Beckley Foundation’s Research on Cannabis

Cannabis is among the most studied psychoactive substances in the world. However, the hundreds of thousands of journal articles on this substance tend to focus on the ‘problematic’ aspects of the drug’s social life from the perspectives of psychiatry, epidemiology, criminology, etc. The policies of prohibition have played a central role in instigating this bias. Indeed, ideological prejudice means that, while cannabis use is widespread (About one-third of people aged 16 to 59 in England and Wales have used cannabis in their lifetime), scientific research into the mechanisms of action of the cannabinoids that make up the plant’s complex biochemistry (The cannabis plant contains over 80 different cannabinoids, the most abundant being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD)) is scarce. Moreover, the global prohibition regime has stifled political discussion on alternative regulatory models at the national and international levels, further perpetuating ignorance and taboo. This apparent stalemate has begun to unravel in the last decade. Over the past 16 years, Amanda Feilding and the Beckley Foundation have led the charge against the status quo, spearheading the debate on global drug policy reform and developing ground-breaking scientific research into the potential benefits of currently controlled substances. In the words of Amanda Feilding: “After years of hammering on the walls of taboo, the edifice of censorship that once obstructed psychedelic research is finally beginning to crumble”. The following lines outline the achievements of our Scientific and Policy programmes on cannabis research and cannabis policy reform.

Ground-breaking Scientific Research

Our Scientific Programme uses the latest developments in neuroscience and brain-imaging technology in order to explore how controlled substances act upon the human brain. Our work has placed particular emphasis on the study of cannabis and its mechanisms of action. We are currently developing this work through the Beckley Foundation Cannabinoids Research Programme, developed in collaboration with Jeff Ditchfield.

The Beckley Foundation and King’s College

THC/CBD, Brain Function & Psychopathology (2009) 
This study evaluated the effects on the brain associated to the differentiated symptomatic and behavioural effects of THC and CBD. BOLD responses were measured with fMRI in three different tasks: verbal memory task response, response inhibition task and sensory processing task. THC and CBD produced opposite effects on regional brain function. CBD also showed potential to block the psychotogenic effect of THC, highlighting its therapeutic properties.

THC & Time Perception (2010) 
This study assessed the effects of THC on self-timed actions (through button pressing) and self-rated perceptions of time distortion, often reported by cannabis users. It concluded that two different brain mechanisms might be responsible for these: the former might be influenced by impaired concentration, while the latter might be related to higher brain function.

THC, Psychosis & Dopamine (2010) 
This study dismissed the hypothesis that cannabis-elicited psychosis was related to the release of dopamine in the striatum. While THC seemed to catalyse psychotic-like effects in some individuals, this did not correspond to a significant increase in the release of stratal dopamine.

THC, Psychosis & Inter-Regional Coherence (2010) 
This study found a correlation between THC-elicited acute psychosis and a reduction in coherence between bi-frontal electrodes in the theta band. It suggests that the pro-psychotic effects of THC might be related to impaired communication between the right and left frontal lobes.

THC, Psychosis & Speech Generation  (2011) 
This study found that synchronisation of neural oscillations preceding vocalisation in individuals under the influence of THC is disrupted. This is also the case in patients with schizophrenia, which could explain the acute psychotic-like effects experienced by some cannabis users.

THC/CBD, Cognitive Impairment & Psychosis (2012) 
This study explored the neuroprotective potential of CBD. It found that individuals treated with CBD before being under the influence of THC were less likely to exhibit positive psychotic symptoms and less likely to experience hippocampal-dependent memory impairment.

The Beckley Foundation and University College London

Cannabis & Creativity (2012) 
This paper investigated the relationship between cannabis use, schizotypy and creativity, finding that cannabis use increases divergent thinking, associated to creativity, as well as state psychosis-like symptoms.

Different Cannabis Varieties: Perceived Harms & Benefits (2013) 
This survey assessed the perceived harms and benefits related to psychoactive substances as rated by an international sample of drug users (n: 5791). The survey distinguished skunk and herbal/resin cannabis, which were identified as being the most prevalent substances together with alcohol and mild stimulants. Both forms of cannabis were associated with the lowest level of harm. Across different harms/benefits criteria, users did not seem to find differences between skunk and herbal/resin cannabis, which came as a surprise given recent debates on the increased harms of high-THC/low-CBD varieties.

THC/CBD, Brain connectivity, Well-being, Cognition & Memory (forthcoming – 2015) 
This study investigated, with fMRI, the effects on the brain of different strains of cannabis: one with balanced amounts of THC and CBD (‘hash’), and the other without CBD (‘skunk’). The research consists on several modules focusing on brain connectivity, well-being, cognition and memory. The initial results of this study clearly indicate the great value of cannabidiol (CBD). This series of studies will be featured in a Channel 4 programme, Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial, on 3 March. In 2012, Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, presented a Beckley/Imperial study on MDMA; it was first to map the neural underpinnings of the subjective effects of this substance. The programme was viewed by over 2 million people.

