Below is the text of Amanda Feilding’s introductory address at the Psychedelic Science Conference 2013. The Beckley Foundation, which Amanda founded and directs, was a co-host of the conference along with MAPS, Heffter, and the Council for Spiritual Practices. Read Amanda’s main talk here. Videos of both talks will be available soon.
How nice to be here! Thank you MAPS for all your organisation of this event! What a lot has happened over the last two years. At last, touch wood, the tide appears to be on the turn, in both science and policy. And, finally, the potential benefits of psychedelics are beginning to be recognised.
In 1998, I became a foundation – a course of action I highly recommend to you all! I set up the Beckley Foundation to work in two complimentary areas – science and policy.
The aim of the Policy Programme was to reform global drug policy, by encouraging evidence-based policies founded on the principles of health, harm reduction, cost-effectiveness and human rights.
The aim of the Scientific Programme was to break the taboo on scientific research into how the psychedelics and cannabis affect brain-function and consciousness, and into how they might be used to benefit mankind.
It has been a long, hard journey, but finally we are seeing results in both policy and science – each feeding the other.
Over the last two years, the Beckley Policy Programme has achieved some exciting breakthroughs. In 2011, we launched our Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform, with an international conference at the House of Lords in London, and a Public Letter calling for an end to the War on Drugs, and for new approaches based on scientific evidence. The Letter has been signed by 7 former Presidents, including Jimmy Carter, and 2 ruling Presidents, by 12 Nobel laureates and dozens of global notables, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In 2012, I was invited by President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala to advise him and his government on how to reform drug policy, so as to lower violence and corruption. To that end we produced a report Paths for Reform, which he announced at Davos. I also advised the President to convene a Summit of Latin American Presidents, to be chaired by Jimmy Carter. This Summit will take place later this year, at the Mayan pyramid of Tikal in Guatemala. It will be chaired by Presidents Perez Molina and Jimmy Carter, and by George Soros.
The President of Guatemala is the world’s leading advocate for the reform of global drug policy. The ill-conceived prohibitionist policies of the last 50 years have caused more global suffering than any other policy. The time has now come for drug policies to be based on scientific evidence, and for the scientific community to open up the doors of research into the potential benefits of psychoactive substances.
Consciousness is the core of our being. Psychedelic compounds have the capacity to change this core, so as to loosen it from the constraints of its conditioning, and open it up to new fields of awareness.
Our ancient forebears recognised the value of these altered states of consciousness, and made them the central core of their society – out of which religion, culture and healing grew.
Modern man has made a terrible mistake by criminalising this magic key to man’s deeper soul, a key which opens up his capacity for greater compassion, awareness and creativity.
We here today are incredibly lucky to be at the forefront of the task of correcting this mistake and opening up the potential for society to make use of this most valuable aid.
It is only by gaining a scientific understanding of how these substances work in the brain that we will be able to free them from the misconceptions of the taboo, and harness their capacity to help man overcome some of his problems and develop more fully.
In the 1950s and 60s, LSD was hailed as the new wonder drug for psychotherapy and the development of a better understanding of consciousness. Its prohibition in 1967 ended this scientific flowering. Ethical approvals became virtually impossible to obtain. Scientists, institutions and funders shunned the field for fear of jeopardising their reputations.
I grew up in the 1960s, before psychedelics became illegal. I recognised LSD as an incredible enhancer of potential, an opener of doors to new fields of awareness and cognition, and to emotional and spiritual development. I realised the importance of gaining scientific understanding into how these powerful substances work in the brain, and how they might best be used for the benefit of mankind.
It was incredibly sad to see the cancer of prohibition spread under the banner of the War on Drugs. Not only have these prohibitionist policies caused devastating collateral damage to public health, society and human rights, but they have also prevented 80% of the world’s population having access to pain-killing medication, and have blocked one of the most promising fields of scientific research, in a manner reminiscent of the excesses of the Inquisition.
I was highly aware of the absurdity of the classification system for drugs in the UK and the US. In 2003, I approached the leading British neuroscientist, Professor Colin Blakemore, to propose a new classification system for drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, which would evaluate both the harms and benefits of each substance. But the concept of benefits was at that time taboo, so no research into them had been done.
So, at the Beckley seminar in 2003, Colin presented a paper describing “A Scientifically-based scale of Harm for all Social Drugs.” This scale was later developed by Professor David Nutt – who happily will be here on Sunday to talk about the Beckley/Imperial Scientific Programme – and in 2009 this paper was published in the Lancet, and has since become internationally influential.
