In the past fifteen years there has been a growing resurgence of interest in the status and use of psychedelic drugs. Many older people associate them with the hippie culture of the late 60s. However, things have moved on considerably. And now there is a growing consensus, underwritten by a great deal of painstaking scientific and medical research at major academic institutions such as Imperial College, London, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, the University of Basel and Cardiff University, that these substances can actually be beneficial to an individuals's mental health if used in therapeutic, ritualistic or equivalent settings i.e. safe environments.
The psychedelic renaissance (for that is what it is) pays homage to earlier understandings of these remarkable drugs, but has also taken into account the narrowness of past interpretations whether simplistic, post-Freudian accounts of regression in the 1950s or idiosyncratic readings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the 1960s. Now we are able to see, courtesy of fMRI and other techniques, and map how psychedelics such as LSD (essentially derived from the ergot fungus), mescaline (peyote and other cacti), psilocybin (aka 'magic mushrooms') and DMT (involving ayahuasca vines and chakruna shrubs) and others affect the various networks in the brain and map them with subjective qualia.
In short, psychedelics have the capacity to provide us with privileged insight into how the brain works, how it is able to 'construct' reality but also, at the same time, our necessary sense of 'selfhood'. In addition, they shine a torch not just into what might be regarded as generic 'mystical experience', but also into the ultimate claims of all religions, that there is a 'Ground of Being' which at different times and in different ways people dare to call 'G-O-D'.
The first Breaking Convention took place at the University of Kent in 2011. In 2013 it moved to the The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich (part of the campus of the University of Greenwich) which is a wonderful setting, especially with the famous Royal Observatory being less than a mile away. So far the Convention has rightly resisted commercial sponsorship. However, it is suported by MAPS and The Beckley Foundation.
In the 1960s psychedelics tapped into the zeitgeist effortlessly. Now we live in harder, infinitely more challenging times, but the power and 'magic' of these drugs hasn't departed. Perhaps we need to tune in again as a matter of urgency?
Here are my talks in 2015 and 2017 which can also be found on Vimeo and YouTube respectively.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 is intended to restrict the production, sale and supply of a new class of psychoactive substances often referred to as "legal highs" within the UK. A number of informed people (including myself) had severe reservations about the scope and wording of 2015 Bill believing that it would not achieve its desired ends but simply make matters alot worse on our streets and within our penal institutions. It's early days but I believe our concerns were essentially correct. An open letter was published in The Times and a copy delivered to the then Prime Minister David Cameron. I was a co-signatory of the letter but also had a minor hand in its final drafting. Here is the relevant text:
Dear Prime Minister,
We the undersigned request that HM Government immediately reconsiders the proposed Psychoactive Substances Bill (2015).
Parliament is responsible for protecting citizens against the harms of drugs. However, the enactment of the Psychoactive Substances Bill would be deleterious to the freedoms, well-being and ultimate safety of UK citizens. The UN Drug Conventions were established under the assumption that prohibition would reduce drug use and therefore minimise drug-related harms. Instead, global drug use has increased significantly in the decades since these policies were incorporated into law. Many countries have witnessed the unintended and damaging consequences related to the dangers of an unregulated criminal market and the criminalisation of a large number of otherwise law-abiding citizens.
If enacted, the Psychoactive Substances Bill would be unlikely to reduce the market for new psychoactive substances (NPS), which are mostly sold “not for human consumption”. The law will place the market in the hands of unregulated criminal organisations; increasing the likelihood of violence between competitors over market control as well as driving market focus on products that are higher in price and potency. Unregulated illegal markets have no incentive to comply with quality assurance protocols and accurate labelling of products, resulting in increased health risks for users and a greater strain on the already overburdened National Health Service.
Medical science will suffer from the proposed legislation, just as it continues to suffer from the over rigid regulation of other controlled psychoactive substances. Scheduling psychoactive agents in a blanket ban will impede the development of novel psychiatric medicines and prevent vulnerable members of society from potentially benefiting from new treatments.
