For the past 40 years, Amanda Feilding, countess of Wemyss and March, has worked tirelessly to break down taboos surrounding LSD and other psychoactive drugs. She is founder and director of the Beckley Foundation, a think tank in Oxford, United Kingdom. Its most recent initiative is an online global campaign called Breaking the Taboo. Following a recent spate of research on psychedelics and cannabis, and with mainstream opinion turning against the war on drugs, she tells Graham Lawton that she finally feels vindicated.
Graham Lawton: How did you get interested in issues around drugs and drug policy?
Amanda Feilding: I’ve always been an outsider. I grew up in an isolated house surrounded by three moats. There was no money. I left school early. It was a world of its own. I became fascinated by consciousness because there was nothing much to do except mooch about and think. I had the occasional mystical experience. I studied consciousness, reading all the books I could get.
GL: When did you encounter psychoactive drugs?
AF: I was introduced to cannabis when I was 16. I realized the similarity to the mystical experiences I’d had—the enhancing of senses, the way it made thought more interesting. In 1965, before it became illegal, I was introduced to LSD. I thought it was extraordinary.
GL: Why has it taken decades to make headway?
AF: When I started this quest in 1968, no one wanted to do the research. Legally you were allowed, but no scientist wanted to, and no one funded it. So for over 30 years, when brain imaging technology was evolving, there was no research, which was a missed opportunity. I realized in 1998 that in order to do the research that I wanted, I needed to start a foundation and get heavyweight scientists on board.
GL: What was the big breakthrough?
AF: In 2005 I set up a research project at the University of California, Berkeley. We got the first ethical approval in modern times to use LSD in humans. Since then, I’ve collaborated with institutions around the world.
In 2009, [leading drug researcher] David Nutt and I set up the Beckley Foundation/Imperial College Psychopharmacological Research Programme, which has carried out groundbreaking research on psilocybin and MDMA. Our psilocybin work suggested potential treatments for depression and other conditions, leading to a substantial grant from the Medical Research Council. The studies also demonstrate why psychedelics and MDMA can be valuable as aids to psychotherapy for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. I am also collaborating with Johns Hopkins University to investigate the treatment of addiction with psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.
GL: The Beckley Foundation also does a lot of work on drug policy. Does that interest you, too?
AF: The science is my passion, the policy work my social duty. I think there’s no other issue in the world that causes such suffering and which could be improved simply by rethinking. Millions of people are in jail just because they used consciousness-altering substances without causing any harm to others. I think it is an affront to human rights and dignity. What you do with your consciousness is your own business.
GL: What policy initiatives have you worked on?
AF: Since 1998 we have published over 40 reports and briefings. In 2006 I realized that since cannabis is 80 percent of all illegal drug use, without it, there would be no war on drugs. I commissioned the leading policy analysts to form the Global Cannabis Commission. The result was a book, Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate. The evidence shows that cannabis is a relatively harmless substance and that draconian policies don’t suppress use. The commission recommended cautious experimentation with a strictly regulated cannabis market.
GL: How did you feel when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana?
AF: Wonderful! It’s a big breakthrough.
You’re thinking bigger than that, though, aren’t you?
AF: Reform of the U.N. drugs conventions is essential. At the moment more or less every country is a party to the conventions, which are based on prohibition and prevent experimentation with policy. But you can’t have an evidence-based policy if you’re forbidden to build any evidence.
GL: What can be done?
AF: We outlined ways in which a country or group of countries can adapt the conventions to allow them to implement policies better-suited to their special needs. At the moment that is not possible. Bolivia, for example, asked the United Nations if it could amend the conventions so that chewing coca leaf wasn’t a crime. The United Nations said no.
A lot of Latin American countries are getting fed up with failed policies that are turning them into war zones. Criminalization hasn’t worked because there’s no way of stopping demand. The only way forward is to get the trade out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of government.
GL: You are working with one of those countries, Guatemala. What is the situation there?
AF: Guatemala’s problem is the transit of cocaine from producing countries into the United States. It isn’t a producer itself, but the cartels use it as a base, which has turned it into a war zone. President Pérez Molina invited us in to advise him. As head of military intelligence he led the fight against the cartels for 20 years. He put the top cartel leader behind bars; seven years later he came out, still one of the richest men in the world, and Guatemala was still a war zone. It does not work. It’s fantastic to be advising a sitting president who is saying, “We have to rethink.”
GL: Do you support total legalization of drugs?
AF: The word legalization has become too charged. I prefer strict regulation. Illegality means the drugs market is completely unregulated and controlled by criminal cartels. It seems obvious to me that governments could do a better job, although each substance needs to be carefully analyzed and have its own regulatory system.
GL: Wouldn’t a move to regulation send out the wrong signals?
AF: Youth are simply not interested in “signals.” They know governments often don’t listen to the science.
GL: Is it true that you drilled a hole in your skull?
AF: Yes. I did it as an experiment, following the hypothesis that trepanation could improve cerebral circulation. Subjectively, I think there was an improvement, but I am open to the idea there wasn’t. Since then, we have done research in Russia which supports the hypothesis. It would be interesting to investigate it further—in particular the possibility that improved cerebral circulation could protect against dementia.
GL: You’ve been portrayed as an aristocrat in a grand house writing checks to fund your hobby horses. Is that a fair picture?
AF: I wish! I have no money. Every penny we spend, I raise—with difficulty. The Beckley Foundation is me and three or four others.
GL: Has it all been worth it?
AF: Yes. Things are changing; that’s the satisfaction of it. I have always kept my head under the parapet because I realized that I don’t fit the establishment image—but I have been behind a lot of the developments over the years. I won’t have struggled away most of my life for nothing.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.