'Magic mushrooms' on the rise in England
LONDON -- In Camden Town, amid the tattoo parlors, street markets and piercing salons, huge banners along the High Street advertise: "MAGIC MUSHROOMS."
While in the United States the power of religious conservatives is said to be increasing, Europe is tripping off in a different direction. Hallucinogens, as professionally packaged and labeled as bean sprouts in the supermarket, are readily available.
Certainly, drugs are available around the world, particularly in similar bohemian hot spots like New York's Greenwich Village or Atlanta's Little Five Points.
But in Camden Town, a neighborhood in northwest London, we're not talking about a furtive whisper of, "Psst, marijuana?"
More Articles of Interest
We're talking about kiosks where would-be trippers can browse at leisure -- or even entire stores, with big glass-fronted refrigerators to keep the product fresh.
Take Amsterdam of London. The store features an impressive array of bongs, several refrigerators full of mushrooms, and marijuana seeds for horticulturalists.
The store has its own Web site, though it did not seem to be working this week. And the manager, Bethany Le, has business cards adorned with mushrooms and a marijuana sprig.
Nothing furtive here. In Britain, the mushrooms, which contain psilocybin, a banned, mind-altering drug, are legal as long as they have not been "processed," which is generally interpreted to mean dried or frozen.
Le claims to import a quarter of a ton of mushrooms from Amsterdam per week, and says he(cq) supplies many of the outlets up and down the High Street.
He carries about 20 different varieties. Prices vary, but the shrooms go for about 20 pounds sterling, about $38, for 35 grams -- enough for two people.
"My recommended dose is 15 grams per person," Le said. "It's a full trip."
A guide to the varieties is posted on the wall. Beginners are advised to try Mexican.
"These mushrooms will give you a happy trip," the guide says, "with laughing and trippy thoughts. Social and controllable."
By contrast, Hawaiian Copelandia is best reserved for experienced users.
"This is the strongest kind," the guide warns. "This trip is very visual and very intense. The effect will last 6-7 hours. Not recommended for the faint-hearted."
Amsterdam of London is one of the largest vendors in the area, but by no means the only one. Storefronts and kiosks up and down the High Street sell mushrooms -- sometimes in bulk, to be weighed at the time of sale, and sometimes pre-measured with professionally printed labels.
It is worth noting that in Britain, the main street is often called the High Street. The name of this road is unrelated to the condition of those who frequent it, though a stroll along its length could convince a visitor otherwise.
Not a few people have hair of fire-engine red or swimming-pool blue. Tattoo parlors seem more numerous than sandwich shops. It is common to see people with a half-dozen rings through their faces. Hawkers distribute fliers advertising special low rates on nipple piercings.
And most of the mushroom sellers offer advice based on first-hand experience. One said he used mushrooms to study.
"Not always," he said, "but when I need to clear my mind." He contended he's been scoring well on his exams.
The popularity of mushrooms has increased enormously in the last year or two. Customers range from young to old, from arty to professional, with a smattering of celebrities thrown in.
But many are middle-aged people who've grown nostalgic for their days of mushroom use in college 30 or more years ago.
Some stalls also sell little cacti growing in little pots. Yep, peyote -- also legal if it has not been processed.
Two-person police teams are ubiquitous in Camden Town; they stroll by the mushroom stalls without batting an eye.
There is talk of changing the law so mushrooms will no longer be legal, said Ares Michaelides, a police community support officer who stood not far from a shroom stall.
But mushrooms do not foster anti-social behavior, like alcohol or more addictive drugs. Instead, users tend to trip in the privacy of their living rooms, grinning inanely for such long stretches their cheek muscles start to ache.
"You have to prioritize," Michaelides said.
Surprisingly, some users take a different view. A couple from Paris, Caroline Gojon and Francois Boyon, browsed the stalls one day last week. Boyon has used mushrooms before; for Gojon, that experience still lies in the future.
"I think yes, it should be illegal," Boyon said as he shopped. "It's like cannabis. I smoke, but I think it's normal that it's illegal. If drugs were legal, the whole world would be (messed) up."