The classification of these drugs, and the way in which it has been approached, is a matter of some significance. The Minister should be prepared to put the Government's thinking on record, and I am surprised that she regards the subject with some levity. It is incumbent on her to explain why the Government have chosen to classify these drugs as class A. What was the reason for the current law? Why were magic mushrooms—if I may use the vernacular—classified as class A drugs only in a prepared form and not in their fresh form?
My view, which I put on record on Second Reading and which grows stronger every day, is that this issue highlights the inadequacy of current classifications in the 1971 Act. On what basis has the Minister decided to classify these substances as class A? Is she trying to draw a parallel with other class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine? Is she looking at harm to the individual or to wider society? Why do the Government suddenly feel it necessary to act on this?
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw suggests that we should classify these substances as class C, but I do not think that they sit well in class C or in any other classification under existing law. It does not make sense to put them in with substances such as anabolic steroids, temazepam, and diazepam, which make up the bulk of class C drugs—but I thought that about cannabis too. Will the Minister tell us why the Government are making these substances class A drugs? What was the original reason for the current law?
Order. Let us get the ground rules right. I am perfectly happy to have the stand-part debate now and to embrace it with the debate on the amendments, but at the moment we are debating the amendments only.
The Minister was on the Front Bench, next to the Home Secretary, on Second Reading. She may recall that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked the Home Secretary about this issue, and that the Home Secretary was, unfortunately, unable to answer him. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) has asked similar questions, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell us exactly what her response to the amendments is. I also hope that she will be able to satisfy us as regards the clause stand part debate that we shall have in a moment.
I was amused at the start of this discussion because we have an opportunity to discuss the whole clause in a clause stand part debate, but the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland had to move an amendment that he did not actually support.
On the amendments, we must be aware of the fact that the clause does not reclassify these mushrooms; it is about clarifying the law. I shall try to explain to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee where we started, where we have got to and why we have some problems, and I am sure that those points will be picked up in the clause stand part debate. There are problems interpreting the law, and the courts feel unable to adjudicate on the issue. Prosecutions have been brought to court, but the police and others feel that the law is being circumvented in different ways. People might have their own views about that, but I hope to explain in the next few minutes why we need to clarify the law. Of itself, that does not change the position on classification, and we could have another debate about that; we are trying to make sense of the law because we have got ourselves between a rock and a hard place in terms of the current interpretation of the law.
Clause 21 clarifies and extends the law on so-called magic mushrooms to remove any doubt that the importation, exportation, production, possession and supply of fresh mushrooms, as well as prepared ones, is an offence. On Second Reading, there was cross-party support for the measure, although there were those on both sides who queried why we were introducing it. Some hon. Members said that they felt it was inappropriate to classify hallucinogenic mushrooms as class A drugs. There is a debate to be had about that, and people have their own views on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West obviously felt quite strongly that the classification was inappropriate, and he probably continues to do so.
The amendments would reclassify magic mushrooms as class C drugs, but they do not seek to reclassify the active ingredients, psilocin and psilocybin, which would remain class A drugs. I am unable to accept the amendments.
The clause is not about the classification of magic mushrooms, and as my right hon. Friend Home Secretary said when he presented the Bill, the active ingredients are already class A drugs. I accept that people may not feel that they should be, but they are. Therefore, when mushrooms are prepared or in the form of a product, they are already class A drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.
I am not saying that they are exactly the same as heroin and cocaine, but when the issue was discussed it was felt that the harmful effects of their active ingredients, psilocin and psilocybin, were such that those ingredients should be classified as class A drugs. We know that heroin and cocaine can have a different effect on the individuals who use them, but that was the classification into which it was felt these ingredients should be put. I will talk more later about the international treaties that we have signed and their effect on this aspect of the matter.
The Minister has been generous with her time. She will know that different drugs in different forms and preparations can be classified differently, as happens with amphetamine. Surely the mere presence of psilocin in psilocybin should not necessarily automatically place magic mushrooms in class A?
