Chatting Cannabis With Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Psychedelic Science
Credit: Imogen Freeland
Dubbed the Acid Countess, the Queen of Consciousness, and the Countess of Psychedelic Science, Amanda Feilding’s greatest achievement may be how she surpasses her own regal reputation. Born heir to “Brainblood Hall”, a Tudor country estate where she still resides, Feilding’s life could read like one of the very LSD trips she’s famed for. From her teenage pilgrimage to meet her spy-catcher godfather in Sri Lanka, to her study of mysticism, to boring a hole in her own skull in an effort to expand her consciousness, the frenzied stories surrounding Feilding would put a ‘60s rock star to shame.
Unfortunately, these thrilling tales threaten to overshadow Feilding’s real legacy. Because behind the bohemian anecdotes stands a giant of drug research and policy reform.
“I set up the Beckley Foundation to enable scientific research and change global drug policy. And we’ve done both,” says Countess Feilding. First named the Foundation for Further Consciousness, Feilding’s Beckley Foundation is a think tank like no other. Based out of her own “Brainblood Hall”, the foundation leads pioneering research into psychoactive substances, while championing their benefits on the global drug policy stage.
“I organized meetings of international leaders from all disciplines; the home secretary would come, the head of NIDA (the National Institute of Drug Abuse), all sorts of key people,” she continues. “I held them at the House of Lords and they were very influential in helping form an evidence base, which is what we needed in order to reform drug policy. Because the international conventions impose prohibition not on scientific evidence but on expediency, prejudice, and convenience.”
Driven by this sharp critique of international regulations, Feilding went on to publish several influential reports, such as Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate, which according to the countess, became imperative in reforming US state laws; “I was told they used it as a Bible for changing their policies,” she says.
But while this destination of policy change was vital, for Feilding, it was the journey that was most inviting. “Actually, working on policy is my least favorite occupation,” she clarifies. “I only work on policy because I desperately want to work on the scientific understanding of the potential benefits of cannabis, and indeed, the psychedelics.”
This quest for a ‘psychedelic evidence base’ soon led Feilding to found several scientific studies into the benefits of psychoactive drugs. Beginning in 2005, she set up a research programme at the revered Imperial College London university with Professor David Nutt, a prominent drug policy reformer, notable in the UK for being sacked as the government's chief drug adviser after claiming that ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol.
Since then, the programme has published numerous studies to scientific acclaim. From showing how psilocybin (the psychedelic drug compound in ‘magic mushrooms’) can treat depression, to how LSD can modulate one’s ego, the programme’s unique research has helped lay the foundations of the UK’s psychoactive knowledge base.
And when it comes to cannabis, the Beckley Foundation may just have prompted more marijuana research than any other European institution. Over the past decade alone, it’s birthed studies showing how CBD can block the psychotogenic effect of THC, how THC’s effects might be related to poor communication between the brain’s right and left frontal lobes, and how cannabis use can even increase the divergent thinking associated with creativity. And it’s this last benefit, in particular, that’s emblematic of Feilding’s passion for her work.
“There are many benefits of changing consciousness, such as loosening the connections, being more creative, and open and able to think outside the box,” she says. But Feilding’s also keen to highlight how many people, particularly those within communities of color, have been unfairly treated for seeking these benefits. “It’s a very popular way of discriminating against minorities, particularly minorities of color, who then go to prison, both in England and America at a much higher rate than Caucasians,” she adds. “So it's been a very, very damaging period.”
Of course, for the people disproportionally arrested for marijuana possession and for the long-time campaigners like Feilding, this damaging period is still far from over. The fight to end prohibition and prejudices is still to be won. “The first move should definitely be to decriminalize the use of drugs,” she states. Citing the progressive drug policies of Portugal under the government of António Guterres, Feilding stresses that the UK and other countries’ restrictive laws are in desperate need of similar reform, if not more radical. “They’ve had amazing results; from being the highest death rate in Europe they’re now among the lowest. But they haven't yet regulated it.”
“And there are many economic advantages in a regulated market,” she continues. “Our report showed that over a billion pounds was a fairly minimum starting point of what the government would gain in regulating and taxing cannabis. Because the cost of cannabis is quite low. The trouble is now, in the regulatory system that is being created at the moment, the cannabis is coming out extremely expensive, which stops people being able to purchase it. And that again is a mistake. It should be available at a reasonable price.”
Whether the UK progresses to an affordable, regulated cannabis market remains to be seen. But in these unique times when other countries are fully legalizing marijuana and new industries are springing up around it, a prohibition-free future may just be possible. Until then, this 76-year-old campaigner still has work to do.
“It's a wonderful gift of nature, which prohibition has obstructed making use,” she says. “Many traditional cultures have used it for millennia and hopefully we will learn from them and introduce it into our cornucopia of pharmacological treatments. And not criminalize people who decide that they find it beneficial to their wellbeing. So, I think we're on right side of the tide turning. And that's the wonderful thing.”