AMSTERDAM — The famously liberal Netherlands has been swinging toward the right, cracking down on immigration, religious freedoms and the freewheeling red light district. The next possible target? Magic mushrooms.
The death of a 17-year-old French girl, who jumped from a building after eating psychedelic mushrooms while on a school visit, has ignited a campaign to ban the fungi — sold legally at so-called “smartshops” as long as they’re fresh.
Regulation of mushrooms is even less stringent than Holland’s famously loose laws on marijuana, which is illegal but tolerated in “coffee shops” that are a major tourist attraction.
Gaelle Caroff’s parents blamed their daughter’s death in March on hallucinations brought on by the mushrooms, although the teenager had suffered from psychiatric problems in the past. Photographs of her beautiful, youthful face have been splashed across newspapers around the country.
In May, Health Minister Ab Klink ordered the national health institute to perform a new study on the risks of mushrooms. Depending on the conclusions, which are due next month, he said he would either recommend that mushroom sales be limited to those over 18 or impose a total ban.
A 1971 U.N. convention on psychotropic substances banned psilocybin, the main active ingredient in mushrooms, in its purified form. But the legal status of mushrooms themselves was long unclear. Over the last six years, they have been outlawed in Denmark, Japan, Britain and Ireland. It is also illegal to sell psilocybin-containing mushrooms in all U.S. states, but the status of spores, homegrown and wild species varies from state to state.
Peter Van Dijk, a researcher at the Netherlands’ independent Trimbos Institute of Mental Health and Addiction, said in an interview last week that the mushrooms themselves are not a health threat because they are neither addictive nor toxic.
However, people who take them may hurt themselves or others, he said. The risks grow if mushrooms are combined with alcohol or cannabis, or if people already have psychiatric problems.
“They really shouldn’t use mushrooms because that can trigger psychosis,” he said.
A study published in January by Amsterdam’s health services said the city’s emergency services were summoned 148 times to deal with a negative reaction to mushrooms in 2004-2006. Of those, 134 were foreigners, with Britons forming the largest group.
Dutch government data suggest most mushrooms sold in smartshops are eaten by tourists. Since Caroff’s death, other dramatic stories involving foreigners have been reported in the Dutch press:
— A 22-year-old British tourist ran amok in a hotel, breaking his window and slicing his hand.
— A 19-year-old Icelandic tourist thought he was being chased and jumped from a balcony, breaking both his legs.
— A 29-year-old Danish tourist drove his car wildly through a campground, narrowly missing people sleeping in their tents.
A majority of parties in parliament ranging from centrist to far right have demanded the hallucinogenic mushrooms be outlawed.
If the government does ban mushrooms, it will be in keeping with conservative trends that have been sweeping the country in recent years. Since 2001, Muslim immigrants have been under pressure to learn Dutch and integrate, and there have been calls by some to ban Islamic schools and radical mosques.
Last month, authorities announced a major crackdown on organized crime in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. And the country’s marijuana policies have also been under pressure, with authorities launching more aggressive prosecution of growers.
Brothers Murat and Ali Kucuksen, whose farm “Procare” supplies about half the psychedelic mushrooms on the Dutch market, say they are afraid their business will now be forced to close.
Their state-of-the-art system to grow and package fresh mushrooms is already operating at half capacity, in part because of the British ban and in part because of the recent bad press.
“The reputation of the product is down the drain,” Ali Kucuksen said.
For many, however, it is still business as usual at Amsterdam’s smartshops.
Chloe Collette, the owner of the Full Moon shop in Amsterdam, showed a group of British backpackers the various types of psychedelic mushrooms on sale Thursday.
“We have seven kinds on the menu, most of them are the softer kind,” she told the group.
She said she doesn’t sell to people under 18 and tries to screen out customers who appear unstable. But she acknowledged there is no way to be sure. She said she recommends people find a park or someplace outside where they can sit and talk with friends when they take them.
“People need to feel comfortable when they take it,” she said. “It’s something natural that makes you connected to yourself.”