The debate offers us a chance to explain what has been happening. A legal loophole has been created enabling fresh mushrooms to be sold and imported with the idea that people will prepare them—at which point they come within the classification. A problem has been the development of outlets where an attempt is made to get round the law by selling fresh mushrooms, in packets or otherwise. The sellers expect people to prepare the mushrooms, and eventually to be affected by the ingredients that are classified A.
The clause is a response to a relatively new phenomenon of the importation of fresh mushrooms, which are currently not held to be a product or preparation; that practice leads to an anomaly in the system.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying before the Division, the measure deals with the relatively new phenomenon of imported fresh mushrooms that may not be held to be a product or a preparation. It ensures that magic mushrooms, even when fresh, are class A drugs, and the Government hope that that will act as a deterrent for those wishing to sell or import hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Officials informed the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that the provision would be included in the Bill, and the ACMD agreed that the law would benefit from clarification in this area. Not all Members will be aware that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of outlets selling imported fresh magic mushrooms in the past two years, and there is growing concern about their impact on public health. I have recently had several letters from Members of Parliament whose constituents have expressed concern about the open sale of the mushrooms. Some constituents have reported very negative effects from taking them or have expressed alarm about their sale to minors.
The Government estimate that more than 400 establishments in the United Kingdom sell these drugs, and it is estimated that hundreds of kilos are being imported, predominantly from Holland. I believe that members of the Committee will agree that it is not right for these drugs to be sold openly on the high street.
We do not believe that someone would be committing an offence solely because a naturally occurring substance—a magic mushroom—was growing in their garden or on their land, or if they came across it in some woods. If necessary, we will consider bringing in regulations when this provision comes into force to make it clear under what circumstances it will not be unlawful to possess magic mushrooms. That will include mushrooms growing without the owner's knowledge in a garden or on land. A farmer might own woods on which these mushrooms may be growing without his knowledge, and we would not want him to be caught by the provision. Imported mushrooms and their sale are a particular problem.
The Minister said that anyone growing magic mushrooms unknowingly would not be committing an offence. That is absolutely right, but surely a person in that position would be guilty of possession the second they became aware of the mushrooms, unless they immediately destroyed them. The two elements of possession under section 5(2) of the 1971 Act are knowledge and control. If the mushrooms are on someone's land and they know that they are there, they are guilty of possession.
I will check that. One of the questions is whether a person is picking the mushrooms. I understand that as soon as someone starts picking the mushrooms the active ingredient that creates psilocin starts to formulate itself, although psilocybin is present in fresh and prepared mushrooms. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on that, because he is right that we need to clarify the circumstances, while dealing with what we think has become a problem for law enforcement and the courts.
There has been a lot of debate about what exactly the harms and potency of such mushrooms are. Perhaps the name ''magic mushrooms'' makes them sound quite harmless, but they are hallucinogenic. Psilocin and psilocybin are class A drugs because they are similar in effect to LSD and have hallucinogenic qualities. They can trigger psychosis and are very harmful to those with mental illness, and can also be harmful to those with a heart condition. Because of the hallucinogenic effects, users are vulnerable to self-harm while under the influence and, as with LSD, those using mushrooms may experience negative flashbacks.
The international position on mushrooms is as follows. The 1971 United Nations convention on psychotropic substances places both psilocin and LSD in schedule 1, the highest level of control. There is an international consensus that such substances present serious harms. For those reasons it is our view that magic mushrooms should remain a class A drug.
I think that the hon. Gentleman asked why fresh magic mushrooms, which are not a product and not prepared, seem to be excluded from the 1971 Act. The short answer is that we are not really sure and we do not even know if that was the intention. However, we can say that the problem has since worsened. Thinking back over the past 30 years, I can only say that marketing fresh mushrooms in the new way was perhaps not a problem then and that it was felt that defining the drug as a prepared product was enough, without creating problems to do with naturally growing, fresh magic mushrooms.
That said, although magic mushrooms have for a number of decades not been a huge problem, the emergence of 400 outlets in the past few years is an example of the direction in which we might be headed. We must be mindful of that. We do not know for certain, but the problem may have been less of an issue when the 1971 Act was drafted and not at the forefront of the drafters' minds then.
