The campaigner on what’s wrong with our drug laws – and how magic mushrooms might help treat depression.
How did you become involved in drug policy research?
I studied mysticism and comparative religion with Professor R C Zaehner. I regard human consciousness as the most exciting and important area of study. People who have taken psychedelics often describe it as the most significant event of their lives, comparable with getting married or the birth of their first child.
What is wrong with our approach to drugs?
Immense suffering is caused worldwide by our mishandling of these substances. It became obvious to me that it was impossible to eradicate them since, as long as people demand them, a supply will always be created. I set up the Beckley Foundation in 1998 to create an evidence base on which better policies could be rationally constructed.
What has your research found?
This year, we published two important papers reporting on the effects of psilocybin (the active principle found in magic mushrooms) on blood flow to the brain, using the latest brain-imaging technology, fMRI. These studies fundamentally changed our understanding of how psychedelics work in the brain and how psilocybin can be a possible treatment for both depression and cluster headaches.
What other drugs are you researching?
We are currently investigating the effects of MDMA on cerebral blood supply, and researching its potential as an aid in psychotherapy. In collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, we are conducting a pilot study into psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for nicotine addiction in long-term heavy smokers. The results so far have shown remarkable success, with all participants remaining long-term abstinent.
What is wrong with our drug laws?
They are irrational: there is little correlation between the legal status of a drug and the amount of harm it causes. Tobacco is estimated to cause over 100,000 deaths every year in the UK. Alcohol is directly or indirectly responsible for over a million hospital admissions per year in England. By contrast, there have only ever been a tiny handful of deaths attributable to cannabis in the entire world medical literature.
Why do we treat various drugs so differently?
It is no accident that the permitted recreational drugs are those that have long been prevalent in “developed” western societies, while the outlawed ones include those that are widely used by indigenous people in poorer countries.
What is your stance on legalisation?
[Drug laws] are often at variance with human rights: it is not clear why a person’s enjoyment of a recreational drug, so long as it causes no harm to anybody else, should be a criminal offence. The war on drugs is a war on drug users – because users are criminalised and must operate in the underworld, they are exposed to drugs of unknown purity and contaminated injecting equipment, and access to treatment is much more difficult.
Why are global drug laws so similar?
Policies around the world are governed by three UN drugs conventions, which compel all signatories to outlaw production, supply and possession of controlled drugs. The “one-size-fits-all” remedy deprives countries of the sovereignty to experiment with alternative policies.
How could the laws be fixed?
A first vital step would be to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use so long as no other crime is committed, as has happened in Portugal and the Czech Republic. A more radical policy, ruled out under the current UN conventions, would be to create a strictly regulated, legal and taxed market in a drug. The obvious starting point would be cannabis.
Are you optimistic about reform?
It is a recurring problem that once politicians achieve power, they are likely to adopt a harder line on drugs. But lately we have begun to see a remarkable change. It began with former heads of state and other distinguished world figures saying that our drug policies were not working.
The Beckley Foundation’s open letter states, “The global war on drugs has failed.” Why is the discussion so resistant to moving forward?
If most people have any exposure to illicit drugs, it is through their negative effects – crime, gang violence, HIV, drug poisoning, etc. Any proposal to reform policy is seen as a capitulation to organised crime and an admission of defeat in the fight against these serious social problems. But the president of Guatemala [who supports reform] is no wishy-washy liberal: he is a right-wing former general and head of military intelligence. It is no coincidence that the presidents of Colombia and Costa Rica, who have also expressed the need for reform, both have backgrounds in national security or defence.
Have you personally faced hostile press coverage as a result of your work?
Yes, but only from a minority of tabloids. The taboo is very strong.
Interview by Helen Lewis
1943 Born to Basil and Margot Feilding. Grows up at Beckley Park, Oxfordshire
1970s Performs trepanation on herself and films event as Heartbeat in the Brain
1995 Marries James, 13th Earl of Wemyss
1998 Sets up Beckley Foundation to research evidence base for drug policies
2011 Masterminds Beckley open letter arguing that “war on drugs has failed”. It is signed by Jimmy Carter and others