THE magic mushroom season is fast approaching, and it will bring with it the annual phenomenon of people behaving very strangely indeed to the bafflement of others who may not realise that the "mushies" annual ritualistic celebrations are upon us.
Jazz and blues singer Mary Coughlan recalls the last time she did magic mushrooms in Galway about 25years ago.
"I spent a whole night talking to a set of traffic lights. I did a lot of drugs in my time, but magic mushrooms have been around in Ireland forever.
"In those days they seemed to grow mostly in the fields near golf courses and that's where we used to go to get them."
Mary recalls no bad hangover from the trip, but there are mixed reports about the effects - and side-effects - of the hallucinatory drug.
In one reported case, a user thought he was "dying" and tried kissing his mates, which they weren't impressed with, then rang his parents to tell them he was dying. They sent an ambulance.
But to begin with, his testimony gives a more positive account. About an hour after taking the mushrooms, he "got a warm, stoned drunk feeling, and was having a good time". But then his mind started "proper flipping". He thought the paparazzi were after him, and he thought he was made out of sugar.
Another tripper reported "the feeling of fear is far beyond words, where the world begins to diminish before my eyes, and there is no rope, no string to hold on, at one point, when fear has gone so far, you believe you have already died.
"In the morning, having only slept for a few hours, I felt as if I had been given a second chance all over again."
A third account gives a variation on the same theme: "I seriously wanted to kill everyone that I was with, they were just so annoying. When you are tripping and you are in a bad place it makes it very disturbing. I felt I was trapped in my own body. It was so weird. The ceiling looked like it was pulsing and the way the light hit the shadow put creases in the ceiling and made it look like it was moving. It was the worst time ever."
But there are contrasting accounts. One t 24-year-old graduate told me "a lot of people I know who have used magic mushrooms report only positive experiences and pleasant sensations. Not everybody hallucinates."
Strangely, while they have become a Class A drug in the UK as of July 2005, magic mushrooms are still legal in Ireland. The prison sentence for possession and distribution in the UK is now similar to that for LSD, heroin, cocaine and crack.
This ban covers all mushrooms containing the hallucinogen psilocybin. In Ireland, only possession of processed magic mushrooms with intent to supply is illegal. Raw "mushies" can be picked legally, up the Wicklow Mountains and, interestingly, at the Pope's Cross in Phoenix Park.
Magic mushrooms have been a subculture in the Irish way of life for centuries. The great magic mushrooms grow in wet, well-manured areas especially in fields with sheep. There are around 74 known varieties. Liberty Caps are the most common type found naturally in Irish fields.
The active chemicals in mushrooms have a similareffect on the brain as the 'The feeling of fear is far beyond words, the world begins to diminish before my eyes, and there is no rope to hold on'
"happiness hormone" serotonin. They produce a similar effect to LSD but the "trip" tends to be milder and shorter. The danger is that one might make the mistake of picking the wrong kind, which in some cases can be fatal.
However, Liberty Caps, prevalent in Ireland are safe, in that there are no poisonous species that look similar to them. They grow to heights of between 5cm and 15cm tall and are dark brown with a nipple shape on the top of the cap.
Recreational doses range from 10-50 grams when wet and 1-5 grams when dry. They can be eaten raw, cooked or brewed as tea. The onset of a "trip" can start from as soon as 30 minutes or take as long as a couple of hours.
It is never a good idea to take mushrooms for negative reasons: to escape from unpleasantness, or when one is unhappy, angry or depressed, as this brings on bad trips. Magic mushrooms work to amplify the feeling that a person is experiencing at the time.
They are often associated with curiosity and adventure, bringing on a new sense of reality. As the effects intensify, a wide variety of perceptual changes may occur. Mental stimulation induces open and closed eye visions of colours and patterns, pupil dilation and rapid heart rate.
A feeling of attaining insight gradually builds up, often leading to hallucinations. Sounds, light, visuals and sensations are greatly enhanced. Many have found the experience rather like Alice in Wonderland, with ever-changing scenes and a surprise around every corner.
Fascinating as it sounds, the distortion of imagery can sometimes take a turn for the worse. The "fear", as it is called, can induce paranoia and the person often sees ghastly images and starts to panic over losing control.
Unfortunately, once a "trip" starts it cannot be stopped until a natural "come down" takes place. It can take between three and eight hours for the full effects to disappear. Nausea and stomach cramps can also occur as a side-effect.
Vomiting will expel the toxins and help a person to regain normality. There are no known serious long-term side-effects associated with magic mushrooms. Besides the possibility of poisoning if wrong mushrooms are ingested, studies have found that a person with an average weight of 130 pounds must ingest 13 grams of pure psilocybin in order to die from it. That translates to about a kilo or more of mushrooms, which is virtually impossible to eat.
Magic mushrooms don't encourage addiction either, as tolerance builds up very quickly and the intensity of the effects diminishes
In any case, at a high dosage, a psychosis effect might occur. The one thing to remember is that all effects, both good and bad, fade away once the "trip" is over and the toxins are eliminated.
Magic mushrooms contain the active substances psilocin and psilocybin that possess the famous psychedelic qualities.
Psilocybin stays in the body for about a week. After that, neither urine nor blood tests will be able to detect the chemical.