I will look into the case that my hon. Friend cites. I should like to say something about our European Union colleagues and their respective mushroom controls. In Belgium, the possession and sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms is prohibited, in Denmark psilocybe cubensis is listed as a controlled plant, and Germany has comprehensive legislation banning possession and supply of substances where abuse for the purposes of intoxication is envisaged. In Poland, mushrooms are treated as psychoactive substances. Thus any general rules on possession, cultivation and introduction to the market also apply. We do not have a relevant list of all the EU countries, but Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the Slovak Republic have controls in place. In Holland, prepared mushrooms are illegal, but fresh mushrooms are legal.
Order. I said at the start of this debate that I was fairly relaxed about whether or not we had the stand part debate with these two amendments, or separately. One or two hon. Members, however, indicated that they wished them to be held separately. We are straying very wide of the amendment, Minister.
I apologise for contributing to the widening of the debate, Mr. Gale.
The International Narcotics Control Board has recently written to the Dutch health ministry, expressing concern about the open sale of mushrooms in Holland. There are clearly some outstanding issues about this, and how one country is potentially contributing to the problems of another. As I understand it, most of the importation of these fresh mushrooms is from Holland.
As to fresh mushrooms growing on land, if the person does not know the mushrooms are growing, they benefit from a defence, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. We will look at some further regulations to ensure that those who know that mushrooms are growing on their land will not be committing an offence if they are not picking them, and therefore preparing them. There are some issues there, and I will look into that matter further and examine different scenarios to ensure that we are getting that right.
We would be willing to consider advice on mushrooms from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and will consult it when considering any reclassification, which is what these amendments attempt to do. We already have a power to change the classification of substances in schedule 2 to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, by an Order in Council under section 2 of that Act, following such a consultation. We keep the ACMB informed of developments. Regarding our plans for the measure in this clause, it too feels that the law needs to be clarified. That said, I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendments.
I may seek the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). However, I thought it would be helpful to have a fairly focused debate on classification. I am a Liberal Democrat, and I realise that one does not always get what one wants in life. Unfortunately, we have not really had the debate that I had hoped for. The Government's case on classification is generally not particularly robust. I am surprised that nobody in the Home Office, during the drafting of this Bill, thought to ask why the distinction was made in the first place, and to go to Hansard for 1970 or 1971 for an answer. If one is minded to change something, it is always a good idea to know the reason for it being in the shape it is. I cannot believe for a second that Parliament unintentionally created this distinction between prepared and unprepared mushrooms.
The Minister has given no proper explanation of the parallels being drawn between mushrooms and other class A drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. She just seems to shrug her shoulders and say ''We are not saying that they are the same''—except that when the same penalties are imposed on them, then, effectively, to many people, that is saying that they are the same.
As I said, this has not been the debate that I had hoped for. There are other issues that have been raised in the course of the debate that I will not respond to at this stage, because I shall seek to catch the Chairman's eye again in the course of the stand part debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I do not want to delay the Committee because I have a great deal of sympathy with what the Minister is trying to do. However, I have had an unprecedented amount of post, from individuals and from the most extraordinary number of organisations. I had no idea that so many people were concerned about mushrooms in a way that I did not envisage when thinking of the humble mushroom.
It all sounds terribly innocuous, but having read quite a large amount of the scientific background I do not think that it is as innocuous as it at first appears. That is why I have sympathy with the Minister in trying to sort out the anomaly that has arisen—regardless of the debate about whether the correct classification is A or B. We shall have a debate along those lines later if there is time.
I want to give the Minister the opportunity to comment on a series of questions that has been asked by another organisation. I should also say that the London Drug Policy Forum, which is the London community against drugs, was almost in isolation in writing to me to welcome the provision. It welcomes the fact that the Bill seeks to improve the range of responses available to the police and courts to deal with drug-related crimes, and to address areas such as the sale of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which are currently not covered in criminal law. I thought that that was rather nice, and I wanted to give the Minister a little support, because it appears that everyone is arguing against the provision, and I cannot imagine why.
A wonderfully named organisation, the Magic Mushroom Consumers Group, which says that it is protecting the rights of magic mushroom consumers in the UK, asked several questions. I do not want the Minister to dwell on them, but she should have the chance to bat back. To be fair, its points should be heard. I have often been in the position of putting across points made by organisations with which I do not agree, and this is one of them, but I would like her to have the chance to respond.