It demonstrates the fact that the current scheduling of drugs – on which sentencing is based – has no scientific basis. Alcohol, which currently kills 2.5 million people globally each year, and tobacco, which kills 5 million, are legal, while MDMA and the psychedelics, which kill hardly anybody, are in the highest schedule of harms, defined as having no medical use, and attracting jail sentences whose length would make even Stalin hesitate.
Now at last we are beginning to build the evidence base of those benefits – and that is something to celebrate. However, although the process has begun, there are still enormous obstacles because of the illegal status of these substances, which makes them fantastically difficult and expensive to work with. Under the UN drug conventions, the severity of control of these compounds is on a par with that for nuclear weapons!
On Sunday afternoon, I will be presenting, with our collaborators, two projects from the Beckley Foundation’s Scientific Programme.
Firstly, Roland Griffiths, Matt Johnson and I will be talking about our collaboration at Johns Hopkins, the first pilot study in modern times to use a psychedelic as an aid in overcoming addiction – in this case using psilocybin to overcome nicotine addiction. The results so far have been outstandingly successful. They show that with the aid of psilocybin, psychotherapy can overcome even the most treatment-resistant addiction. They also demonstrate how valuable it would be to follow up this pilot study with a full clinical trial.
Secondly, David Nutt, Robin Carhart-Harris and I will be discussing the latest exciting developments in the Beckley/Imperial Psychopharmacological Research Programme, which has now completed some pioneering neuro-scientific studies into the effects of psilocybin and MDMA. These studies provide important new insights into how these compounds alter brain-function, thereby adding to our understanding of that most elusive but central concept – consciousness.
Our psilocybin studies showed, for the first time, how, in the resting state, psilocybin reduces the blood-flow, particularly to the Default Mode Network, the DMN. This system sits at the top of the brain’s hierarchy, exerting a top-down control of other brain regions, which feed their information into the DMN, to be either repressed or routed onwards. This Default Mode Network is a major part of the physiological basis of the ego & super-ego, as described by Freud.
Interestingly, the subjective strength of the psychedelic experience was correlated with the degree of reduction of blood supply to the Default Mode Network.
By reducing the blood-flow to the DMN, and reducing its repressive activity, sensory and emotional impulses which would normally be repressed can reach consciousness, and users experience a more spontaneous and unconstrained mode of thinking – a more fluid and plastic state of consciousness. This state more readily allows access to areas of the brain normally kept repressed. There is a loosening of ego-boundaries, so that the distinction between inner and outer worlds becomes blurred.
This facilitates access to more spiritual and novel modes of thinking, and to repressed trauma.
The Default Mode Network comprises high-level cortical centres that are highly connected to each other and to sub-cortical systems. These centres include the medial pre-frontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. Interestingly, the medial prefrontal cortex is hyper-active in depression, and the fact that psilocybin reduces its activity, suggests that psilocybin could be a novel treatment for depression. This discovery has resulted in the UK Medical Research Council providing over £500,000 to undertake a clinical study to further investigate the treatment of depression with psilocybin.
Our MDMA study has shown how MDMA reduces blood supply to the limbic area and how it results in the experience of positive memories being more positive than with placebo, and in the experience of negative memories being less painful. This gives a neuroscientific explanation of why MDMA can be such a valuable ally in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: it both facilitates access to repressed memories, and makes them less painful to recall and therefore easier to work through and re-integrate into consciousness.
The Beckley/Imperial College research programme has thus already provided:
- new understandings about consciousness itself;
- a promising new pathway for treating one of the scourges of our time – depression;
- and a new scientific explanantion of why MDMA and psilocybin can provide such invaluable aids to the psychotherapy of mental trauma.
Looking forwards, we have recently received ethical approvals for the world’s first study to investigate the effects of LSD using the latest brain-imaging technology – fMRI and MEG. I so look forward to not only researching how LSD can help treat many of man’s mental and physical illnesses, but also how it can help stimulate creativity and a higher level of awareness – less constrained by the shackles of conditioning…And after LSD, we will investigate the effects of ayahuasca and cannabis.
And finally, as today is the 70th anniversary of Albert Hofmann’s first intentional LSD trip, I am happy to announce that the Beckley Foundation and Oxford University Press have just co-published a new edition of Albert’s book, LSD My Problem Child and Insights/Outlooks, beautifully translated by Jonathan Ott.
Read Amanda’s main talk here