For thousands of years, human beings have sought after and experienced altered states of consciousness. Meditation, sleep deprivation, fasting and the use of psychedelic substances have all been used in order to alter the mind and body’s regular functions and bring about these altered states. Until fairly recently, the physiological changes in the body underlying these effects, especially in regards to psychedelic substances, were largely unknown due to a significant lack of thorough research into them. Prohibition is largely to blame for this, as, ever since Richard Nixon first declared his ideological “war on drugs”, the availability of these substances for research and experimentation purposes sharply declined. Few researchers were willing to jump through all the hoops necessary to obtain them and thus psychedelics remained largely ignored up until the mid 90’s.
It is also interesting to note that many drug policies of governments around the world have tended to put psychedelic drugs into categories containing drugs that are far more harmful and for the possession of which penalties could be far more severe. Harm caused by substances like LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) or MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) pales in comparison to the likes of cocaine ((methyl (1R,2R,3S,5S)-3- (benzoyloxy)-8-methyl-8-azabicyclo[3.2.1] octane-2-carboxylate_), heroin ((5α,6α)-7,8-didehydro-4,5-epoxy-17-methylmorphinan-3,6-diol diacetate) and methamphetamine (N-methylamphetamine), so what reason could there be for this misallocation?
If we go back to the late 60’s, when LSD became largely associated with the countercultural movement happening in the US and the UK, it becomes easier to understand why governments would have wanted strict control over these drugs. At a time when people were being invited to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out”, the peace and love mentality was almost threatening cultural revolution and the powers that be needed a plan in order to keep these “acid freaks” compliant. Who would fight their wars and pay their taxes if we were all too busy gaining a deeper understanding of our inner selves and the hidden landscapes these substances reveal?
The 60’s, however, are long gone, and more and more people and professionals around the world are getting involved in the advocating of further research into psychedelics. Early pioneers such as Albert Hofmann and Alexander Shulgin laid the foundations for the next generation of scientists and researchers to build upon and one such organisation doing exactly that is the Beckley Foundation, based in Oxford in the UK. Founded in 1998 and directed by Amanda Feilding, the Beckley Foundation develops research into both drug science and drug policy reform. The majority of their scientific research focuses on the effects of psychoactive substances on the brain in order to learn more about consciousness and their effect on brain function, understand how best to minimise their potential harms and to discover and explore more about their therapeutic potential.
The Beckley Foundation’s policy programme is designed and dedicated to improving national and global drug policies, achieving this through research that increases understanding of the health, social and fiscal implications of drug policy, and the development of new, more rational evidence-based approaches.
“Ideally, countries would be allowed to move towards a system of strictly controlled legal regulation of all drugs, including psychedelics,” states Amanda Feilding.
This “would allow those that are interested in taking these substances to do so, safely and with the appropriate information to hand to make sure that any potential risks are minimised and that the value that the person gains from psychedelic experiences can be maximised. An important part of this is education, which must go hand-in-hand with responsible regulation.”
The work being done by the Beckley Foundation is truly ushering psychedelic science into a new era of discovery and their efforts, it would seem, have not gone unnoticed. Since 2008 the Beckley Foundation is also a non-government organisation in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, as well as being part of the Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs. In 2012, Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina invited Amanda and the Beckley Foundation to advise him and his government on drug policy reform and, in January 2013, they presented their initial drug policy proposals to the president and his key advisors.
The proposals were received enthusiastically and the Guatemalan government has since announced its determination to adopt many of the recommendations put forward. Although the problems caused by prohibition in Guatemala have far from vanished completely, Perez Molina’s administration has re-taken ownership of a policy that, until that time, had remained largely controlled by foreign powers, and he has been a world leader in the call for a new approach to international drug policy reform.
Progressive politics that enable the transition to rational, evidence-based policy are refreshing, however, there is undoubtedly still resistance from governments in many developed countries to re-evaluate attitudes towards what have become known as “dangerous drugs”.
“Whilst the intellectual battle may be for the most part won, in that many people around the world now accept the indisputable evidence that prohibition creates many more problems than it solves, there is much inertia around changing both national and international laws, which prevents real policy change.” States Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation.
According to Amanda Feilding, “At the very highest level, the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs obstructs countries around the world from experimenting with regulation and adopting evidence-based policies, as to do so would put them in breach of the Convention and potentially threaten their UN member status. This has led to complex situations where national policies of countries such as Bolivia and Uruguay lie at odds with international treaties, or systems such as those in the Netherlands where the legality of some substances is unnecessarily complicated so as not to breach the Single Convention.”
So what hope do we have of reforming these international conventions that make it deliberately unattractive to move towards adopting evidence-based policies? How can we facilitate and engage in opening up the debate on psychedelics?
In the UK, the Conservative government appears to be living in a dreamland in which prohibition is the only solution and the outright eradication of drug use the objective. Obviously, this is a foolish approach and one that should be fiercely challenged through public and academic opposition. “National and international policy will only change once public opinion is voiced loudly for drug policy reform, which in turn will only occur when the public know the facts and know what damage is being created by the current system.” Amanda explains. “This is a message the Beckley Foundation has worked hard to convey by producing evidence-based reports. We will keep doing this until the taboos around drug policy have been broken and those with the power to change drug policies and improve millions of lives start to listen to the voice of reason.”
Undoubtedly times are changing with regards to psychedelic drugs. Science is finally starting to debunk many of the myths associated with them and, with the help of organisations such as the Beckley Foundation, we could soon start to see the benefits of these misunderstood substances put to practical use. Amanda and the Beckley Foundation have successfully collaborated with Professor David Nutt at Imperial College and Professor Valerie Curran at University College London among many others. Their joint research has ranged from studying the effects of psychedelics on cerebral blood flow, the effects of cannabis on the brain with a view to possible therapeutic applications and the effects of psilocybin at combating addiction.
The results of these studies have been incredibly insightful and when asked where future research would be focused, Amanda informed me that, amongst other projects, Beckley was “currently collaborating with Dr Jordi Riba of Sant Pau Hospital in Barcelona on a project investigating the neurological functioning of ayahuasca, investigating its links to brain plasticity. We are also working with Dr Michael Bogenschutz of NYU on a project investigating the treatment of alcohol dependence with LSD-assisted psychotherapy – work that builds on research last carried out in the 1950s and 60s. We will also be drawing together our previous work on brain imaging studies of MDMA with pilot studies showing the efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in treating chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.
“These two studies have led to the first every brain imaging study to investigate the neurological mechanisms of action of MDMA in PTSD patients, which will be starting later this summer.”
We can only hope that future research into psychedelics continues to gain momentum and that organisations such as the Beckley Foundation continue to pave the way, as did the psychonauts before them, to a new era of discovery and that the shackles of global prohibition are soon ditched for harm reducing, evidence-based systems.