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In a country known for some of the toughest drug laws in the industrialized world, Japanese dealers of hallucinogenic "magic" mushrooms tout their wares quite brazenly.

Sidewalk vendors hawk mind-altering fungi on the streets of Shibuya, Tokyo's hip fashion centre, while magazines run advertisements for Hawaiian toadstools and peyote cacti.

Thanks to a bizarre legal loophole, psychedelic substances have mushroomed into a major money-spinner and shops with names such as Herb on Air, Whoopee! and Psychedelic Garden are sprouting all over Tokyo.

"You can't be punished for possession," a Justice Ministry official said. "Magic mushrooms are not listed in the drug law."

A Tokyo customs official confirmed the loophole that lets dealers import vegetable matter that would be considered Class A narcotics in many countries.

"The plants themselves aren't illegal," he said. "There's no law prohibiting their import."

In a society not known for recreational drug use, such laxity is the exception to the rule. Even some over-the-counter cold medicines such as Sudafed are routinely seized by Japanese customs officers because they contain stimulants.

"Japan is no paradise for druggies, that's for sure," said a mushroom user who did not want to be identified.

The 26-year-old office worker described how she painstakingly raises her own mushrooms at home using a spore-growing kit imported from Amsterdam.

"My mushrooms were 10 times better than the stuff you can buy in Shibuya," she said. "That's mostly because the dealers dry them with a hair dryer that effectively zaps most of the psilocybin out."

Psilocybin, the chemical that gives the mushrooms their hallucinogenic properties, is specifically outlawed under drug laws, as is mescaline from peyote cactus.

But unlike hemp, the fungi and cacti themselves get off scot-free.

"If you know it's a magic mushroom and eat it, that's illegal. If you don't know what it is and eat it, that's fine," said the branch manager of a head-shop chain who identified himself only as Mr. A.

"It's all right to show and sell them, just not to encourage people to ingest."

He said that about 20 people a day, from junior-high students to pensioners, buy mushrooms imported from Europe and Hawaii at his basement bazaar in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. The shop also stocks pipes, T-shirts and books on alternative culture.

Dealers know they walk a fine legal line. Police made their first fungus-related arrest in 1998, nabbing a man in the city of Osaka for selling 2,000 bottles of capsules containing powdered mushrooms worth about $120,000.

But putting him in handcuffs took some wrangling. The man was arrested not for hawking hallucinogens, but for flouting a law requiring people who sell pharmaceutical products to have a licence, a police spokesman said.

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