The New Zealand Drug Foundation says it’s “shocking” that 90 charges have been laid for magic mushroom possession in five years given the drug’s relatively low harm profile.
New statistics, obtained through the Official Information Act, show between 2016 and 2021, 129 charges related to psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, were laid against 112 individuals.
While police do not track the drug specifically, a database search revealed 90 charges listed for possession, one for both consumption and cultivation, 18 for offers to supply, nine for possession for supply, nine for supply and one for importation.
Comparatively, between the 2016/17 and 2021/22 financial years, 72 people were charged with drug offences related to heroin, 13 for opium and 86 for drugs classified as “other opiates”.
However, these numbers are still dwarfed by the several thousands of cannabis and methamphetamine-related charges laid each year.
New Zealand Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm told the Herald people should not be criminalised for psilocybin use.
“It’s unhelpful, doesn’t deter use and may in fact be preventing some people from using other substances. The harm of a criminal prosecution on someone’s life would far exceed the harm from psilocybin.”
Helm said criminalisation pushed people using substances further into the shadows and stigmatised those who use drugs.
With magic mushrooms, one of the biggest risks was taking the wrong kind of mushroom, Helm said, and criminalisation stopped people accessing robust information.
“Psilocybin has been shown to be a generally low-harm substance and yet it is a Class A drug. The classification system is meant to reflect the risk to the public, yet this is not the case.”
In the recent US midterm elections, Colorado joined Oregon in decriminalising the use of psilocybin and other psychedelics, and legalising clinical psilocybin treatment, Helm told the Herald.
“This makes sense. Our legal framework does not.
“We are aware that people self-medicate using psilocybin, particularly as they see the emerging research and are unable to access it in a therapeutic setting.”
She said there was incredibly promising research about the positive use of the drug in the treatment of anxiety and depression, including a recent study showing that a single dose of psilocybin may be able to impact treatment-resistant depression.
Health Minister Andrew Little said at this stage there were no plans to decriminalise the substance.
“The Government is adopting a health approach to dealing with issues of drug use and dependency. This includes giving police discretion over whether to charge people found in possession of illegal drugs for their own use or refer them for treatment, making it legal to provide services checking whether the drugs people are about to take are what they think they are, and expanding the successful methamphetamine treatment programme Te Ara Oranga to the eastern Bay of Plenty.”
He told the Herald the referendum on legalising the sale, use and production of cannabis was unsuccessful and as a result he does not think they have the social licence to look at decriminalising drugs at the moment.
Victoria University of Wellington associate professor Dr Fiona Hutton said psilocybin carries a low addiction potential and it’s “absolutely crazy” the substance is a Class A drug.
“It’s just stupid basically and it shows the totally arbitrary non-evidenced-based nature of our current drug laws.”
Those laws harked back to the 1960s and were rooted in the “moral panic” surrounding hippies, cannabis and magic mushrooms, Hutton said.
“So substances like LSD and psilocybin were placed in Schedule 1, which means that they are classed as having no medical use at all and that they are at risk of very high harm. Obviously, now in 2022 we know that’s not the case at all.”
Given most of the offences over the past five years were for possession, she said New Zealand should certainly move to decriminalisation.
“The [drugs] need to be immediately decriminalised, so people are not prosecuted for possession of a handful of mushrooms that they picked in a field.”
Hutton wanted to see a move towards a legally regulated market so people could buy from a reputable retailer and get harm reduction advice.
A police spokesperson told the Herald about a handful of people were charged with possession offences for psilocybin each year.
They said it was not particularly common in New Zealand and the police focus was on apprehending those involved in supplying class A drugs, and working towards prevention while providing support for those affected.
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