Is it dangerous to eat magic mushrooms before they have dried out? What mushrooms are safe to eat?

December 29, 2006

Dear Cecil:

Is it dangerous to eat magic mushrooms before they have dried out? Also a little bird told me that 'shrooms are not at all illegal until they are dried out. I live in England so I'm not really interested in America's point of view on this. Finally I would like to know a little bit about how magic mushrooms affect you and their health hazards for a long-term user.

Cecil, how can the average grunt (myself) tell which mushrooms are safe to eat and which will make you sick? I have a ton of 'em in my yard, and I love 'shrooms, but I dunno what's good to eat and what isn't. Please help!

If you didn't want to hear America's point of view, Sam, you probably would have been smarter not to ask an American. But never mind - I'll endeavor to make this column parochial-limey-accessible. By "magic mushrooms" I'll assume you mean your classic Psilocybe semilanceata ("liberty cap") mushrooms and their kin, and not others that can cause a high, such as fly agaric. The active ingredients in magic mushrooms are psilocin and psilocybin (the latter breaks down into the former). Psilocin attaches itself to serotonin receptors in your brain, where it stimulates neurons, and this stimulation in the absence of real (or anyway external) stimuli is what leads to a sense of altered reality.

Contrary to legend, magic mushrooms are no more or less dangerous when dried. Drying mushrooms merely preserves them and helps prevent the growth of mold. The pharmacological effects of magic mushrooms, which start about 30 minutes after eating and last for several hours, include confusion, a sense of well-being and connection to others or the universe, and for those so inclined, religious experiences. Hallucinations are common - many report the sensation that inanimate objects are "breathing." Uncontrollable laughter is common as well.

Psilocybin has a low level of toxicity and overdoses are rare. One 18-year-old male in Hawaii was thought to have died from a psilocybin OD in 1972, but later investigation has cast doubt on that belief. A 2000 study in the Netherlands found that (a) no physical or psychological dependency was associated with mushrooms, (b) adverse short-term effects consisted mainly of panic and anxiety attacks, and (c) long-term effects were limited to mild flashbacks. Even the U.S. Department of Justice admits that 'shrooms aren't physically addictive.

Just about the only drawback of magic mushrooms, in fact, is that they're against the law. That wasn't always the case, at least in the UK, where psychoactive fungi used to be legal provided they weren't prepared, preparation generally being interpreted to include drying, freezing, or making into tea. That changed when the Drugs Act of 2005 made it an offense to knowingly possess, grow, or trade magic mushrooms, fresh or otherwise. (Exceptions for accidental picking and growing remain.) Magic mushrooms aren't illegal by name under federal law in the U.S., but their active chemicals are, meaning as a practical matter that they're illegal to buy, sell, grow, or merely possess. Spore kits, which enable the purchaser to grow mushrooms at home, fall in a gray area - though spores don't actually contain the proscribed chemicals, some states have made possession and/or cultivation of them a crime too. To be sure, sanctions seemingly haven't made much of a dent in illicit mushroom use. According to the National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse in the U.S., some 10 million Americans had tried psilocybin at least once in their lives as of 1997, making it the most popular hallucinogen after LSD. By 2002 that number had - dare I say it? - mushroomed to 18 million.

In short, Malful, to whose concerns we now turn, you want to be careful when 'shroom hunting, since you risk not only the emergency room but jail. Not that the former is a trivial danger. While mushroom fatalities are uncommon - the North American Mycological Association tallied no more than 23 deaths between 1983 and 2004 - nonfatal poisoning is considerably less so, with nearly 2,100 cases reported in humans during the same period. Mushroom toxins can lead to everything from an upset stomach to liver and kidney failure.

At a minimum you should avoid the Amanita phalloides mushroom, responsible for about 95 percent of mushroom poisoning deaths. To the untutored eye A. phalloides looks like pretty much every other mushroom (it's not conspicuously more phalloidal), so while one doesn't want to be paranoid, I wouldn't go nibbling on the first toadstool I spotted out back. Mushroom experts sternly advise positively identifying the species of any fungi you plan to consume. You could buy a guidebook, but a better idea is to join a mushroom-hunting club and tag along with someone who's been at this awhile, caution being advised in any hobby where you could wind up stoned, indicted, sick, or dead.

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