How YOU have paid to help legalise mind-bending party drugs (because your taxes have been spent testing their use for depression)
They were the mind-altering drugs of the Sixties, but now lysergic acid diethylamide (better known as LSD), magic mushrooms and a range of other banned psychedelic drugs are making a comeback.
Not on the party scene, but as the focus of researchers who believe they could treat a variety of mental health problems, including depression.
British researchers are at the forefront of this renaissance of hallucinogenics. But, as Good Health can reveal, a key organisation funding their work is a pressure group with a parallel agenda.
Would you try them? British researchers are at the forefront of this hallucinogenics revival
In addition to supporting research into the potential therapeutic benefits of banned drugs, the Beckley Foundation — created by Amanda Feilding, a wealthy countess who’s spent a lifetime advocating the benefits of LSD — is working ‘to erode the pervasive taboo surrounding . . . recreational drug use’.
It would be wrong to dismiss the ‘Cannabis Countess’ (who’s previously advocated legalising the drug) as simply a colourful character.
For here we reveal the extent of her influence in this controversial area, both in funding the research and also actively participating ‘in the inception, design, and writing up’ of no fewer than 37 studies — despite the fact that she has no scientific qualifications.
In 2012, there were just 58 papers exploring the effects and possible medical benefits of LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and ayahuasca, a mind-altering plant used in rituals by Amazon tribes. In the past year alone, there have been at least 135.
In the vanguard are researchers at Imperial College London. Known as the Psychedelic Research Group, they’re exploring the potential of banned drugs for treating conditions including depression and even for dealing with grief.
One of the key figures is David Nutt, the psychiatrist and professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial who, in 2009, had to resign as the government’s chief drugs adviser after he said that LSD, ecstasy and cannabis were less harmful than alcohol.
Since then, Professor Nutt has collaborated with the Beckley Foundation and its founder Feilding — the two are co-directors of what is described by the foundation as the Beckley Imperial Research Programme. Despite lacking scientific qualifications, Feilding is co-author of 24 papers published by researchers at Imperial College London and is one of the 32‑member team of the Psychedelic Research Group, as is Professor Nutt.
Momentum: In 2012, there were just 58 papers exploring the effects and possible medical benefits of LSD, but in the past year alone there have been at least 135
Feilding’s involvement may raise a serious question about her foundation’s twin agendas.
On its website, it seeks donations to ‘support psychedelic research’, but also ‘drug policy reform’. Feilding herself insists that the war on drugs has failed and has campaigned tirelessly for reform.
In Jamaica, where Feilding has a house, the foundation played a role in the government’s decision to decriminalise cannabis.
At a conference in 2015, Feilding expressed the hope that ‘the United Kingdom will learn some lessons from Jamaica’s progress, and will at least begin by recognising the rights of those in need of access to cannabis for medicinal and religious purposes’.
But more disturbing, perhaps, is her support for ‘microdosing’, where small amounts of psychedelics are taken supposedly to achieve greater creativity; worryingly, some are reportedly using it to treat depression and anxiety.
At a psychedelics conference in the U.S. last year, Feilding spoke of her use of LSD when younger to ‘hit that sweet spot, where vitality and creativity are enhanced’, a practice she compared to ‘what people are now doing with microdosing’.
She added that microdosing ‘may indeed be the way we break down barriers, and make the psychedelic experience more accessible to people at large’.
Another member of the Beckley Imperial Research Programme with links to the countercultural aspects of psychedelic drugs is Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, a frequent co-author on papers with Feilding.
In 2016, he addressed a London conference of The Psychedelic Society, which ‘advocates the careful use of psychedelics as a tool for personal and spiritual development’ (such drugs, it says, are banned solely ‘on the basis of unsubstantiated health risks and tabloid hysteria’).
This isn’t the first time scientists have experimented with mind-altering drugs for mental health conditions. Between 1954 and 1965 psychiatrists at British hospitals used LSD to treat patients. This ended in 1966, when it was banned amid fears it caused delusions and suicidal thoughts.
