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Amanda Feilding: "Tobacco kills 100,000 a year - cannabis a handful throughout history"

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
Defining Moments
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
2012 Works in Guatemala


Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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Is the Catholic Church about to welcome the LGBT community?

Something beneath the surface is shifting in the Catholic Church regarding its attitude to gay people, as its Synod on the Family gets underway.

Is the Catholic Church reaching an LGBT tipping point? The short answer, for anyone so buoyantly optimistic as to expect the imminent arrival of Elton John whirling a thurible round his head and backed by a leather-clad heavenly choir, is: No!

The Catholic Church remains, for the most part, deeply suspicious of homosexuality: as for transgender, the word is that – despite the claims of mostly right-wing, reactionary evangelist types – the term, let alone the issue, has scarcely registered the quietest of blips on the Vatican radar.

Still, something is stirring: if this is not a tipping point, it may yet be the moment that the balance is beginning to shift towards greater, more open acceptance, which, by my calculation, might just break out sometime around 2030. And that’s 15 years hence – not half eight this evening...

Cause for optimism is the Synod of bishops on the Family, taking place in Rome on 4-25 October. Its theme is the distinctly unsexy “vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world”.

Its scope, set out at the conclusion of a previous session in October 2014, includes “the importance of affectivity in life” and “guiding engaged couples in their preparation for marriage”.  Important, but in the end, quite dry stuff.

What has set secular speculation off is the fact that also on the agenda are the “pastoral care for couples civilly married or living together”, as well as “pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual tendencies”.  Note the p-word: “pastoral”. It's key to understanding what is at stake here: what the bishops might be debating, and what they cannot.

This body cannot change policy: cannot, in the jargon of the church, address “doctrinal issues”. Pastoral is about how we treat people: whether, for instance, the Church should exclude divorced and remarried couples from receiving Communion; whether a woman requires absolution at bishop level before she may be reunited with the Church, or whether her parish priest may suffice; whether a gay couple may attend mass together.

Secular readers may, at this point, shrug and decide the whole thing is beyond them. Yet that is to ignore the importance that faith continues to play in the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over. These things matter: they have an impact on individual lives and they influence, and are influenced by, the politics of each country in which the Church exists.

Moreover, how these things are managed reflect two very different ideas of what the Church should be and the role it should play in people's lives. Reformers and liberals, one of which Pope Francis is widely considered to be, seek guidance in the New Testament. They look to  evidence, particularly in the gospels, that sin is an individual issue, a matter between God and the person concerned, and not for other humans, however imbued with book learning they are, to judge.

Others take a different, more dogmatic view. Some might even characterise it as pharisaic: a tendency towards strict observance of the rules with little regard for the spirit. This is why the constant drip of stories about how Pope Francis has extended the hand of welcome to those traditionally considered sinful – phoning a divorced woman and telling her she can receive communion, or hugging a trans man – are significant.

So much for the split – and it is significant – within the Church. Though you’d be hard-pressed to understand this in classic political terms. The accepted gloss is that this Synod is all about learned debate. There is no lobbying, and absolutely no playing out of the issues in the wider press arena.

Do not be fooled for an instant. Lobbying is going on behind the scenes. But not as we know it.

Over the weekend, the news lit up with the removal from office of Monsignor Krysztof Olaf Charamsa, a gay priest who rather unhelpfully came out shortly before the Synod. Far more significant was the launch in Rome of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics (GNRC), attended by over 120 people, and including an interview with former Irish President Dr Mary McAleese and a keynote closing address by Bishop Raul Vera from Mexico.

Pressure is being applied, and the quieter the pressure, the more confident you suspect are those behind the pressure. The letter from the GNRC to the Synod contained no demands; was little more than a gentle wave, a nod to say that LGBT Catholics exist – and they are not going away.

In the wake of the 2014 Synod, the Pope wrote openly of the twin "temptations" that the Church needed to avoid. There was, he suggested, a need to "chart a middle course between 'hostile inflexibility' to the letter of the law and a 'false sense of mercy'”.

Hence the many, many cryptic references to be found, these past months, in the Catholic press to the “need for mercy” or, conversely, “the danger of too much mercy”.

In practical terms, this is about keeping the Church together, while managing expectations both inside and out as he does so.

The first Synod, attended by the most senior clerics in the Catholic hierarchy, still managed to open up some radical discussion around the issue of gay people within the Church. This second Synod, which includes input from bishops and lay people, is widely expected to be significantly more radical – and while that may find favour across broad swathes of the Western Church, it must also contend with the fact that in numeric terms, the Catholic Church now draws heavily from Africa and Eastern Europe, where views on LGBT issues are far more conservative.

Already, the Vatican press office has revealed that bishops have said they feel the need to change the language used by clergy with regard to gay people, cohabiting couples or, in the case of some African nations, polygamous marriages.

That may seem little to those of us used to the straightforward democratic battles for equal marriage and LGBT rights. It is, within the Catholic Church, a shift of tectonic proportions: and the Synod still has two and a half weeks to run!

Jane Fae is a trans activist who is also a practising Catholic. In the run-up to the synod, she co-ordinated the writing of a document on transgender in the Church for key attendees at the synod – and later this month she hopes, along with other trans Catholics, to be meeting with senior officials of the Catholic Church in England.

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.