UK GOVERNMENT PUTTING THE LID ON MAGIC MUSHROOMS A mushroom used by the ancients to gain "spiritual enlightenment" is still a source of inspiration today, writes Robert Verkaik. Timothy Leary, the intellectual cheerleader of chemical transcendence, said that when he ate magic mushrooms in Mexico in 1960 he learned more in four hours than in all his years as a psychologist. Forty-four years later, seekers of knowledge need only take a stroll along one of London's famous high streets and visit one of the many "shroom shops" to test his theory. Furthermore, they can do it without breaking the law. To prove the point, many of the shop owners display copies of a letter written by a Home Office official that makes it clear there is nothing illegal in the trade of freshly picked magic mushrooms. But their legal sale appears to be about to end since ministers have moved to tighten the loophole. Under the current law the psilocybe mushroom, or magic mushroom, is not a controlled substance, but the hallucinogen, psilocin, that it contains, is classified as a Class A drug. Provided gatherers don't commercially "prepare" the mushroom - by freezing it, drying it or using it to make tea - before selling it, they are not committing a criminal offence. But the shift in policy signals a new zero-tolerance, meaning that the sale of unprepared mushrooms could now be illegal. Home Office Minister Caroline Flint has told shop owners that if they are selling magic mushrooms they are probably breaking the law. Anti-drug groups have long warned that this legal loophole encourages young people to experiment with a hallucinogenic substance that can lead to nightmarish trips, stomach pains, sickness and, in some case, psychiatric problems. The minister advises: "In the Home Office's view, a form of preparation and production has occurred by the sale of magic mushrooms in market places and shops or at other premises or at other sale points. "Accordingly, those selling, or seeking to sell, the mushrooms at such premises are unlawfully supplying a product containing psilocin and or psilocybin." There are now estimated to be between 200 and 300 shops selling mushrooms in Britain and many other businesses trading online. Some of the mushrooms are home-grown, but the bulk of the produce is imported from Holland. The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is probably as old as humanity itself. Ancient peoples are known to have taken mushrooms to experience altered states of consciousness and gain "spiritual enlighte nment". A group of mushroom statues found in Guatemala and thought to date as far back as 500 BC has been interpreted as evidence that ancient peoples once worshipped the mushroom. But it wasn't until the 1960s that Western cultures, led by counter-culture gurus such as Timothy Leary, began to use mushrooms recreationally as a natural and milder alternative to acid.