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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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How to criticise the left

Thanks to the internet, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us.

If you use Twitter a lot, you may have wondered exactly how to criticise large parts of the left without sounding like a bigot, a racist, or worst of all Richard Dawkins. 

The legacy of what the internet calls “identity politics” is that the lived experience of an individual now not only informs a given debate, as well it should, but dominates it, leaving no room for dissent.

Coupled with the binary nature of the internet, in which layered ideas are pounded flat by the limitations of the format, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us. There are no in-betweens.   

For instance, even advocates of political correctness (as I am) often concede that the use of inclusionary language can potentially be wrongheaded or clumsy. Yet anyone caught contravening the latest iteration of an increasingly esoteric cant is blacklisted as a witch, a heretic, a mansplainer, a “whorephobe”, Richard Littlejohn, or a similarly unflattering slur.

It leads to a question: is this hectoring attitude towards cultural shibboleths likely to alienate well-meaning middle-grounders from ever truly engaging with the ideas?

Not that engagement is always the objective. The development of stylesheets to define a person’s credentials is also a defensive weapon – if someone lacks the argumentative tools to tackle an idea, they can discredit the person having the idea instead. It’s an excuse for emotional, rather than critical, thinking. “Why,” a leftist might ask today, “should I engage with Peter Hitchens on immigration or drug law, when he’s a Tory/racist/space alien?”  Twitter is lousy with people who know the answer before they’ve asked the question.

Equally the internet is a great way of insulating yourself against challenging ideas, and you can even become something of a left-wing darling among choirs of like-minded peers. But no matter your cachet within the hierarchy of progressiveness, will you ever be qualified to reliably discuss Beethoven if you’ve only ever listened to the Dead Kennedys? 

The reason I feel the need to analogise is that creativity is required to express ideas in an age where words and ideas can quickly become taboo. Try having a grown-up conversation about freedom of speech or immigration or austerity without the debate quickly descending into a face-off around each word’s representative categorical implications. Unironic use of the words free speech mark you as a libertarian, your stance on immigration makes you either pro or anti racism, and what you think about austerity implies whether or not class privilege courses inexorably through your veins. I am using this garish italicisation as is customary for non-integrated foreign words, because at this point they may as well be: these words have no longer have any original or literal meaning but represent only a wider cultural idea, like saying plus ca change or c'est la vie. 

Without doubt, this is a result of use, misuse and overuse, the sucking until flavourless the sour and sweet confectionary of political rhetoric. Powerful, provocative words cannot enjoy unlimited transplantations in and out of their intended context. Soon, the context will stop sticking, like worn-out velcro. We risk devaluing useful globules of language by repurposing them so often not as useful signifiers but as brands for the ideologically impure. 

This problem is by no means limited to the left – just look at how similarly right-wing parodies of social liberals miss the point of trigger warnings and safe spaces, warping the words beyond their intended uses – but the unifying factor of this context-free approach to language is that it makes criticism impossible without invoking some real or imagined transgression.

Think about when Charlie Hebdo recently published cartoons of Aylan Kurdi. The cartoons were many things – tasteless, offensive, upsetting – but instead the controversial magazine was accused of making fun of a young boy’s death. A cursory Google translation of the captions and an ounce of critical analysis confirms that this interpretation simply wasn’t true – but try typing that online without looking like you endorse Charlie Hebdo’s repugnant sketches. Like so much else, the answers to our questions of cultural morality exist in the spaces, where they can’t produce retweet-grabbing soundbites.

Maybe we should give up expecting balance in any criticism of the far left, the far right, or anyone. But we should always try to remember one of the things that separates us humans from pigs – chiefly, the ability to analyze a piece of communication critically. Tempting though it may be to allow emotions alone to decide our allegiances, mindlessly trotting in hundred-strong herds to whoever is offering the biggest pail of swill, we have the power to understand the world – and its language – objectively. We have the power to analyse and critique and discuss, beyond the scope of our base instincts. It’s a controversial thought these days, but perhaps if we remembered it more often, political discourse on the internet and beyond wouldn’t feel so much like Lord of the Flies.