But according to Professor Nutt, clinical use and studies before the ban showed that patients with disorders such as depression had ‘sometimes benefited considerably’ from the ability of ‘the classical psychedelic drugs . . . to “loosen” otherwise fixed, maladaptive patterns of cognition and behaviour, particularly when given in a supportive, therapeutic setting’.
New frontier? Experts are exploring the potential of banned drugs for treating conditions including depression and even for dealing with grief
He believes such drugs ‘may have a place in the treatment of neurotic disorders, particularly depressive disorder, anxiety disorders, addictions and in the psychological challenges associated with death’.
But for psychedelic treatment to become a reality, what’s needed are large-scale scientific trials. Now, thanks to the support of the Beckley Foundation, that’s about to happen.
Imperial’s Psychedelic Research Group has been recruiting patients with long-term depression for a major trial comparing the effects of a six-week course of the antidepressant escitalopram with a single dose of psilocybin. Dr Carhart-Harris, Professor Nutt and Feilding are the leading members of the research team.
Imperial wouldn’t say if funding is forthcoming from the Beckley Foundation for this study. But in a response to a Freedom of Information request we sent, it revealed that since 2009 it has received ‘a total of £108,519’ from the Foundation for ‘research projects’.
Public funding has also been provided for psychedelic research. In 2012, the Medical Research Council (MRC) gave Professor Nutt £500,000 for research into psilocybin to treat major depression.
The next year they gave him £250,000 for a study on psilocybin and schizophrenia. And the National Institute for Health Research, the research arm of the NHS, told us it funded ‘a small proportion’ of Professor Nutt’s salary.
The new trial follows on from a series of studies by Professor Nutt and colleagues at other UK institutions since 2010 involving psilocybin for depression.
Some involved healthy volunteers. But then, in 2016, a team from Imperial, University College London, Barts Health NHS Trust, King’s College and the Maudsley Hospital conducted the first trial with patients.
Involving just 12 people, it was designed to investigate the safety and feasibility of psilocybin for major long-term depression.
As The Lancet Psychiatry reported, eight of the patients were ‘depression-free’ one week after treatment; five were still clear after three months. But all experienced ‘transient anxiety’ and nine also reported ‘transient confusion or thought disorder’.
Last December, Compass Pathways, a new UK company whose expert advisers include Dr Carhart-Harris and Professor Sir Alasdair Breckenridge, former chair of the drug watchdog the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, announced a programme of clinical trials of psilocybin.
In the past few years, the Psychedelic Research Group has also looked at the potential use of drugs such as LSD.
But are yet more drugs, not least mind-altering psychedelic ones, really the solution for conditions such as depression?
In fact, the recommended treatment is psychological therapy. But as the British Medical Association found this year, thousands of patients with serious mental health problems were waiting up to two years for treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Too often ‘the only thing on offer to patients with depression is medication, which often has significant unwanted side-effects and does not help everyone’, says Anne Cooke, editor of the British Psychological Society report, Understanding Psychosis And Schizophrenia.
As for the use of psychedelics to treat mental health problems, Ms Cooke, a consultant clinical psychologist at Canterbury Christ Church University, adds: ‘My understanding is they could be used as an adjunct to psychological therapy, to try to help the person enter a frame of mind where they can make best use of the therapy.
‘But the same can sometimes be achieved by other means, such as relaxation methods. And, as we know, these drugs can also have adverse effects, so it’s important to exercise caution.’
Paul Kinderman, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool and a member of the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry, agrees drugs such as psilocybin ‘might help’ encourage ‘flexible thinking’.
He’s even advising a European research project looking at psilocybin for depression.
But he says it’s ‘important we’re very cautious with drugs such as psilocybin and LSD’ and says he’s ‘pretty sceptical’ generally about drug treatments for mental health: ‘I really worry that a lot of people in the mental health system have been prescribed too large quantities of too many drugs for too long.’
Amanda Feilding declined to comment.
