The psychedelic Countess on a mushroom mission to free your mind
Originally published in the Evening Standard
I do not doubt for one moment the absolute sincerity of the drugs campaigner Amanda Feilding, aka Lady Neidpath, Countess of Wemyss and March. Nor the good sense in her argument that narcotics should be scientifically studied, decriminalised, and licensed and regulated by the state for medical or recreational use as appropriate — a “sensible” alternative to the vast waste of lives and money in the unwinnable War on Drugs. But I can see how easy it is for her opponents to demonise the 70-year-old as a batty aristo.
The ex-artist and mother of two is the product of one grand family, traceable back to Charles II, and she married, aged 53, into another, richer one, which gives her clipped pronouncements on social policy a distinct whiff of de haut en bas. A pivot-point in her bohemian life came when she drilled a hole in her own skull in 1970: her long-term partner and father of her sons, Chelsea gallerist Joseph Mellen, and her husband Jamie Charteris, Lord Neidpath, have also had it done. Feilding still believes trepanation is an important tool in the study of consciousness, which is the root of all her work, but prefers not to talk about it in case it gives ammo to her political enemies.
Much of her life has been dedicated to the idea that psychoactive drugs such as psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), LSD and cannabis, as opposed to heroin and cocaine, can do good as well as harm. So this is an exciting time. The Medical Research Council has stumped up £550,000 for Professor David Nutt’s team at Imperial College to test the use of psilocybin to treat depression. This was on the basis of earlier research by Nutt initiated and funded by the Beckley Foundation, which Feilding set up in 1998 and runs from her ancestral Tudor home outside Oxford.
The early tests showed that in subjects at rest, psilocybin decreased blood supply to a system in the brain called “the default mode network, which is the modern terminology for the ego”. This means the brain becomes “looser, more anarchic, but it also means that the repression is lessened, so that traumatic memories can be accessed and cleaned out”. It ties in with similar research the Beckley is running with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore into the use of psilocybin alongside psychotherapy to deal with treatment-resistant addiction, in this case smoking. “So far we have got a more or less 100 per cent success rate,” enthuses Feilding.
These tests couldn’t have happened 10 years ago because the brain-imaging technology wasn’t available and nor was the political will. Back in 2002 Feilding suggested to neuroscientist Colin Blakemore that they devise a scale of harm and benefits of psychoactive drugs. He pointed out that not just all the research but all the terminology only indicated the damage drugs did: the idea of benefits was anathema.
This she ascribes to a knee-jerk error of the Sixties. “LSD was discovered by Albert Hoffman in 1943, and it became in the Fifties the new wonder drug of doctors and psychotherapists,” she says. “Then, because it got out into the recreational world and was misused, and became associated with counterculture and revolution, that put it under taboo for 50 years. I think society made a mistake by simplifying the issue.” She set up the Beckley to work on both scientific research and social policy, believing the two are symbiotic.
Her argument is pretty straightforward: that criminalisation of drugs perpetuates the $50 billion worldwide trade and “destabilises countries, ruins the environment, makes people kill each other … The horrors on the Mexican-American border! People become completely inhuman, they can skin people, do horrible things. But if you take the policy harms out of the equation, the actual damage these substances cause in terms of the deaths they cause is pretty minimal.
“There is so much money involved in the illicit trade you cannot close it off. Surely the governments of the world must be able to regulate these things in a more harm-reducing way than criminal cartels whose only motive is profit? The success of a drugs policy should not be judged on how many people we imprison or how many drugs we capture at the border: health, harm reduction, cost effectiveness and human rights should be our aims.”
The day before we met, Archbishop Desmond Tutu had signed the Beckley Foundation’s public letter calling for a rethink of global drugs policy. Other signatories include the presidents of Colombia and Guatemala, several ex-premiers and former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, a host of Nobel Prize winners, Sir Richard Branson, Sting and Yoko Ono. Another signatory, founding president of Facebook and Spotify, Sean Parker, has given money to the Beckley, and Yoko Ono (Feilding’s accent renders it “Yerker Earner”) made a donation instead of a wedding present when Feilding’s son Rocky got married. But most of its money comes from other foundations: Getty, Soros, Flora. Lord Neidpath is hugely wealthy and landed and is “very supportive” but doesn’t chip in: “It’s not his thing.” So Feilding works herself “almost to my death, 15 hours a day, seven days a week, to raise every penny”.
