Self-confessed drugs laboratory Amanda Neidpath wants to change the
law. She tells why
October 19, 2008
It could be a scene from a photo shoot for Country Life. A log fire
crackles in the baronial hall of Beckley Park, Oxfordshire, a grand
Tudor house whose ancient walls are hung with tapestries. Large vases
cascade with fresh flowers. Outside, there is not one, but three moats.
The lady of the manor, Amanda, Lady Neidpath, is dressed in velvet
and tweed, with not a scrap of make-up on her face. Her appearance is
arresting, in a shabby-chic manner. Only when she opens her mouth to
speak is this deeply traditional scene somewhat shattered.
For this morning we are talking about her fondness for illegal drugs.
In the world of psychoactive substances, she is an acknowledged
expert: her charitable trust and think tank, the Beckley Foundation,
is devoted to the investigation of consciousness and the aim of
reforming drug policy. Which all makes perfect sense when I discover
she has spent a lifetime dabbling in mind-altering substances. As she
tells me enthusiastically: "I have always considered myself my own
This month her foundation published a 226-page document – the global
cannabis commission – that contains the measured considerations of
five internationally respected scientists on the use, prohibition and
control of cannabis. The commission's report, which cost her more
than £80,000, was launched with some fanfare at a conference in the
House of Lords, with grandees from the United Nations and the
European Union in attendance as well as leading scientists, legal
advisers and drugs specialists.
Neidpath hopes it will be the definitive guide to all available
evidence on the cannabis issue. It doesn't quite recommend that the
drug be legalised, but urges the lifting of criminal convictions for
use or possession, and suggests low fines or counselling as an option
for countries that prohibit the drug.
"We should have anormal relationship with cannabis," says Neidpath,
who is 65. Unlike some campaigners, she doesn't think it's harmless –
but she does think it's a lot less bad for us than tobacco or
alcohol. She snorts. "It's a fallacy to think that after a few puffs
of cannabis your child will be lost in a psychotic quagmire."
However, Neidpath points out, much of today's cannabis has been
genetically modified to be up to three times as strong as it should
be. "Which needn't be damaging, if people know how to use it," she says.
"The natural mixture is being changed, and the antipsychotic element
in it is being left out. If cannabis was authorised, it could be
properly labelled, and government-controlled." Rather like the tar
content on cigarettes or the percentage of alcohol in wine? "Quite."
Can she see this ever becoming a reality?
"Society has to grasp the nettle. One wants people to make educated
choices, as long as they don't affect other people. It's a terrible
infringement on personal liberties that your cognitive freedom – how
you play with your brain in the privacy of your own house – is
controlled." Neidpath is clearly all too accustomed to playing with
her own brain, merrily listing the drugs she has taken: "Psychedelic
drugs and cannabis. Mushrooms, mescaline, LSD – these have been used
since the beginning of humanity."
It's quite an impressive-sounding range, but she draws the line at
over-the-counter drugs: "I'm more nervous about things which deaden
the brain. I hardly ever take painkillers. Do you know that 2,500
people die of painkillers a year, which is a lot more than die of
illegal drugs? I'm very puritanical about what I take."
According to Neidpath, ancient cave paintings demonstrate that even
Stone Age man enjoyed a bit of dope. "In cave paintings, the lines
they use are the same that people produce when they are on certain
substances." The great thinkers of ancient Greece were almost
certainly on drugs too, she thinks. She is not, however, interested
in drugs such as heroin or opium – and calls cocaine, which she's
taken "once or twice", a thoroughly boring substance.
"It's a greedy drug which brings out the less interesting side of
humanity. It's typical that it's used in the City. Psychedelic drugs
are another matter altogether."
Has she ever tried taking LSD and writing down what's going on in her
head? "Oh yes. I've had periods in my life when I've used it to
stimulate my brain. I was a painter, and found it stimulated my
visual senses amazingly."
She even had a spell during which she would drop a couple of tabs
before playing Go, the Japanese tactical game. "I'd find I would win
more games in a row. So your handicap went up. It was quite a good
cognitive test." This is not to suggest, however, that Neidpath is
simply some aristocratic hippie who enjoys playing board games while
her mind turns chemically inspired somersaults.
During the week, her husband, Lord Neidpath, lives in his own family
home – the Jacobean mansion of Stanway in Gloucestershire – while his
wife is at Beckley Park, working long hours at her foundation (the
couple meet at night and at weekends).
A distant relative of the Hapsburgs and cousin of the Earl of
Denbigh, Neidpath was brought up in this house – which featured in
the second Harry Potter movie – and has lived here all her life.
Have her two sons, Rock and Cosmo – from an earlier relationship with
the writer Joey Mellen – experimented with drugs? "I can't speak
about that because it's illegal. But more than 50% of young people
do, so I would be extremely surprised if my younger son hadn't," she
says. "And I don't object to my sons' friends or whatever taking
cannabis. What I do object to is if they mix tobacco with it because
I hate them damaging their lungs."
As she points out, if they were enthusiastic participants, it doesn't
seem to have done either child much harm: Rock got a first-class
degree at Oxford and Cosmo has just achieved a double first there in
classics, and an invitation to apply for an All Souls fellowship. "He
[Cosmo] did give up smoking cannabis six months before his finals,"
admits Neidpath, forgetting about her vow of silence on the matter.
Although she seems unconventional, she is in many ways fully within
the tradition of the true English liberal. Famously, however, she has
gone further than most in her investigations into altered states of
consciousness: as a young woman she had a hole drilled in her skull.
Why on earth did she do that? "Trepanning is the most ancient
operation in the world," she explains. "They did it in the Stone Age,
and traditional cultures do it in the jungle now. The brain is
surrounded by three strong layers of membrane; trepanning removes a
piece of bone from the skull so that the membrane inside the brain
can expand on the heartbeat."
Neidpath did her own trepanning with the help of Mellen, who also
filmed it being done. Amazingly the experience didn't put her off.
"About 30 years later, I thought probably the hole had closed so I
had it done again."
She points an elegant index finger to her right temple to show me the
exact location of her 7mm hole. Afterwards was there any difference
in how she felt? "It's difficult to be in any sense sure of what is
what. I observed a change in my dream patterns, and a slight, subtle
change. I felt a bit more buoyant." She believes that through
increasing the supply of blood to the brain, trepanation may prove to
be a protective measure against dementia.
Why is she so fascinated by the mechanics of the mind? The powerful
combination of a liberal upbringing and an early interest in
mysticism seems to be the answer. "I hit the beginning of the Sixties
with a very open mind," she says.
There's certainly no sign of it closing over.