The group believes that adding unproblematic magic mushroom consumers to the statistics detailing class A drug users, whom they believe to be problematic users, which is interesting in the light of the report on heroin taking that was released this morning, would falsely exaggerate the level of problematic drug use in the UK. The Minister should respond to that point.
The group also believes that there will be an increase in the number of wild mushroom poisoning incidents in which eating the wrong sort of mushroom can make one seriously ill or even cause death. I hope that that is not the case, because there are some terrible toadstools or mushrooms such as fly agaric, which is a red toadstool with white spots that is used to illustrate fairytales. It is not a true psychodelic drug, but it can kill if ingested, so I hope that the group is wrong about the provision increasing the number of wild mushroom poisoning incidents.
The group's argument that there will be a decrease in the perception of the dangers of addictive class A drugs sits alongside the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that people will be inclined to consider drugs such as heroin or crack cocaine to carry a similar risk. Magic mushrooms really will have gone to its brain if it believes that heroin or crack cocaine will do little harm.
The group's argument that there will be a reduction in respect for drug laws and policy among young people really worries me, because it means that magic mushrooms have been marketed so widely that it openly admits that they are being sold to young people, presumably to minors. That is a serious problem, which the Minister is right to address. Indeed, the report that I obtained from the Library on the Bill said that there were some 300 outlets, but the Minister says that there are 400 shops and market stalls throughout the UK acting as outlets. It is alarming to think that they are selling magic mushrooms to children.
The group made another point about the loss of revenue to the Treasury and an increase in revenue for illegal drug dealers. Fortunately, it has not put a value on the prohibition market, but it believes that the price and the illicit attraction will increase. I honestly do not believe that. There are so many other illegal drugs around that I cannot believe that the coffers of illegal drug dealers will swell enormously, ostensibly because the people who deal in magic mushrooms are illegal dealers without the routes into the supply that legal shops have. There is, however, a pertinent point to be made. Given that there are about 400 outlets selling these mushrooms illegally, the Minister must clarify when the clause will take effect and how long the shops will have to dispose of their stocks. Indeed, she should clarify whether those stocks should be destroyed, whether there will be any inspection regime, whether the dealers will be convicted immediately of an offence the day after the legislation comes into force, and how notification will be made to the outlets.
I hope that the Minister will tell me that there is a mistake in clause 24, entitled
''Short title, commencement and extent''.
It states that clause 22 will come into force on the day on which the Act is passed. I hope that she will add section 21 to that provision.
I, too, have received representations from organisations such as Cactus Trading Wholesale Ltd. and the Magic Mushroom Consumer Group, along with individuals from as far away as Scarborough, Streatham in London and Collyhurst in Manchester. The clause has raised a lot of interest. I am amazed by that because I did not think it would be such a big problem. I make that admission from the word go.
It is true that concern has been expressed about the clarity of the law, and I agree that it should be clearer, as do DrugScope and Turning Point—and, incidentally, Transform, which is against the prohibition of all drugs. Transform, of course, would not prohibit psilocin or psilocybin or the magic mushrooms themselves. It is significant that DrugScope and Turning Point both argue that they ought not to be class A drugs.
I am reminded that the Runciman committee and the Select Committee on Home Affairs asked the Minister to ask the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to consider the reclassification of drugs. It has also been suggested that LSD and ecstasy should not be class A drugs, although I have some doubt about that. Nevertheless, the matter should be referred to the advisory council, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say this afternoon that that will be the case. The consensus seems to be that drugs ought to be classified according to the harm that they present to individuals. I hope that all hon. Members agree; it seems a common-sense view. That is one of the things that worries me about the clause.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West tabled a question asking in how many deaths drugs had been a factor between 1993 and 2002. The table accompanying the answer, in Hansard for 31 January 2005, at column 593W, shows figures for heroin and morphine, for cocaine and crack cocaine, and for psilocybin or magic mushrooms. The table shows only one death for 1993 and none for the remaining nine years resulting from the use of psilocybin or magic mushrooms. Incidentally, thousands of deaths resulted from heroin and morphine, and hundreds of deaths from cocaine and crack cocaine. The harm presented by magic mushrooms, and psilocin and psilocybin, cannot be compared with the deaths presented by the other class A drugs, but that is how those compounds will be listed.