IT’S A BACK-DOOR ATTEMPT TO ALTER DRUG LAWS, SAYS DR MAX PEMBERTON
Warning: Dr Max Pemberton has expressed concern over the possible changes
I’m all for keeping an open mind about how drugs can be used. Even drugs that were once considered dangerous can, in certain circumstances, have benefits.
Thalidomide, banned after it was found to cause birth deformities, has made a comeback as an effective treatment for certain types of lung cancer, for example.
But I have profound reservations about this sudden interest in illegal drugs and fear it will erode our drug laws further.
As a doctor who has worked in drug addiction, this makes me profoundly uneasy. Time and again I have seen the destruction these drugs can cause.
Yes, of course, substances such as alcohol are also very dangerous. But that’s not a reason to decriminalise other drugs, too.
It’s perfectly possible that illegal recreational drugs could have a medical use; a major analysis suggested LSD can help in alcoholism. But there are many other drugs that help and which don’t have the potential for abuse or psychiatric complications.
What makes me suspicious is that the resurgence of interest in recreational drugs for mental health conditions hasn’t sprung out of new research or a new discovery about how the brain works.
Why focus on recreational drugs and not on developing new antidepressants, for example? It seems more of a fishing expedition to find results that support a certain view, rather than being led by a solid, scientific reason to research these drugs. We’ve seen a similar thing with cannabis. There’s no doubt it can help some with conditions such as epilepsy. Which is why scientists are trying to identify the specific component responsible and turning it into a medication that can be prescribed to help patients.
That’s what usually happens in medicine. For instance, the key ingredient in aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which was originally derived from the leaves of the willow tree.
But when someone has a headache, we don’t give them a bit of tree to chew on. We’ve identified the chemical responsible for the useful property and produced it in a tablet, where the dose and purity can be consistent. But rather than identify the components, campaigners insist we should simply legalise cannabis for medicinal use.
To me, this is just a back-door attempt to make recreational use legal, too.
I’m not convinced LSD even has any benefits. I’ve never met someone who’s used it and said to myself: ‘Well, that’s solved all your problems.’ Rather, too often I’ve come across regular users, typically in their 60s or 70s, and thought how odd they were. I’ve also met many who have spent significant periods in hospital as a result of drug use.
Making illegal drugs medically acceptable is the first step in making them socially acceptable. If decriminalisation is what you really want, at least be honest about it. Don’t try to use medicine to push a social agenda.
The blue-blooded brains behind it – with NO science qualifications!
Driving force: Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March
One of the driving forces behind the research into psychedelic drugs is Amanda Feilding, the 75-year‑old Countess of Wemyss and March.
She stood unsuccessfully for Parliament on the platform that trepanation — drilling a hole in the head — should be available on the NHS to allow people to experience a higher state of consciousness.
In a speech she gave to a conference on psychedelic drugs last October, Feilding said she ‘learned the value’ of regular doses of LSD back in the Sixties. She was able to ‘live and work on LSD, and in my opinion to see much further and deeper . . .I grew to love this state’.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Feilding as just eccentric.
She is a leading figure in the explosion of research into the ‘medicinal use’ of psychedelic drugs and a founder and co-director (with Professor David Nutt) of the Beckley Imperial Research Programme at Imperial College London, as well as working with other UK and international universities.
On the website of the Beckley Foundation, which she set up in 1996 as the Foundation to Further Consciousness, she is described as ‘the “hidden hand” behind the renaissance of psychedelic science’.
Since 2010, the foundation, which is based at Beckley Park — her spectacular stately home in Oxfordshire — has funded, or otherwise been involved in, the research for almost 60 papers published in scientific journals investigating the properties and therapeutic potential of illicit mind-altering drugs including LSD, ecstasy and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms).
‘None of it would have been possible without Amanda and the Beckley Foundation,’ Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, the head of Imperial’s Psychedelic Research Group, told a newspaper in 2015.
Good Health has learned that at least five British universities have accepted money from the foundation. Imperial College London has received £108,519 since 2009, while the University of Exeter received £11,488 for a study on cannabidiol (a component of cannabis).
The Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London was given £4,000, also for cannabis studies, and Cardiff University says the foundation has agreed to give it £50,000 to investigate ecstasy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
University College London (UCL) says it has ‘no record of any philanthropic donations from the Beckley Foundation or Amanda Feilding’. But between 2012 and 2015 Feilding collaborated with Val Curran, a professor of psychopharmacology at UCL.
One 2012 paper on cannabis, on which Professor Curran and Feilding are co-authors, clearly states the study was part-funded by the Beckley Foundation. Another paper published in 2013 and co-authored by Feilding looking at ‘the harms and benefits’ of psychoactive drugs acknowledges as ‘a potential conflict of interest . . . the study was funded by the Beckley Foundation which seeks to change global drug policy’.
The Beckley Foundation has a lot of money at its disposal. Accounts filed with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator show that between 2013 and 2017 it had an income of £2.26 million.
Since 2009 the foundation has supported the Beckley Imperial Research Programme which aims ‘to develop a comprehensive account of how substances such as LSD, psilocybin [and] MDMA [ecstasy] affect the brain to alter consciousness, and how they produce their potentially therapeutic effects’.
Feilding’s involvement doesn’t stop at funding. Despite confirming to Good Health that she has ‘no formal qualifications’, she is credited as a co-author on 37 academic papers published in journals ranging from The Lancet Psychiatry to the Journal of Psychopharmacology (24 of these papers, exploring the potential clinical uses of drugs including psilocybin, LSD and ecstasy, have been published in collaboration with Imperial researchers, including Professor Nutt and Dr Carhart-Harris).
On almost all of these 37 papers on which Feilding is a co-author, her foundation is acknowledged as having funded the research. Yet on almost none is her dual role recognised as a potential conflict of interest.
A spokesperson for the Beckley Foundation said that Feilding had ‘actively participated in the inception, design, and writing up’ of all the papers where she was a co-author. All had been peer-reviewed, ‘which
means that the scientific community at large is confident that these results speak for themselves, regardless of the author’s viewpoint or political position’.
Impact: Feilding’s influence extends to the upper reaches of the scientific community
But criticism of this unusual arrangement was voiced in January 2017 in a paper in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology, which queried the merits of a paper on psilocybin published by the Beckley Foundation-funded Imperial College team in the British Journal of Psychiatry in March 2012.
It said: ‘Since detailed information on conflicts of interest has not been provided scepticism may arise as to the role of such foundations [i.e. Beckley] in study design and execution, potentially biasing the results.’
Feilding’s influence extends to the upper reaches of the scientific community. Members of the Beckley Foundation’s scientific advisory board include Sir Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), which controls much of the public funding for medical research and which, since Sir Colin’s tenure ended, has funded Professor Nutt’s work with psilocybin to the tune of £750,000.
In its annual report for 2017, the Beckley Foundation celebrated the MRC’s backing as ‘the first time UK government funds have been allocated to a classic psychedelic study since before prohibition’.
Sir Colin has been a member of the board since 2001, including during his leadership of the MRC (from 2003 to 2007).
While still head of the MRC, Sir Colin was a co-author with Professor Nutt on a paper in The Lancet that challenged the classification of illegal drugs. ‘Some of the ideas developed in this paper,’ they wrote, ‘arose out of discussion at workshops organised by the Beckley Foundation.’
An MRC spokesperson told us: ‘Neither Colin nor the MRC saw his involvement with the Beckley Foundation as a conflict with his position at the MRC.’
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Beckley Foundation said it was ‘an inaccurate shortcut’ to suggest Feilding wanted banned drugs such as LSD legalised for recreational use. Rather, she believed ‘such drugs should be investigated thoroughly, both in terms of their safety and their therapeutic potential, and that their legal scheduling should be based on facts rather than ungrounded beliefs’.
Imperial College London, Amanda Feilding, Professor Nutt and Dr Carhart-Harris did not respond to requests for their comments.
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