The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Countess

Amanda Feilding has spent half a century tirelessly campaigning for the doors of perception to be open to all, and the tide is turning with recent psychedelics research

The ‘hidden hand’ behind psychedelic research almost never was. The first time Amanda Feilding encountered LSD in the mid-60s, a friend spiked her with an extremely high dose and she spent three months in a small hut at the end of her garden, convalescing from the shattering “psychic wound”. It was only when she was coaxed to a party with Ravi Shankar and met her former partner Bart Huges, a natural scientist, that she started properly experimenting with the drug. From that moment, her life was irreversibly altered. 

The colourful Countess of Wemyss and March has spent the past 50 years of her life campaigning for drug policy reform – specifically for further research into the scientific properties of psychedelics. Having argued for the doors of perception to be open to all for over half a century, Amanda’s hope has been renewed following breakthrough studies into depression and addiction, many of which have been funded by the Beckley Foundation, a research think-tank she created in 1998. Today, the Foundation works with heads of government, the UN and international scientific institutions including Johns Hopkins, Imperial, UCL and King’s College.

Port had the pleasure of talking to Amanda about the tested benefits of psychedelics, the devastation left by the US’ ‘war on drugs’ and how to create meaningful public conversations about psychoactive substances.

Photography Imogen Freeland

What are some of the health benefits of psychedelics?

I look at it as a new paradigm shift in psychiatry, because we haven’t had any new treatment coming out in the past 30 years. The action of psychedelics diminishes the blood circulation to the default mode network, which is the controlling, censorship part of the brain. They enable diverse areas of the brain to communicate with itself, communication which is normally suppressed. Consciousness becomes much more chaotic, rich and entropic, leading to greater creativity and malleability. It’s therefore much easier to overcome rigidly fixed patterns of behavior, such as addiction. Discussion based therapy and SSRIs (anti-depressants) don’t dig deep enough, they just manipulate the surface. SSRIs are a temporary suppression and often flatten your whole existence, sometimes with very bad side effects. Whereas the side-effect afterglow of psychedelic treatment is extremely encouraging. People feel scores higher on subjects like mindfulness, compassion and love. The shadow they leave behind is a positive one.

How did this all begin?

I grew up outside of society and never felt part of a group, so when I started doing research into psychedelic compounds in 1966 and people scorned me, I didn’t mind. But then I watched the ‘war on drugs’ come and block it totally. The campaign and its legislation was all based on false evidence and I knew when that door shut it would be a devastating mistake. Indeed, it’s been over 50 years of total disaster, causing suffering and pain at every level.

In 1998, I thought I could be more effective as a Foundation, doing scientific research into the mechanisms underlying the actions of psychedelics – how do they work and bring about alteration in consciousness? It’s been an uphill struggle because it’s classed as a schedule one substance, meaning it supposedly has no medical value and is highly dangerous, when in fact the opposite is true. Over the years, the Beckley Foundation’s collaborations have produced some very interesting studies. One used psilocybin as an aid in overcoming treatment resistant depression and it had a 67% success rate, dropping to 42% after three months. Another used psilocybin assisted treatment for nicotine addiction, which saw a 80% success rate – that’s unheard of. Great societies, if you look back in time, had a respectful use of psychedelics at their core, like classical Greece and Rome, India, Egypt, Pre-Columbian America. It’s got an impressive history and isn’t a new-fangled thing that’s just cropped up.

Amanda Feilding with Birdie, London, 1971

How did the ‘war on drugs’ come about and what’s next?

Harry J. Anslinger was the the first commissioner of America’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. At the end of alcohol prohibition, the poor man suddenly found himself without a job and nowhere to put his aggression. Very conveniently he found illegal drugs which had a connection with minority groups, both socially and racially. The US wrote the conventions and dictated them to the UN, which have stood like Moses’ words from God, carved in stone. Despite the fact they have $100 billion thrown at them every year, drug use has gone up. Not only that, but America now has the double hat of prohibiting other countries from breaking the convention, but making billions through their own cannabis industry. It’s a mad hatters tea party. Stopping little countries like Jamaica from exporting cannabis, because they want it in their hands, is sheer hypocrisy. All my reports, to the UN or otherwise, have shown that draconian drug policy doesn’t in any way stop people from taking drugs, it just makes things worse.

What is holding back research into psychedelics?

Money. I’ve had the Beckley Foundation working at the forefront of this field and I’ve done it on almost no money. Researching a schedule one compound is infinitely more expensive as you have to give it in hospital settings. Even a microdose – it’s crazy. I’ve got a lot of life changing studies that I want to do, but I’m sometimes held up by their lack of specificity. These compounds can act in all sorts of different areas and to bring them into regulated licensed medicine you would have to spend millions, potentially even a billion. The Foundation’s exploratory studies in neuro-plasticity and anti-inflammation could in time become treatment for diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, if they were funded properly. Apart from treating physiological illness, the other side of the coin is that psychedelic assisted therapy could enhance wellbeing, helping people to be more creative, productive or spiritual. However, I don’t think the use of psychedelics or cannabis is for everyone. It’s a minority sport, but society should accept that there are a minority that want to explore consciousness and bring back learnings for the rest of us.

In an ideal world, what does the future of drug legislation look like in the UK?

Decriminalising all drugs is the first, obvious step. We only have to follow the leadership of Portugal to see the how successful that is. Second, rescheduling or reclassifying drugs, which controls how they’re used and who can prescribe them. For thousands of years people have been using psychedelics and cannabis for medical advantage, it’s just ignorant and wrong to say they haven’t. LSD and psilocybin are among some of the best benign substances known to man – you can dose LSD several thousand times more than the normal dose and it doesn’t kill or hurt a person, it just comes on much stronger. That’s very unique. Alcohol and heroin, for comparison, have a very small gap between what you can take and what kills you. We need to build a new drug policy which is based on minimising harms and optimising potential. That demands a new perspective without unnecessary control.

Courtesy Amanda Feilding

How can we create more mature and meaningful public conversations about psychoactive substances?

The only way to overcome the taboo is to approach it through the very best science. Science is the new religion – if you can show through evidence how these things work and how they can benefit us, people will see the truth. The other thing is good publicity. For the past half century, Americans have grown up with an image of a fried egg sizzling in a pan – with someone saying ‘this is your brain’ – they’re terrified! Every death from MDMA has been front page news – despite the fact that roughly 7 million people die from tobacco a year. It’s wilful misinformation. However, I think there’s been a tidal shift in acceptance over last three years and we can’t turn back now. We’ve got the means at our fingertips if we continue with the research.