Amanda Feilding and the Beckley Foundation are also collaborating with Prof. Manuel Guzman (Madrid University) and Jeff Ditchfield to carry out research on the efficacy of cannabinoids in the treatment of cancer.

Influential Policy Reports & Seminars
Our Policy Programme was the first to provide a scientific evidence-base on which to build drug policy and to bring together leading international scientist, politicians and other experts to discuss the tabooed issues around the subject and explore new regulatory models which would protect health, reduce harms, be cost effective and respectful of human rights. Policy alternatives for the regulation of cannabis have been a fundamental aspect of this work.

Major Policy Reports

Licensing and Regulation of the Cannabis Market in England and Wales: Towards a Cost/Benefit Analysis (2013) 
This ground-breaking report, initiated and commissioned by the Beckley Foundation and carried out by a team of researchers of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is the first of its kind to quantify the potential revenues to be gained from legal regulation and taxation of the cannabis market in England and Wales. The study highlights the fact that regulation would allow to control product characteristics, dispels myths on the relation between cannabis use and acquisitive/violent crime and projects important savings in policing/criminal justice. It suggests that the plausible net economic benefits would lead to to a reduction of the government deficit of up to £1.25 bn

Paths for Reform: Proposed Options for Alternative Drug Policies in Guatemala(2013) 
In 2012, AF and the Beckley Foundation were invited by President Otto Perez Molina to advise him and his government on drug policy reform. This was followed by the President launching the BF’s Latin American Chapter. At his request, we produced two key reports. This one in particular includes many policy recommendations that the President has started implementing. Among the recommendations is the reform of national legislation on controlled substances, with a view to moving towards a more health-oriented approach. The immediate decriminalisation of cannabis possession and subsequent creation of a strict legally regulated market are outlined.

Roadmaps to Reforming the UN Drug Conventions (2011) 
This is the first Report to explain in detail how the UN Drug Conventions could be amended in order to give countries greater freedom to adopt policies better suited to their individual needs. While focusing on broader reform, the publication discusses the possibility of states engaging in reform by subtraction, whereby states would be able to denounce the Treaty and re-accede with reservations. This mechanism would allow states to decriminalise possession or even establish a system of strict legal regulation.

Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate (2008/10) 
The Beckley Foundation’s Global Cannabis Commission was convened by Amanda Feilding in 2006 to bring attention to cannabis, its health harms, and how it is currently controlled. The Commission analysed current approaches and identified possible routes forward, including decriminalisation and a carefully regulated legal market. The Report also discusses how individual countries can move towards reform. The report was presented at a Beckley Foundation Seminar in 2008, and later co-published with Oxford University Press in 2010.

Short Reports & Briefing Papers

Cannabis and Mental Health Responses to the Emerging Evidence(2006) 
This report reflects the changing patterns of consumption of cannabis, in particular the emergence of dominant varieties with high concentrations of THC, and analyses a growing body of epidemiological research on the relationship between cannabis and mental health. It concludes that the available evidence warrants a ‘precautionary approach’, as it identifies a correlation between cannabis use and the onset schizophrenia. However, the authors also advise caution when suggesting causality given the weight of different vulnerabilities and family factors as confounding variables.

Reclassification of Cannabis in the United Kingdom (2004) 
This policy briefing paper discussed the amendment to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that came into effect in the UK on 29 January 2004. The authors correctly argue that this change in the penal status of cannabis responded to rational logics (the realisation of cannabis being relatively less harmful than other substances), and not to an intention to liberalise or decriminalise cannabis use.

Presentations at Seminar Series “Drugs & Society: A Rational Perspective”
This series of ten seminars, convened and co-hosted by Amanda Feilding, and mainly held at the House of Lords, have been very influential and were the first to bring together leading international scientists, politicians and thought-leaders in order to share knowledge, foster collaborations and debate ways forward. These events were fertile ground for the emergence of groundbreaking ideas and discussions about the taboo issues surrounding controlled substances as well as the development of new policy options, which now have become standard.

Of particular salience was the 2008 seminar “Where can we go with Cannabis Control?, which was dedicated to cannabis and had most of the world leading experts presenting their latest research on science and policy. This seminar was the culmination of the Beckley Foundation’s Global Cannabis Commissionwhich was convened by Amanda Feilding in 2006, as she felt it was essential to bring the world’s attention to cannabis, which although it constituted roughly 80% of the world’s illegal drug market, it was barely mentioned at international drug policy discussions. The report which resulted from the Commission was entitled Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemateand was launched at the seminar. In 2010 the report was co-published as a book by the Beckley Foundation and Oxford University Press. This book has become a seminal publication for the reform of drug policy world-wide.