Amanda Feilding is the Founder and Director of the Beckley Foundation. Together with the foundation, she initiates designs, supports and directs research into currently banned psychoactive substances such as cannabis, psilocybin, LSD and MDMA, and is dedicated to bringing about changes to global drug policy.
The Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, which she set up with Prof David Nutt in 2005, recently published successful research papers into the treatment of depression with psilocybin and the first images of the human brain on LSD.
In the last few years we have seen a renaissance of scientific research into psychedelic compounds and a relaxation in drug laws, most notably in California, where recreational marijuana has been legalised. What effects do you think a Donald Trump presidency will have on this trend?
Obviously it’s a big worry, but as he’s given conflicting views over the years, it’s unclear how it will play out. I don’t think he will turn back states that have regulated. He has said he believes regulation is a state concern, not a federal concern, so hopefully he will be unlikely to intervene in recent changes to the legal status of marijuana.
However, his choice of Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, a hard-line prohibitionist, is a very unfortunate move, as he may well influence the FDA [Food & Drug Administration] and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] to roll back the relaxation of drug laws. A positive fact is that 25 years ago Trump said the war on drugs should end: “We’re losing badly in the war on drugs. You have to legalise to win that war.” However, he did say this a long time ago.
He has expressed casual support for medical marijuana, but hasn’t been vocal in this discussion, and he is completely against legalising marijuana for recreational use. The appointment of a drug warrior as his Attorney General is a very disappointing move. Senator Sessions opposes the legalisation of marijuana, has blocked drug law reform, and has claimed “good people don’t smoke marijuana”.
It is good news that psychedelic studies, for instance with MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder, are helping war veterans, and this is gaining wider public support. California often leads the way in policy reform and their decision to legalise recreational cannabis use may lead to other states following them. It would be nice to think that Trump might be a libertarian, but probably that is being unrealistically optimistic. He could obviously turn the clock right back.
Historically, the emergence of the psychedelic movement was very wild and counter-cultural. The current movement seems to be focused on changing legislation and scientific research. Do you think the richness of the psychedelic culture can fit within mainstream scientific thinking?
It’s a strategic move learnt from the lessons of the 60s. I was there in the 1960s and saw how the establishment exaggerated the excesses of the counterculture, and used it as an excuse to bolt down and criminalise all psychoactive substances, including the research into their potential medical benefits.
I know both sides of the coin, and I decided that the only way forward was to be a friend of the government, and the UN, and do the work that they weren’t doing for themselves, i.e. to provide the evidence base which would show why drug policy had to change, why the prohibitionist approach simply doesn’t work, and showing that it results in vast costs and immense suffering worldwide, with the spread of harmful use of drugs.
The war on drugs approach is a lose-lose situation. I felt I could be a force in trying to correct their thinking in these areas, by giving them a good scientific evidence base on which to build better policies. I’ve been doing that for 20 years now and I think slowly my work and that of others is having an effect. I am one of the pioneers in that movement and I believe it was the right move to try to remove the block of prohibition and restriction.
Finally, carrying out research into these substances is possible. It was more or less impossible for 40-50 years, but it is still incredibly difficult and expensive, because of all the extra bureaucratic hurdles put in the way. For example, to conduct research one needs to use medical grade (GMP) compounds, which are extremely expensive, and because of the restrictions nobody is producing medical grade LSD or DMT.
It is also impossible for institutions to store these compounds without a hard-to-procure and costly license. You can hardly believe all the problems that are put in the way of the research. For instance, cannabis and psilocybin, which many people are taking, can’t be stored by institutions unless they have a special licence which costs thousands of pounds. Currently, there are only three or four places in England which have them.
It’s rather like working with nuclear weapons with the restrictions on these substances, which makes many institutions not willing to touch them. I’ve just been turned down by a major institution to do a study using LSD in the treatment of alcohol addiction, because they didn’t want the trouble. Most scientists don’t want the trouble either, which is why there are only a handful of scientists willing to work in this field.
So it’s been very difficult. I have dedicated my life to doing scientific research in this field, and it’s been very slow progress, but there is absolutely no doubt that progress has been made. Now we are at a tipping point, in both policy and science, and people are beginning to realise from the research results that these are incredible compounds.
Last week two papers came out on psilocybin being used for treating existential anxiety in people who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. One study is at John Hopkins and the other at NYU. The results are really amazingly successful, showing that one dose of psilocybin in a psychotherapeutic setting is bringing about positive changes in people’s attitudes to their situation. These changes are still being felt six months later. There is no other medicine with which one dose can have a positive effect for after six months.
We’ve also just done a study at our Beckley/Imperial Research Programme, which was the first study to use psilocybin in the treatment of depression. Participants were treatment-resistant depressives who had been unresponsive to all other forms of treatment for an average of 18 years. The immediate results were a 67% success rate, meaning that they were depression-free at the one-week follow up, and after three months 42 % of the participants were still in remission. These substances have been used as medication for millennia. It’s a very recent thing that they have become prohibited.
For a long time there was no research into the therapeutic use of psychedelics at all and recently there have been a few institutions which have been willing to take the chance. What do you think changed the situation?
There have basically been three organisations, like the Beckley Foundation, in this field, which have been pushing the research forward for the last 20 years. Actually, I’ve been pushing for it since 1966, an amazing 50 years.
I started the Beckley Foundation in 1998, and there are two other institutions called the Heffter Institute and MAPS [the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies]. Between us, MAPS is doing MDMA and post-traumatic stress disorder, Heffter has concentrated mainly on psilocybin and is involved in these current studies. At the Beckley Foundation, I cast the net very wide, because my interest is in the phenomenon of consciousness and its altered states. These altered states can be amazingly beneficial to the individual, both in healing and in transformational insights.
Society as a whole would benefit from understanding the potential benefits, instead of criminalising the use of these substances. I would like to reintegrate them into the fabric of modern society, both in the medical field and for psychological transformation and healing. Responsible use of these compounds in a safe setting could give back to our rather ‘lost’ society a new sense of meaning and purpose.
There are all sorts of ways these substances can be used beneficially: to help heal conditions like depression, anxiety and addiction, and also to help enhance consciousness, compassion and insight. I am in favour of having clinics, where psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy can be provided by professionals.