Now the tide may be turning. The legalisation of cannabis in Washington state and Colorado “makes it harder for [the US] to criminalise the countries of Latin America. But progress is slow. If it was hard to win ethical approval for psilocybin tests, it’s even harder to get the stuff itself thanks to stringent EU regulations.
“No manufacturer wants to get involved in it: it’s too much paperwork for the tiny amount we need,” Feilding says. “So though one can go out and buy it on the street, one can’t get it for scientific research.”
It is still hard to have a grown-up, unhysterical conversation about drugs. One newspaper scented conspiracy this week in the fact that the Government’s current drugs czar, Professor Les Iversen, was listed on the Beckley’s advisory board. Nutt, his predecessor as drugs czar, was fired for stating that cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol and cigarettes, and ecstasy less risky than horse-riding. Feilding likens this to the Vatican’s treatment of Galileo.
She is a persuasive talker but what makes her such a complicated advocate — and an easy target for critics — is that her perspective seems incredibly rarefied. What does she know of crack dealers in Baltimore or youths smoking skunk in London squats? She is descended from the Earls of Denbigh and Desmond and grew up in Beckley Park with its three moats and extensive grounds. “We had absolutely no money, no heating, no petrol, no toys or friends or anything,” she insists. “No one came here: it was a frozen, isolated world.”
I ask what her father did: “Well, he did nothing. He was charming, he painted, he was a passionate lover of beauty and he kind of half-heartedly farmed.” The absolute lack of money is a recurring theme but she also tells me she bought Beckley Park off her siblings “when it came on the open market”, and our refreshments are brought by a factotum.
As a teenager, Feilding had “a passion for mystics and alternative religions” and left school at 16 with £50 in her pocket in search of a godfather whom she had never met but who had become a Buddhist monk in Ceylon. She never found him but had “amazing adventures, lived with the Bedouin in the desert”. Later, she taught herself about psychology and physiology and brain studies, and became a painter.
In 1966 she met the Dutch advocate of trepanation Dr Bart Hughes, and from the late Sixties she was living with Mellen, with whom she had two sons, Rock or “Rocky” (born 1979, and now a Conservative councillor in Kensington and Chelsea) and Cosmo (born 1985, and a film-maker). Her grisly trepanation is viewable online: she stood for Parliament in Chelsea in 1979 and 1983 on the single issue of getting the procedure provided by the NHS, getting 40 votes the first time and 139 the second.
I ask her what drugs she tried in her youth. “Well, before psychedelics were illegal I tried psychedelics, and came to recognise their great potential value but also their potential for damage if misused.” To you, or to others? “Um, both.” When I ask if she still indulges, she gives me a narrow look and says: “We live in a heavily criminalised society.” But she has been able to educate her sons “properly” about drugs, because they know she won’t bullshit them.
As for trepanation — no, neither her sons nor her husband’s children, Mary the model and Dick the lawyer (Lord Elcho), from Jamie’s first marriage to Catherine Guinness, have been drilled. But Feilding is conducting research in St Petersburg with Dr Yuri Moskalenko that seems to suggest the improved circulation of blood and cerebrospinal fluid attained through trepanation “washes out the big toxic molecules” that cause Alzheimer’s and dementia. Trepanation freed her husband, a former Oxford academic who taught international relations to Bill Clinton, from crippling headaches. “It’s been done in every culture since 10,000BC,” she says airily. “Then it got a bad name in the First World War when they started performing lobotomies.”
Feilding married her husband in 1995, at the Bent pyramid in Egypt: both remain “best friends” with her ex, Mellen. They divide their time between Beckley Park, his nearby Jacobean seat Stanway, and her house in Chelsea, which she has hung onto since 1965 for sentimental reasons: a pigeon chick she saved, and fed bits of Weetabix on the end of a paintbrush, returned there for 15 years.
I know, I know. All of this has nothing to do with her very earnest desire to improve our understanding of and attitude to drugs, here and worldwide. And sometimes I find myself thinking: if eccentric toffs didn’t undertake these crusades, who would? “Will you try not to make me sound a complete fool?” says Lady Neidpath graciously as I go. I hope I haven’t.