The Netherlands will ban the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms, the government announced Friday, tightening the country’s famed liberal drug policies after the suicide of an intoxicated teenage girl.
The ban — in response to the death and other highly publicized adverse reactions involving the fungus — is the latest backlash against the freewheeling policies of the past.
Mushrooms “will be outlawed the same way as other drugs,” Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin told reporters in The Hague. “The way we will enforce the ban is through targeting sellers.”
Psilocybin, the main active chemical in the mushrooms, has been illegal under international law since 1971. However, fresh mushrooms continued to be sold legally in the Netherlands along with herbal medicines in so-called “smart-shops,” on the theory that it was impossible to determine how much psilocybin any given mushroom contains.
That meant mushrooms were less regulated than marijuana, which is technically illegal but sold openly in small amounts in “coffee shops.” Possession of “hard” drugs like cocaine, LSD and Ecstasy is illegal.
Outright ban a surprise
The government has cracked down on hard drugs and tightened controls on marijuana. It was expected to do the same with mushrooms after the death of 17-year-old Gaelle Caroff, who had suffered from psychological problems before her death in March. She jumped from a building after eating psychedelic mushrooms while on a school visit.
But the outright ban came as a surprise: The government had solicited advice from vendors, advocacy groups and the city of Amsterdam, which benefits greatly from drug-related tourism, on how to improve the situation.
Mushroom vendors suggested stricter ID controls to prevent underage buyers, and strong warnings against mixing mushrooms with other drugs.
Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen had suggested a three-day “cooling off” period between ordering them and using them.
The Justice Ministry decided those measures did not go far enough.
The problem with mushrooms is that “it’s impossible to estimate what amount will have what effect,” spokesman Wim Van der Weegen said.
Around 500,000 “doses” of packaged mushrooms are sold in the Netherlands annually. According to a study published in January by Amsterdam’s health services, the city’s emergency services were summoned 148 times to deal with a bad reaction to mushrooms in 2004-2006. Of those 134 were foreigners, with Britons forming the largest group.
Other nations outlaw mushrooms
Denmark outlawed mushrooms in 2001, Japan in 2002, Britain in 2005 and Ireland in 2006. Selling psilocybin-containing mushrooms is illegal in the U.S., but the status varies from state to state for spores, homegrown and wild species.
Marjan Heuving, a spokeswoman for the country’s Trimbos Institute, a drug policy think-tank, said mushrooms are not toxic and themselves pose no physical risk to users.
But she agreed that people’s reaction to them is unpredictable, depending on factors such as weight; how much food they have eaten recently; their past drug experience; psychological health; and the setting in which they are taken.
“The main danger to the user is that he will somehow hurt himself,” she said. “I should add that that’s extremely rare.”
Since Caroff’s death, a number of other dramatic stories involving mushrooms have been reported in the Dutch press, including a 22-year-old British tourist who ran amok in a hotel, breaking his window and slicing his hand badly.
“It’s a shame, the media really blew this up into a big issue,” said Chloe Collette, owner of the FullMoon smart-shop in Amsterdam.
She said each case also involved the use of alcohol — against the advice of sellers — but it was the mushrooms that were blamed.
She said that many herbal medicines have quietly been outlawed as well.
“Every two months they’re banning something. Ephedra, yohimbe, herbal ’Ecstasy,’ and now this,” she said. “I don’t know if we can survive in the future.”
Since 2001, the government has gradually pared back the number of marijuana-selling coffee shops by refusing to renew licenses to stores in undesirable locations, such as near schools.
Growers targeted for prosecution
Coffee shops in the southern city of Maastricht have begun demanding fingerprints from customers to ensure they aren’t buying too much in one day.
Growers, including household growers, have been more aggressively targeted for prosecution.
The Netherlands remains a major Ecstasy producer, but has won praise from Washington for the crackdown. Seizures of a ton or more of cocaine from ships docking in the Port of Rotterdam — Europe’s largest — have become routine.
Murat Kucuksen, whose farm Procare supplies about half the psychedelic mushrooms on the Dutch market, predicted the trade will move underground as a result of the ban. Prices will rise, and dealers will sell dried mushrooms, or LSD as a substitute, to tourists with no guidance.
“So you’ll have a rise in incidents but they won’t be recorded as mushroom-related, and the politicians can declare victory,” he said.