Other evidence has been provided to us on safety. I should tell the Committee that my PhD thesis, based on three years' research, was done on 5-Hydroxytryptamine when it was hardly known. It is now better known by the trivial name serotonin, the brain hormone that modifies our mood swings. The spectrum of levels of activity of serotonin in the brain is such that those who have a low activity will be at the depressed end of the spectrum, and those with a high activity of serotonin in the brain will be at the highly active, or even schizophrenic, end of the spectrum. Somewhere in the middle is the band of those who are considered to be normal—at least most of the time.
My PhD thesis was about trying to synthesise brand new organic molecules to act as agonists or antagonists of serotonin in the brain. I have been interested in brain chemistry for a long time, and psilocin is related to serotonin. I will not give its full chemical name, although I have it here in a scientific paper. Psilocybin is an ester of psilocin. They are inter- convertible. When psilocybin gets into the body, it will turn itself into psilocin, so we cannot talk about psilocybin without talking also of psilocin.
Both of the compounds found in magic mushrooms interact at one of the serotonin receptor sites in the brain. Interestingly, tranquilisers and anti-depressants act at the same receptor site; that is what we are dealing with in terms of physiology. The paper was produced recently by the Heffter research centre at the psychiatric university hospital in Zurich, and covers the acute psychological and physiological effects of psilocybin in healthy human beings. It is a double-blind, placebo-controlled dose-effect study. I shall not read out the names of the researchers, but their conclusion in the abstract is significant for this debate. They found
''no cause for concern that psilocybin is hazardous with respect to somatic health.''
That concurs with the number of deaths that we have not seen related to magic mushrooms and the two important chemicals in them.
Hon. Members will have received the study on psilocin and psilocybin by the co-ordination centre for the assessment and monitoring of new drugs that was presented to the Dutch Government. In its executive summary, it stated:
''This drug is not associated with physical or psychological dependency, acute toxicity is largely limited to possible panic and anxiety attacks and, in terms of chronic toxicity, the worst that can happen are flashbacks. Consequently, use of paddos (hallucinogenic mushrooms) does not, on balance, present any risk to the health of the individual.''
We have just moved cannabis from class B to class C on the ground of the harm that it presents to society, yet here we are being tempted to put fresh magic mushrooms into class A, along with psilocin and psilocybin, which are already there. I have a problem with that. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which comprises scores of experts in the area, should consider that before any statutory instrument places such substances in class A.
Magic mushrooms do not produce any addiction, they are not considered to be toxic and I can find evidence of only one death. We have also received the Powell report. That is interesting. It gives the species of magic mushrooms—there are many—and the range of districts in Great Britain in which they grow. I shall not read it out, but I can tell the Committee that one quarter of a mile from my house there is a small wood near a school. The children there well know the months during which the mushrooms grow. A few silly individuals, silly because they are under age and their brains are still developing, trip up to the woods—[Interruption]. Yes, they trip. I shall leave it at that.
Psilocin and psilocybin have been compared with lysergic acid diethylamide. That compound is definitely a hallucinogen. We know that it can create in people a panic so great that individuals have been known to jump out of the window and kill themselves. There is no doubt that LSD is a dangerous compound. I do not advise anybody to take it. However, psilocin and psilocybin have been classed as hallucinogens, although they are compounds that produce psychedelic effects. The Powell paper coins the term ''emphyogenic'', meaning that the compounds give people a deep, spiritual feeling. That is precisely why the Aztec and Mayan civilisations in south America used those compounds in their religious ceremonies. I do not see many accounts of those people dying in large numbers as a consequence of using the compounds in the course of worshipping their gods. Therefore, I question whether the compounds are so dangerous that they need to be classified as class A under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. I hope that the Minister has some evidence to that effect.
As the Minister has just said, the Home Office is getting worried about the increasing numbers of traders selling these mushrooms throughout London and elsewhere in the country. They even sell them on market stalls, and there are special shops in which one can buy all the gear. I gather that some strange people—I do not actually know any of them—visit these places quite frequently.
