Change Is On The Way

For the last twenty years, I have been working through the Beckley Foundation to reform global drug policies. Throughout much of the world, the sentiment driving the prohibitionist status quo is summarized succinctly in the 1998 UNGASS political declaration on drug control: ‘A drug-free world: we can do it!’ After some six decades of prohibition, right-thinking people are increasingly realizing that a drug-free world is a fantasy. The pursuit of that fantasy has had devastating costs. Basing policy on prohibition, criminalisation, and abstinence has led to the incarceration of millions of non-violent offenders, systematic violations of human rights, escalating costs to societies in the form of drug-related violence and corruption, and the obstruction of scientific research. Think how far we could have advanced our knowledge of the psyche, if mind-exploring tools were not banned by definition!

Perhaps most pernicious of all is the cost that is borne by the most vulnerable amongst us. Among the many drugs listed in Schedule I of the UN Conventions on Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, and therefore subject to the most restrictive control, are cannabis and the classical psychedelics (including psilocybin): plants and substances that have significant medical potential, are known not to be addictive, and which have been in use by indigenous people for thousands of years. By placing these substances in Schedule 1, governments have seriously impeded scientific and medical research, placing significant financial and administrative obstacles between researchers and the work that needs to be done. In obstructing research into the benefits of these prohibited plants and compounds, governments are intervening politically in scientific research, to the detriment of mankind.

For these reasons, I and the Beckley Foundation are delighted to endorse the Psychedelic Society’s new campaign ‘Psychedelics for Mental Health’ to re-schedule psilocybin. Psilocybin has tremendous potential – decades of research by myself and others have found that it has unparalleled promise in treating mental health issues such as major depression, particularly in patients who have not responded to previous treatments.

The clinical research into psilocybin that we have undertaken at the Beckley/Imperial Psychedelic Research Programme could not be more promising. In our first study, patients who had suffered from moderate-to-severe treatment-resistant depression, for an average of 18 years, were given two sessions of psilocybin with psychological support. One week after their second session, each and every patient showed a reduction in depression severity. In fact, 67% of them qualified as being depression-free. The results were remarkably robust. Three months later, and 42% were still in remission, and depression severity was halved, or better, for the majority of patients.

Thanks to psilocybin, the dark clouds that had pervaded some people’s every waking hour for decades were able to clear. Patients described the effect as a sudden and dramatic change for the better in the very quality of their consciousness. Anyone who has a loved one suffering from depression will understand what an extraordinary gift this is. It is nothing short of monstrous that our government is impeding research into, and the availability of, so effective a treatment.

The potential of this compound to heal is not limited to treating depression. Our work with Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin-assisted therapy is more effective than any known treatment for overcoming addiction to tobacco, a drug that is responsible for some 6,000,000 deaths annually. And yet the mushrooms which contain psilocybin, consistently ranked among the least-harmful of drugs, remain under the strictest control.

I do hope that the Psychedelic Society’s campaign, which is built on decades of scientific research, will add to the growing momentum calling for sensible, evidence-based drug policy. Psilocybin is perhaps the best example of a tool for healing which has been repressed by draconian politics, the liberation of which will benefit all of humankind. I am heartened by the ripples of change I have seen spreading through the social conscience. We have seen how the Home Office has now responded to public pressure in initiating a review of medical cannabis – we have seen that, after many decades, we do have the power to change politics.

I hope also that, in my own way, I have contributed to this growing momentum.  In 2006, I convened the Beckley Foundation’s Global Cannabis Commission, a team of world-leading policy analysts, to review the best evidence about cannabis and the policies that curtail its use, with a view to improving the status quo which served very few interests while causing many harms. The output of the Beckley Cannabis Commission was influential: after publishing our conclusions – including four distinct styles of policy change – in the authoritative Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate, I was invited by the UN and various governments to provide advice on the liberalization of policy. In the intervening time, ever-more countries are enacting legislation like that envisioned by the Commission. Many of the harms of draconian politics are being ameliorated, by decriminalizing personal use, and importantly, by legalising medical cannabis; many of the lost benefits of policy are being restored, as those suffering from a host of maladies can finally gain access to one of the world’s oldest and most widely effective drugs.

Though such progress is cause to celebrate, we cannot forget that globally, the vast majority of drug legislation is stuck in a different time. National-level legislation has taken its lead from the UN’s Single Conventions, written in another time and with no revision seen since. The Conventions, which impose restrictions on drugs according to their perceived harms and benefits, were not based in scientific evidence. The 1961 Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs, for example, prohibited cannabis as liable to abuse and lacking in medical application – some three decades before the discovery of the human body’s endocannabinoid receptors, which are more numerous than our serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline receptors combined, and implicated in regulating a whole host of physiological and cognitive processes. In 2018, we know that cannabis can affect many of these positively, and improve health. Why must our drug laws today be based on those written by possibly well-meaning, but definitely ill-informed, statesmen of the past?

It was this sentiment that led to me to initiate the Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform, which I launched in 2011 at the House of Lords.  The launch of the initiative was accompanied by the first Beckley Foundation Public Letter, which called on all governments and parliaments to move on from failed policies which have had devastating consequences worldwide. The letter, signed by Presidents, Nobel Laureates, and UN High Commissioners, identified the UN Drug Conventions as the cause of many of these problems. The treaties impose an unwieldy, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution on all member states, depriving them of the sovereignty to modify their drug laws to best serve the health and happiness of their citizens. Accordingly, among the Global Initiative’s outputs I convened the report ‘Roadmaps to Reforming the UN Drug Conventions’, led by Professor Robin Room, which gives meticulously-researched, practicable guidance on how to amend the conventions in order to give countries the freedom to enact more responsive legislation according to the particularities of the prevalence and patterns of currently-illicit drug production, supply, and use in their territory.

The work of the Global Initiative continues today, currently focussing on the particular policy environment of the United Kingdom. Our ‘Roadmaps to Regulation’ report series seeks to open up and advance discourse, in detail, about the alternatives to ‘prohibition & criminalisation’. Co-authored with Nicola Singleton, we released the first report, on New Psychoactive Substances in 2016. Reports for cannabis, the psychedelics, and MDMA are scheduled for release later this year.

These reports, and those from other experts around the world, indicate that re-scheduling of cannabis, psychedelics, and MDMA is a necessary first step in allowing humanity to benefit from their amazing healing potential. Twenty years ago, such goals and initiatives were beyond the pale. Today, they are at the edge of policy. Your support will be needed to see them through.


Amanda Feilding