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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

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.