My fear is that if we ban something, those who use it, but who do not want to break the law, will merely try to find something else. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned one such compound, and many other mushrooms and fungi contain compounds like psilocin and psilocybin. People may well try to find other, more dangerous substances if we ban magic mushrooms.
Of course, there is khat, too, and there is an amendment on it. People might well discover that the Somali community uses khat, and its use may spread. However, there are many other such naturally occurring plants, vegetables, berries and fruits from trees. All one has to do is invade the internet to find out about them; all this stuff is on the internet, and children, in particular, surf the internet. I am concerned that we will drive people away from substances that, although not completely harmless, are certainly not as harmful as the clause makes them out to be. I therefore have some difficulty with putting magic mushrooms in class A or even banning them altogether.
Finally, I think that we are acting a little soon. We should gather more evidence, because not enough research has been done on many aspects of drug misuse. We also need far more research on magic mushrooms before we consider passing Acts of Parliament, as we are in the process of doing this afternoon.
I do not seek to emulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and his scientific expertise; he and I are at opposite ends of the scientific spectrum. He did his PhD on serotonin, but I was politely invited by the head of science at Islay high school not to bother the science teachers after the end of my second year. I did not understand half of what the hon. Gentleman said, but he said it with great authority, so I hope that somebody here did. I certainly could not help but believe him.
In our earlier debate, the hon. Gentleman asked about possession by virtue of land, and the Minister said that it could be excluded by means of a statutory instrument. While the Committee was adjourned, I had a brief conversation with some of the Minister's officials, and I accept that that route is open to the Government. However, I am not persuaded that such an exclusion will be any easier to achieve in secondary legislation than in primary legislation, and I hope that the Minister and her officials will consider the problem between now and Report, because the law of unintended consequences dictates that some people will be mistakenly caught by the provisions. Furthermore, there are always those who go out of their way to put themselves on the wrong side of the law because they feel that some point of principle is at stake. All of us have no doubt had people come to our constituency surgeries who fall into that category.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a case that is, I think, currently before the European Court of Justice. The basis for it is that fresh magic mushrooms are not illegal under the Vienna convention, so their prohibition would constitute a breach of free trade rules. Such a novel and ingeniously constructed argument would never have occurred to me. Perhaps that is why I was never a very successful lawyer. However, if such a case is on the go, the Committee should be made aware of it and of the Government's ingenious and creative lawyers' assessment of it. If the Minister would write to the Committee about that, I would be exceptionally grateful.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that other substances would be sought if we excluded this species of hallucinogen and referred to the internet. For once, I am ahead of him, because I made short use of the internet yesterday. We have all spoken about the range of briefings that we have received, and I have received as many as anybody else, but one of the most remarkable things has been the number of researchers from all parties who have sidled up to me at different points and expressed their concerns about the subject.
It was pointed out to me that the most widely identified alternative is Salvia divinorum, the leaves of which are smoked—it says here—and contain another powerful hallucinogen, salvinorin. Relatively little is known about the possible harms of salvinorin use, but it is widely available online and in what the briefing calls ''head shops'' in a variety of preparations. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation's briefing states:
''The spice nutmeg also is also psychoactive when consumed in larger quantities.''
That was news to me, and no doubt dishes will be proscribed from women's institutes the length and breadth of the country now that we have discovered the possible uses of nutmeg.
Having been made aware of Salvia divinorum, I typed it into Google and, sure enough, there is a ream of websites selling such things. The first site contained five pages of alternative substances. Salvia divinorum is there; so is the fly agaric mushroom and Mexican tarragon, Tagetes lucida, which is described on the site as
''a beautiful, bright green perennial herb from the Sierra Mandre Mountains of Mexico.''
We would not want to proscribe something like that, would we? It goes on:
''It is used by the local Indians recreationally as well as in the kitchen.''
Of course, such substances will be the next fall back. Will we then include them in the schedule?
