AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – In recent years, 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 in March of 17-year-old French girl Gaelle Caroff, 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.
Caroff's parents blamed their daughter's death on hallucinations brought on by the mushrooms, though the teenager had suffered from psychiatric problems in the past. Photographs of her beautiful, youthful face were 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. A few weeks later he said he would either recommend an 18-year-old age limit or a total ban, depending on the study's conclusions, due next month.
A majority of parties in parliament has demanded the hallucinogenic mushrooms be outlawed.
For now, it's business as usual at Amsterdam's smartshops.
"We have 7 kinds on the menu, most of them are the softer kind," Chloe Collette, owner of the Full Moon shop, told a group of British tourists.
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.
"We usually have kind of a conversation with [customers], to ask them what they are used to and ask what they expect," she said.
Peter Van Dijk, a researcher at the Netherlands' independent Trimbos Institute, said the mushrooms in 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.
Since Caroff's death, other dramatic stories have been reported in the Dutch press.
— A British tourist, 22, ran amok in a hotel, breaking his window and slicing his hand badly.
— An Icelandic tourist, 19, thought he was being chased and jumped from a balcony, breaking both his legs.
— A Danish tourist, 29, drove his car wildly through a campground, narrowly missing people sleeping in their tents.
The 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 has been less clear. Denmark outlawed them in 2001, Japan in 2002, Britain in 2005 and Ireland in 2006. In the U.S., selling psilocybin-containing mushrooms is illegal in all states, but the status of spores, homegrown and wild species varies.
Dutch government data suggest most mushrooms sold in smartshops are eaten by tourists.
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.
If the government does ban mushrooms, it will fit within larger conservative trends.
Since 2001, Muslim immigrants have been under pressure to learn Dutch and integrate; calls to ban Islamic schools, radical mosques and some types of clothing are also being debated.
Last month, authorities announced a major crackdown on organized crime in Amsterdam's Red Light District. And marijuana policies have also been under pressure, with 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 the legitimate business they set up will now be forced to close.
The state-of-the-art system to grow and package fresh mushrooms already is 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 said.