BY: M. TOMOSKI
Amanda Feilding, director of the Beckley Foundation, is the Countess of Wemyss and March, and she wants to change the way we think about drugs. Her own experiences with LSD are what fueled the inspiration to study consciousness and the positive effects of something that was once entirely legal.
Photo: Richard Saker for the Observer
One of Feilding’s research programmes, which is conducted in collaboration with a team of researchers at Imperial College London, is the first in the world to investigate the interaction between psychedelics and the brain using fMRI and MEG.
After an uphill battle to gain approval for their work, she and her team were allowed to explore the benefits these drugs can offer. Her foundation is investigating the possibility that psychedelics, when administered properly, can help those with severe depression and also, ironically, help to combat substance abuse.
“They interact with our neurotransmitter systems and bring about changes in consciousness, such as unblocking set patterns of negative or self-destructive thought – washing out long-embedded repressed trauma.” Feilding revealed in her speech at the Breaking Convention, one of the largest conferences on psychedelic consciousness in the world, held on July 10th – 12th.
It’s hard to imagine what the world might look like today if we were encouraged to ask our doctors about the possible benefits of magic mushrooms in between showcases on The Price is Right. On the other hand, the past 50 years has seen no shortage in supply so we might assume that the world would be just as high, and not as crippled by a paranoid fear of something it was never given the chance to understand.
Cannabis, Psilocybin, LSD and the rest of the family of psychedelics have garnered the same ill-informed prejudice that has fueled white flight since the late ’60s when free-loving youth and the counterculture looked to revolutionize the world. According to Feilding, these substances were, “a threat to government ambitions that young people would rather drop acid than bombs.” In a panicked fever to fight a growing army of Grateful Dead fans, governments declared a War on Drugs which mysteriously allows CNN to bombard us with boner pills while flashing images of Mexican cartels without so much as a wink to hypocrisy.
As the war stumbled its way into the ’90s the late comedic prophet Bill Hicks observed that a positive drug story is seldom heard, but surely exists. In one of his most popular bits, Hicks lamented that the public is always given the same story: “Young man on acid thought he could fly, jumped out of a building. What a tragedy.” He proclaims to an eager crowd then quickly turns to say, “What a dick! Fuck him, he’s an idiot. If he thought he could fly, why didn’t he take off from the ground first?”
All humor aside, “there is, of course, some risk of harm to the user if taken in ignorance,” Feilding admits, “as all drug use carries risks”. But as her colleague Professor David Nutt has discovered, psychedelics are significantly less harmful to their users than alcohol and tobacco. When compared to these legal drugs, Feilding points out that, “overall they are not even in the same league.” Yet Professor Nutt’s findings, namely that Ecstasy, “is no more dangerous than riding a horse” struck so thoroughly at the heart of taboo that he was sacked from his position as chairman of the Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
This is why the Beckley Foundation works not only to understand these substances, but to dispel the stigma surrounding them. Their feared reputation has made conducting such studies challenging. But the more science is allowed to uncover the more we can, “highlight how safe psychedelics are in most contexts, [and] how unnecessary it is that they are prohibited.”
A large part of the fear illegal drugs create can be attributed to criminal status. As Feilding says, “the current system is only leading to soaring incarceration rates, violence and increasingly powerful organized crime networks.” According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly half of all inmates in America have been imprisoned for drug related offenses. For these reasons, Feilding points out that, “many around the world now see the War on Drugs for the huge failure that it is”.
Indeed, the idea that psychedelics pose the threat of irreversible harm to society is the result of what Feilding calls a “propaganda campaign that, despite touching on the ridiculous, and removing itself from any trace of evidence, remains effective to this day.”
This campaign has had a global impact branding psychedelics as illegal throughout the world under UN convention, making it difficult for any one country to break from a regime of international group-think and carry out serious scientific research.
To the credit of countries like Portugal and Paraguay, and states like Colorado, Alaska, and even in Washington DC the message seems to be getting through. As the Washington Post reported, while in office, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 76 prisoners with drug related offences. “These men and women were not hardened criminals,” the President recognized in a speech on July 13 in which he pardoned 46 of these prisoners. This kind of news brings hope that policy makers have come to the realization that it is best to be on the right side of history than on the right side at the moment.
But for the time being, the Beckley Foundation continues to chip away at a mountain of misinformation that has stifled research for decades.
“Only a well-balanced scientific evidence base can establish what the risks vs. benefits really are, and we have not been able to research the latter until recently.” Their goal is not only to allow the legal regulated use of these substances in science and therapy, but to ensure their safe use by providing as much information as possible.
Beyond uncovering the therapeutic benefits of LSD, the Beckley Foundation also has the opportunity to advance our knowledge of the way the mind works. “One of the main aims of our scientific programme is to reach a greater understanding of consciousness,” Feilding says. “This has the potential to help us understand the workings of the brain, but more than that, it has the potential to help us understand some of the aspects which make us uniquely human.”
One of the main aims of our scientific programme is to reach a greater understanding of consciousness,” Feilding says. “This has the potential to help us understand the workings of the brain, but more than that, it has the potential to help us understand some of the aspects which make us uniquely human.”
Photo: Woodstock 19
She and her colleagues are filling a 50-year gap in research in order to break the stigma and prove that a positive drug story does exist. Policy makers everywhere can help advance this research by remembering the words of the great Bill Hicks, “Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”
All quotes not associated with a link are from an interview with Amanda Feilding.