The point that I am making is that the piecemeal approach to the classification of drugs—taking cannabis from class B to C and clarifying, as we are today, the question of fresh magic mushrooms—is unsatisfactory. All that we will be doing is getting involved in a rolling programme of reclassification. The hon. Gentleman is correct when he says that we should be classifying drugs according to the harm caused. If there is an argument for the prohibition of anything, it must surely be to prevent people from doing harm to themselves and others. That should be our starting point.
On the basis of the hon. Gentleman's analysis, it is difficult to see why magic mushrooms would be classified as class A. However, having said that, it is equally difficult to see what other classification they would properly fit under. The fact is that we have had the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for 34 years this year. Surely the time has come for a comprehensive review. Such a Drugs Bill would be useful in the run up to an election, and it is a great pity that we have not had it. We have had a running repair and sticking plaster approach.
The arguments raise as many questions as they answer. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned the magic mushroom consumer group; I must gently chide her for coming close to misrepresenting its position sometimes. As for whether ''young people'' should automatically mean minors, there are many young people who are not minors, and clearly the market in question is more popular with young people.
The market already exists. The history of prohibition over the 34 years in which the Misuse of Drugs Act has been in force has not been one of unmitigated success. There was an opportunity to consider how to deal with this matter differently. That does not mean that we would not eventually have concluded that we had to classify the substances in question as the clause does, but I fear that the rather rushed approach that is being used—and the fact that we have not yet concluded the details of all the defences suggests that it is a rushed approach—means that we are missing an opportunity for a wee bit of creative or lateral thinking. Such thinking might enable us to make the relevant drugs law more effective, because it would have more credibility among those likely to interact with it.
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 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.
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?
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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 if there is an underlying heart condition, or mental health problems.
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.
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 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.
I think that that is all right, but I will have a closer look at it to double check.
From what has been said by many members of the Committee, it is clear that retailers are fully aware that we are trying to close this loophole, so their awareness of what is going on is pretty much there. In relation to compensation, I do not think that it is right to compensate people for trying to find a way around the law. I think that such people are breaking the law. We need to ensure that it is clear beyond all reasonable doubt.
I agree. I do not think that anybody's business is going to turn on whether they continue to trade in this substance, but it is fair that whatever order is made should specify a time by which they should be aware of it. It would be unfortunate if the time limit were a matter of days. Obviously there is a large lobby, as the Minister said, but the substance is sold by what I think are called head shops, and news of legislation sometimes takes a little longer to reach such places. We should be fair to the traders rather than bringing the axe down immediately. A definite date should be set.
Yes, it is important to have a date of commencement.
In answer to the question of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, clause 21 will not commence until regulations are made providing for exceptions to the offence of possessing magic mushrooms. People are following our debate avidly, and through the normal channels, our Home Office websites and the newspapers, we will let them know when that clarification of the law comes into effect.
I should clarify something that I said earlier as I would not want to mislead the Committee. When citing a Dutch Government survey, I spoke about a usual dose of 10 g of fresh mushrooms, but there will be only 10 micrograms of psilocybin in the mushrooms. I wanted to clarify that because 10 g of psilocybin would almost certainly lead to allusions and hallucinations; I meant 10 micrograms of psilocybin.
When answering my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, I referred to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. However, I did not say that we were asking the council to review the classification of the properties of magic mushrooms. I said that we are in touch with the council about developments in the production and marketing of the mushroom.
I know that people feel that we should clarify the situation, but we are not minded to reclassify for the reasons that I outlined earlier, especially our commitment to the conventions that we have signed and the fact that the chemicals that we are talking about are hallucinogenic. We therefore think it right to keep them where they are. None the less, the council keeps drugs under review and will continue to do so. I hope that I have made it clear that it is not a new classification. We are trying to clarify the existing classification, and to deal with the way in which some people have chosen to get around the law. It is important to recognise that.
I hear what the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham says about young people. I am pleased to have support from some quarters for what we are doing. I have received letters from people concerned about the matter, and I know that the police are worried about it. I have said before that the open trading of those mushrooms in a way that misleads young people is potentially dangerous.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland cited a number of substances that he found on his internet searches. Many different plants and flowers can have negative effects, but we have to deal with the situation as it is—how the substance is being marketed and where it stands in relation to the law. For those reasons, I hope that the Committee will support clause 21.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.