High Times: Magic Mushrooms in the UK 

We all know the old adage, mushroom season comes but once a year, right?

by Megan Townsend

For decades magic mushrooms have served as a point of contention, seeing as they naturally grow in many parts of the world, with the UK as no exception. So, what is the current legal status of magic mushrooms? What does research say about their potential therapeutic use? And, is there a future where we might see them legalised? 

Mushrooms and the Law 

The introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 made the possession, cultivation and sale of magical mushrooms illegal in the UK. Moreover, psilocybin (the active psychotropic in magic mushrooms) is currently a Class A substance, meaning that possession carries a maximum prison sentence of 7 years and an unlimited fine. However, if caught cultivating or supplying the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Interestingly, up until 2005 the law only specified that mushrooms that had been prepared or created were illegal, meaning that so long as mushrooms were fresh, no offence had been committed. Unfortunately, the Drugs Act 2005 amended the existing legislation, so that mushrooms were completely outlawed, regardless of their preparation, or lack of. 

Many articles still make reference to various ‘loopholes’ in the law that the mushroom connoisseur may wish to exploit. Perhaps one of the most common is the myth that ‘mushroom grazing’ is a legal way of taking the substance. Unfortunately, whilst many police officers might find it humorous to stumble upon an individual eating mushrooms off the floor, this still amounts to possession of a Class A drug and a criminal offence. 

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Mushrooms and Research 

Although the recreational use of magic mushrooms is prohibited by law, researchers wishing to explore the drug may do so. Of course, this doesn’t mean that acquiring psilocybin for research purposes is easy. As it is currently classed as a schedule 1 drug, meaning it is illegal and has been deemed to have no medical value, researchers must jump through a number of hoops to conduct their research, including acquiring a Home Office Licence and extensive security arrangements. Not only does this cost thousands of pounds but it can also take months to organise. 

And unfortunately, the difficulties surrounding the psychedelic research process make the area unappealing to investors and researchers alike. Scientists are already warning that the UK’s attitude towards psilocybin is making research difficult to sustainably conduct, therefore holding back the possibility of a true ‘psychedelic renaissance’. 

However, despite this tough line that the UK has historically taken against mushrooms (and most other drugs for that matter), the research that does exist is increasingly making the therapeutic uses of magic mushrooms more visible. Evidence suggests that psilocybin can prompt new neuronal connections and increase brain plasticity, meaning it shows promise in being able to treat a number of conditions. 

Current clinical studies involving psilocybin are underway at notable institutions such as Imperial College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust despite barriers. At Imperial College London, active recruitment is in progress for participants to join psilocybin clinical trials aimed at exploring its effectiveness in treating conditions like anorexia, fibromyalgia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Following the promising outcomes of earlier psilocybin trials for treatment-resistant depression, the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, in collaboration with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, has initiated new research projects to evaluate the potential of psilocybin-assisted therapy in managing post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the most recent studies regarding the therapeutic application of psilocybin found that following a single 25mg dose accompanied by therapy, 30% of patients suffering with treatment-resistant depression were in remission at 3 weeks post-trial.  The study, carried out by pharmaceutical company COMPASS Pathways, also reported that at 12 weeks double the amount of patients who received a 25mg dose had a sustained response, compared to those who had received a 1mg dose. 

This study alone suggests that psilocybin has a true pharmacological application that has the potential to treat patients who have run out of options. COMPASS have already announced that their phase 3 programme will begin before the end of the year; hopefully this takes us one step closer to a future where psilocybin can be used to treat patients who need it. 

Mushrooms and Legalisation

So, will we see mushrooms legalised anytime soon? 

Well, there can be no doubt that the conversation is hot on the lips of some policymakers and important discussions are beginning to arise. In March 2022, Conservative drug reformers began putting pressure on ministers to reschedule psilocybin so that researchers could explore its potential as a medicine. The bid was supported by the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group, whose members included Conservative MP Crispin Blunt. 

However, despite then PM Boris Johnson agreeing to reschedule psilocybin, there has still been no such move to date. 

There has since been a revived focus on the topic of psilocybin within Parliament. Last week, Labour MP Charlotte Nichols again asked the government to designate psilocybin Schedule Two status for the sake of research into new mental health treatment paradigms. 

Unfortunately, she was met with the age-old response of awaiting the advice of the ACMD and continuing to follow the decisions of the MHRA and NICE. No surprise there. 

We spoke to Charlotte Nichols about the need to reschedule psilocybin and other psychedelics to which she said: 

“It is past time to reschedule psilocybin for research purposes. The evidence is mounting for the help that it may give people suffering from depression, addiction and PTSD, not least veterans and victims of crime, and sticking to outdated restrictions delays the science and the relief that it may bring. There are calls for change from every political party, and I hope that Ministers now recognise that this is the time for change.”

Clearly the calls for policy change are there, and it is time for Ministers to take the leap.  By not rescheduling psilocybin, we risk losing the UK’s foothold in a global psychedelic treatment development market projected to reach $10.75 billion by 2021. Currently, investment in the UK’s advances in psychedelic treatment provision is confined to the realm of clinical trials, limiting the potential for broader application and innovation. Furthermore, depression, a prime target for psilocybin research, is the greatest contributing factor to disability and suicide. It costs the UK economy £10 billion annually, and the associated employment costs stemming from mental ill-health reach up to £94 billion per annum. Rescheduling psilocybin not only promises to propel scientific advancements and provide much-needed relief but also stands to significantly reduce the economic burden of mental health issues. It is a change that aligns with economic prudence and compassionate governance.

So, whilst it remains unclear whether mushrooms will be legalised in the UK in the not-so-distant future, the need for legalisation is most definitely present. There is no doubt that psilocybin possesses the ability to help a vast number of patients, however, if research is to stand any chance of progressing, the UK must reschedule the substance as a bare minimum. 

This piece was written by Volteface Intern Megan Townsend. Megan is a current MA Criminology student at Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.

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