
The end of the mushroom trade has taken a heavy financial toll on head outlets, with newer shops like Fun Guy in Temple Bar being forced out of business. Some shops continue to stock other psychedelic plants, like mescaline cacti and salvia divinorum, as well as ‘legal highs’ (which mimic the effects of drugs like ecstasy and speed) and aphrodisiacs. Many of these substances are notoriously ineffective, and the demand is never likely to match that for mushrooms – meaning that the ban has demolished the core of the head business.
There is no clear-cut basis for believing that these products are illegal. Despite this, customs officials have snatched some of the substances, and when approached by Hot Press, they declined to clarify their interpretation of the drug law, saying it was a matter for the Department of Health, which in turn said it was a matter for the courts.
In many ways what happened with mushrooms was even more bizarre. Customs began intercepting mushroom imports arriving from the Netherlands in the latter part of last year. Mushrooms in their raw state were legal at the time and yet they made 54 such seizures, with a weight of 120 kilos according to their own estimation. From the perspective of the shop owners, this was premeditated theft by a branch of the State apparatus – and yet the shop owners have never received compensation for the loss of stock. Even a Department of Justice letter from 2004, which clarified that there was nothing illegal about raw mushrooms, failed to dissuade Customs from seizing any imports they could find.
Head shop owners sought a meeting with Customs officials, at which they were told that Customs didn’t care what the Minister for Justice or the Gardai had to say on the matter – mushrooms were illegal and the seizures would continue.
Meanwhile, the shops continued to sell mushrooms, with the Gardai making no effort to detain the shipments that did sneak past Customs...
Some head shops never heard from the Gardai. Darcy Petticrew, who owns the Himalayan Crafts shops, says his Navan shop was never visited. Similarly, local Gardai called to his Drogheda outlet just once, and only on foot of a complaint. After speaking to staff, they left satisfied that the mushroom trade was not a dagger aimed at the heart of society.
Gardai did have contact with the Utopianation head shop in Cork – but that was simply to return mushrooms, which had been stolen by local youths, who were arrested for theft. Customs officials visited the shop to advise co-owner, Ella Goddin, that they considered raw mushrooms to be Schedule 1 drugs under the existing legislation. Ella was bemused that the seizures were not accompanied by the sort of sweeping arrests which would surely follow the interception of a large shipment of heroin or cocaine.
Helen Stone, whose shop had also gone unmolested by the Gardai, went to the High Court in December to seek an injunction against Customs, after €9,000 worth of imports had been seized en route to her Funky Skunk store in Cork. The application was denied, but a full hearing was set for February to determine the legality of the seizures.
Following the ban, the case was postponed. However, from Stone’s point of view, the position of customs is thoroughly illogical – in effect insisting that mushrooms were already illegal before Mary Harney changed the law to make them illegal.
A campaign website, shroomaid.org, will be launched shortly, which will aim to educate the public about all aspects of the psychedelic fungus, including Ireland’s ancient association with the mushroom. The campaign also hopes to raise funds to initiate court challenges, and a number of legal avenues are being explored.
In the short term, civil actions may be taken to retrieve the value of the mushrooms seized by customs – but it seems unlikely that anyone will take an expensive court case, to clarify the legal status of less popular substances like mescaline cacti. With the Department of Health deferring to the courts in the matter, it is likely that the decision of Customs will prevail.
And the result of all this? Almost certainly, what had been an overground and largely harmless recreational trade in psychedelics will now simply go underground. What price lots more people taking LSD, now that the legal natural high of mushrooms has been banned? What a crazy little country...