November 13, 2008

Mycological Consumer Fraud: Know Thy Shrooms, Dude

Three men in New Hampshire have been arrested for reselling mushrooms they bought at the supermarket. The catch? They were using blue food coloring to make the ubiquitous Agaricus bisporus buttons look more like much more interesting Psilocybe mushroom. I'm not sure who they were going to fool with such a poorly conceived scam. While it's true that hallucinogenic Psilocybe mushrooms stain blue on at least some portion of the fruiting body when bruised, the two species look very different in a number of other ways. It's a bit like trying to pass off carnations as roses. Still, the geniuses did manage to sell $900 worth of their faux magic mushrooms to an undercover police officer in Kingston and have been arrested — and two of them still had the blue food coloring all over their hands.

Fungus fakeout: Three face drug charges
Jason Schreiber, Union Leader

KINGSTON – Three men accused of trying to sell fake hallucinogenic mushrooms have been caught blue-handed.

Police said the men were arrested after one of them sold a quarter-pound of mushrooms for $900 during an undercover drug probe. When police later pulled over the men, two had hands stained with blue food coloring.

Police Chief Donald Briggs Jr. said police believe the mushrooms were purchased at a grocery store along with the blue food coloring used to dye the mushrooms and make them appear more like a potent psilocybin mushroom...
Now really, how dumb were these guys?

I don't advocate the ingestion of Psilocybe mushrooms nor do I condemn it. If you want to suck down a bunch of fungal pesticide evolved to discourage arthropods from consuming the reproductive structure, that's entirely your own business. Mycologically speaking, I don't find Psilocybe a particularly interesting genus. Still, there's a danger to people who do this sort of thing because its entirely possible you could be buying something much more unsavory than Agaricus bisporus when you think you're get P. cubensis or somesuch.

In other words, if you really want some "shrooms, dude," know how to tell you're getting the right thing. As laughable as the clowns in this story are, they had some reason to believe that their scam would work and it's entirely possible that this isn't the first time they've done it. Somebody in New Hampshire, in other words, may have bought from them before and that fact opens up some troubling possibilities. Whatever silly legalities society's moral opposition to intoxication ends up imposing on them, I don't think many of us want to see someone seriously poisoned for such a crime. I don't even want people to get sick. There are some much more toxic common mushrooms out there which could be passed off as Psilocybe than can A. bisporus with a little food coloring. I could easily see some enterprising idiot doing this with an Enteloma, for instance, and certainly a Stropharia can pass for Psilocybe. Even mycologists have a hard time separating the two genera in a satisfying way.

Try this at home. What kind of mushroom is that to the left of this paragraph (click for a larger image)? Can you come up with a reasonable identification to genus? Do you have any idea whether or not it's edible, hallucinogenic or toxic? This is a relatively easy genus to identify, by the way, and the photo contains all of the characters one would need to figure out the genus for this one. Would you eat this?

The moral of the story is, Know Thy Mushroom. If you don't know how to identify a Psilocybe, you probably shouldn't be eating it. You could wind up ripped off by the blue-handed mushroom fakers... or worse. Much, much worse.

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