The death of a 33-year-old man prompted a ban on the sale of some magic mushrooms. But with other types of the mushrooms still legal, the debate continues, reports Ali Bracken
When imagining a drug-related death, a stereotypical addict often springs to mind, not a young man who dies after consuming a natural, legal substance from a Dublin store. Yet that is what happened to 33-year-old Colm Hodkinson last year following an adverse reaction to magic mushrooms. Hodkinson is the only known person believed to have died in Ireland as a consequence of eating magic mushrooms. It was his first experiment with them and although he ate just a few, he reacted badly to the hallucinogenic element and jumped to his death from an apartment building in Dún Laoghaire, south Dublin, on October 30th, 2005.
But it's the image of a dead drug-user that the Hodkinson family don't want attached to their son. After his death, the family embarked on a successful campaign to ban the sale of magic mushrooms in Ireland.
Following a meeting with Eoin and Mary Hodkinson after the death of their son, the Minister for Health, Mary Harney, banned, from January 31st, the sale and possession of magic mushrooms containing psilocybin. Previously, it was illegal to sell hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms if they were processed, but not in their raw state.
"Harney was shocked that they were being sold legally. We wanted something good to come out of everything, something positive," Mary Hodkinson said, the day after an inquest into her son's death. "We were never angry at anyone about Colm's death. What would that achieve? Only more pain."
A jury at the inquest into Colm's death last Tuesday returned a verdict of death by misadventure and a toxicology screen revealed that he had consumed a small amount of alcohol and a trace amount of cannabis as well as magic mushrooms.
Coroner Dr Kieran Geraghty appealed at the inquest for young people to hesitate before "going down the road" of drug experimentation.
"But Colm's situation isn't the same as someone who went out and took drugs knowing the risks. My son would never seek out illegal drugs," his mother explains. "Bought legally, he assumed they couldn't do any harm."
On the night he died, Hodkinson had arranged a get- together at the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Rachel Priest. Described by friends in court as a happy-go-lucky guy whose life was right on track, he had everything to live for. But 20 minutes after eating about three magic mushrooms, he experienced hallucinations so intense that he jumped to his death.
"He was far removed from reality . . . Whatever was going on over that balcony was a saviour from what was going on in his mind," close friend Johnny Hayes told the inquest. Others described a keen sportsman and popular young man, who would always put others first.
"He was just extraordinary," his mother agrees. "Colm would do anything for anyone."
Magic mushrooms grow naturally and seasonally throughout the country. Hundreds of people pick them for their own consumption, and their use as a hallucinogen dates back to Celtic times. But those in favour of reversing the ban say that eating wild mushrooms is far more dangerous than buying them in a store, as people have little clue as to their potency.
While Hodkinson's death after taking magic mushrooms was a rarity, the unpredictability of hallucinogens cannot be ignored. Neither is Harney's ban on magic mushrooms as straightforward as it appears. The ban prohibits psilocybe mushrooms but a far more toxic magic mushroom, the amanita, is unaffected and is regularly legally imported into Ireland.
Before the ban, Ananda Schouten, owner of De Sjamaan Smartshops in the Netherlands, was one of the main exporters of psilocybe mushrooms to Ireland. She was a supplier to McDonald's Hemp Store on Dublin's Capel Street, where Hodkinson is believed to have bought six punnets of magic mushrooms. Its owner, James McDonald, told the inquest that his staff always advised customers not to mix them with alcohol or drugs.
"We've nothing against him, no blame," Mary Hodkinson says of McDonald. "He was selling them legally. Colm just had an instant bad reaction."
But Schouten is at a loss as to why this happened. "I've sold millions of psilocybe mushrooms," he says. "His reaction - it's a chance of one in millions."
In a survey published this week, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found that nearly 6 per cent of Irish 15- to 24-year-olds surveyed had used hallucinogenic mushrooms. The data was recorded in 2002 and 2003, when psilocybe mushrooms were still legally available here. Interestingly, the survey notes that bans on psilocybe mushrooms in some European countries has led to an increase in demand for potentially toxic amanita mushrooms. The report also highlights potential negative side-effects of hallucinogenic mushrooms, such as nausea and panic attacks.
There were about 20 stores in Ireland that sold psilocybe mushrooms before the ban, and many have reacted angrily to what they see as Mary Harney's "knee-jerk" reaction to Hodkinson's death.
"How can you ban something that grows naturally? All this ban will do is push magic mushrooms into the hands of criminals and the black market," says Shane O'Connor, owner of the Head stores in Dublin, Galway and Waterford which previously sold magic mushrooms. O'Connor, along with others, is considering a legal challenge against the legislation introduced by the Tánaiste.
Now that the formal proceedings in relation to Hodkinson's death have been concluded, life must go on for Eoin, Mary and their four other children.
"There's never closure," says Mary. "We just get on."