Furthermore, any legislation that prohibits the sale of all psychoactive compounds without proper consideration of their relative harms and benefits presents an unwarranted threat to the long-standing freedoms of UK citizens. It is not possible to legislate against all psychoactive agents without criminalising the sale of dozens of harmless, everyday products that produce changes in mood and behaviour, from fresh flowers and herbs to spices and incense.
If the Government is genuinely serious about reducing drug-related harms, it should ensure that policy-makers focus their attention on public health campaigns, wide-ranging educational initiatives, effective drug treatment strategies, and the adequate funding of relevant medical and scientific research.
Despite these concerns we welcome the fact that the Psychoactive Substances Bill does not target NPS possession for personal use and would strongly encourage the extension of this approach to the regulation of other psychoactive drugs. In general, however, we believe the bill to be very poorly drafted, unethical in principle, unenforceable in practice, and likely to constitute a real danger to the health and well-being of our nation’s citizens.
Prof. David Nutt Edmond J Safra Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology Imperial College, London
Prof. Julian Savulescu Director Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford
Prof. Barry Everitt Director of Research University of Cambridge
Prof. Richard Ashcroft Professor of Bioethics Human Rights Collegium, Queen Mary University of London
Dr Rowan Williams Master Magdalene College, Cambridge
Prof. Colin Drummond Chairman Faculty of Addictions, Royal College of Psychiatrists
Prof. Colin Blakemore Former Executive Director Medical Research Council, UK
Dr Ian M. Kenway Director Centre for Information Ethics and Public Policy
Prof. Graeme Henderson Professor of Pharmacology University of Bristol
Lord Rea President UK Health
Prof. Ilana Crome Professor of Addiction Psychiatry University of Keele
Prof. Celia Morgan Director Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology, University of Exeter
Dr James Rucker Lecturer in Psychiatry Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IOPPN)
Prof. Robin Mackenzie Professor of Law University of Kent
Prof. A. C. Grayling Master New College of the Humanities
Dr Adam Winstock Director Global Drugs Survey
Prof Ilina Singh Professor of Neuroscience & Society University of Oxford
Dr Charlotte Walsh Lecturer in Law University of Leicester
Dr Andrew Gallimore Neurobiologist University of York
Dr Melissa Bone Doctor of Law University of Manchester
Patrick Hennessey Barrister 39 Essex Chambers
Dominic Taylor Former Senior Officer Prison Service HQ, Ministry of Justice
Sam Branson Chairman Sundog Pictures
Dr Julian Huppert Former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Cambridge
Neil Woods Detective Sergeant, Chairman Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP UK)
Paul Flynn Labour Member of Parliament Newport West
Paul Whitehouse Chief Constable (retired) Sussex
James Duffy Chairman Strathclyde Police Federation
Francis Wilkinson Chief Constable (ret.) Gwent
Annie Machon Former Intelligence Officer MI5
Jonathan Liebling Political Director United Patients Alliance
Amanda Feilding Director Beckley Foundation
Dr Teri Krebs Board Leader EmmaSofia, Oslo
Niamh Eastwood Executive Director Release
Darryl Bickler Co-Founder Drug Equality Alliance
Martin Powell Head of Campaigns Transform Drug Policy Foundation
Dr Chris Ford Clinical Director International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies
Richard Todd Trustee DrugScience
Jason Reed Executive Director Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP UK) Producer The Culture High
Dr David Luke Senior Lecturer in Psychology University of Greenwich Co-Director Breaking Convention
Dr Ben Sessa Consultant Psychiatrist, Senior Research Fellow University of Cardiff Co-Director Breaking Convention
Dr Cameron Adams Research Associate in Anthropology University of Kent Co-Director Breaking Convention
Aimee Tollan Co-Director Breaking Convention David King Co-Director Breaking Convention
"The Change, It Had To Come" Psychedelic Research Today
LSD and magic mushrooms could heal damaged brain cells in people suffering from depression, study shows