When Amsterdam police found a disoriented French tourist in his van last month with his slain dog beside him, he told them he had wanted to free the animal's mind. He also said he had ingested magic mushrooms, which contain the hallucinogen psilocybin. The incident played into a running debate over whether the Netherlands' famously liberal drug laws are too lax with psychedelic mushrooms. Also in July, a Danish tourist raced his car through a campsite, and a 19-year old man from Iceland jumped out of a window; both had taken magic mushrooms, known in Dutch as "paddos," as had a French teenager who jumped off a bridge to her death in March.
Since then, most parties in the Dutch parliament have been calling for a clampdown on magic mushrooms. In dried form, the fungi are already prohibited, but fresh mushrooms can still be legally sold in the Netherlands. The country's public health minister, Ab Klink, has so far steered clear of banning psilocybin mushrooms altogether, in part because his ministry considers it legally problematic to ban a product that grows naturally. But in May he commissioned fresh research into the risks of "paddo" use, and has said he would consider the results, due next month, in deciding how to act.
This being the Netherlands, critics say even that measured reaction is too precipitous. They argue that while "paddo" use may have been involved in serious incidents, it's too easy to single out the drug as the cause of them. Municipal heath services determined that the man who killed his dog had a psychosis unrelated to the drug, and the Danish racer consumed alcohol and smoked marijuana before taking his "paddo." Amsterdam municipal heath services report that the number of mushroom-related incidents, while rising, is still dwarfed by problems caused by alcohol. Advocates of a ban counter that the easy availability of magic mushrooms amounts to an invitation to further tragedies.
There is general agreement, however, that foreigners seem to have more trouble with 'shrooms that the Dutch themselves do. In Amsterdam, some 90 percent of ambulance dispatches related to magic mushroom use this year were for foreign visitors, especially from Britain, trailed at a distance by Italy, the U.S. and France. "Most problems are caused by foreigners who come here on cheap flights to take as many drugs as they can find," says Guy Boels, chairman of VLOS, an association of Dutch magic mushrooms retailers. "They hardly sleep, they drink alcohol and smoke pot as much as they can and then take a paddo on top of that."
Boels says the risks of reckless behavior are quite small as long as paddos are not mixed with alcohol or drugs. Still, VLOS supports a proposed regulation to ban the sale of the mushrooms to minors and calls for a registration system to identify "weekend tourists." For now, that watchful but tolerant approach is getting the endorsement of Dutch public heath experts. Unless the new research commissioned by the minister arrives at new insights, the government appears more likely to play the regulation card than to support a total ban on magic mushrooms.