Facing Magic Mushroom Craze, Tokyo Moves To Outlaw

Discussion in 'Marijuana News from The USA' started by Superjoint, May 13, 2002.

  1. By Hans Greimel, Associated Press Writer
    Source: Associated Press

    Enthusiasts admit it's not the taste that keeps them gobbling the shriveled, brown mushrooms. They're so bitter, many can only choke them down with orange juice or yogurt. The allure is the hallucinogen within, so potent that the fungi are outlawed in most countries with the likes of cocaine and heroin.
    "It doesn't taste good, but I like to get high," 19-year-old student Wataru Kanbe said after eating a handful of "magic mushrooms" at a recent open-air concert.

    Best of all, he added with a glassy-eyed stare, doing so is completely legal. But not for long.

    Alarmed by the soaring popularity of hallucinogenic mushrooms and their sometimes toxic side effects, Japan's Health Ministry is finally plugging the legal loophole that has allowed them to be sold openly and lawfully by trendy shops, street vendors and mail order companies advertising in magazines.

    The crackdown - which takes effect June 6 - will slap a maximum seven-year prison term on magic mushroom possession, putting it on par with the penalty for cocaine possession.

    While the growing appeal of mushrooms reflects changing Japanese attitudes toward drugs, it also highlights the government's increasingly desperate battle against them.

    Japan has carefully nurtured its hardline reputation - from leveling life sentences on heroin traffickers to busting former Beatle Paul McCartney in 1980 when he stepped off the plane in Tokyo with a bag of marijuana.

    But a 1990 overhaul of the drug law overlooked one point. It banned the psychoactive drugs psilocybin and psilocin, but not the mushrooms that naturally produce them.

    It didn't take long for entrepreneurs to starting hawking the psychedelic fungi to curious teens and rebellious hipsters in search of a "legal high."

    So-called headshops mushroomed overnight in trendy Tokyo entertainment districts, selling packs for 1,800 yen to 3,000 yen (dlrs 13 to dlrs 23) a pop. They're all laid out in fancy glass display cases. Most are imported from the Netherlands, where they are grown on farms. But even hand-picked, wild "liberty cap" toadstools from Scotland turn up, at 2,600 yen (dlrs 20) for a gram (less than an ounce).

    "You can find them anywhere," complains Hideo Eno, of the Health Ministry's narcotics division.

    The ministry says there are at least 11 species of magic mushrooms, technically classified as poisonous plants and not drugs, being sold in Japan. As long as they're not labeled as food, that's been permitted.

    Takahito Watanabe, manager of PsychoPompos, a closet-sized headshop brazenly advertising itself with a marijuana-leaf signboard, says his desiccated mushrooms are for display purposes only.

    "Or use as good luck charms," he said.

    The Health Ministry has no statistics on the size of the magic mushroom market or how many Japanese use them. But their popularity is hinted at by sales at a chain of three stores owned by mushroom magnate Muneo Ogishi. He claims more than 3,000 people stock up every month, mostly people in their 20s.

    The increase in use is also underlined by the increase in the number of people hospitalized for overdosing from one person in 1997 to 38 in 2000 - not huge numbers but enough to demand action, Eno says.

    "Young people are curious. They say it's fun and safe. But really it contains a dangerous narcotic," he says.

    Users say the effect of magic mushrooms is like being sealed in a cocoon of euphoria where street lights look like prisms and neon blurs into rainbows. But the mushrooms can also trigger nausea and sudden fits of paranoia or panic. Mushrooms are not considered addictive, but they are considered a gateway to experimentation with other drugs.

    Narcotics use in Japan peaked during the economic boom of the 1980s, but has been on the rise again. Except for a dip in 1998, arrests for drug offenses rose consistently from 1995-2000. Last year, police took in a record haul of recreational drugs, seizing 797 kilograms (1,753 pounds) of marijuana and confiscating 118,000 tablets of ecstasy, a 40 percent increase from the year before.

    The changing mores are echoed in a recent government poll indicating nearly 20 percent of high school students nationwide think they should be lawfully permitted to use drugs if they wish.

    "Drug abuse is on the rise and legalized magic mushrooms aren't helping," said Chikashi Okutsu, director of Asia Pacific Addiction Institute, a Tokyo drug abuse treatment center. He said mushrooms are particularly dangerous for inexperienced users "who don't know what they're doing."

    Complete Title: Facing Magic Mushroom Craze, Tokyo Moves To Outlaw "Legal High"

    Source: Associated Press
    Author: Hans Greimel, Associated Press Writer
    Published: Sunday, May 12, 2002
    Copyright: 2002 Associated Press
     

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