In 1970, a 27-year-old English woman named Amanda Feilding used a dental drill to bore a hole in her own skull while under the gaze of her boyfriend’s camera. The footage of Ms. Feilding’s self-trepanation was later interspersed with images of her pet pigeon, Birdie, to become the film “Heartbeat in the Brain.” Supporters of trepanation, many considered part of the vanguard in the psychedelic drug movement of the 1960s (Paul McCartney recalled John Lennon asking him “You fancy getting the trepanning done?”), claim that the procedure aids one in reaching higher consciousness and relieves anxiety and mental illnesses. Ms. Feilding, British aristocracy herself who later married up to become the Countess of Wemyss and March, twice ran unsuccessfully for British Parliament with the slogan “Trepanation for the National Health.” She continues to fund research into the procedure and is the founder of the Trepanation Trust.
Covered in blood and with quite possibly the most extreme mullet ever caught on film, it is hard to imagine Countess Feilding today as a leader in international drug policy reform. But through the Beckley Foundation, a charitable trust she founded in 1989 to promote “health-oriented, cost-effective, harm-reductive drug policy reform,” Countess Fielding has gained the backing of some powerful people. In an open letter published in 2011 in the British newspapers the Times and the Guardian, the Foundation called for an end to the global war on drugs. The first step in the retreat, according to the letter, should be a re-examination of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which mandates signatory countries to prohibit production and supply of opiates, coca and cannabis. Among those who put their John Hancocks on the Foundation’s letter were Jimmy Carter, Fernando Cardoso, Vicente Fox, George Schultz and Noam Chomsky–not a group you’re likely to see dropping acid and drilling holes in each other’s skulls anytime soon.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that Dutchess Fielding has been bending the ear of the very popular Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina. The two have been buddy-buddy in the months following President Molina’s pronouncement last February, shortly after taking office, that the war on drugs has failed and it was time to break the “taboo” on discussing decriminalization. President Molina ran on an “iron fist” platform–the term he used to describe how he would deal with organized crime. Since then, President Molina has taken a different tack in battling the soaring rates of murder and gang violence in his country, much of it fueled by the Mexican-based cartel, Los Zetas. At the Davos World Economic Forum last month, President Molina shared the stage with George Soros, another proponent of drug policy reform, and raised the prospect of “regulation” as opposed to “prohibition or legalization.” Prior to Davos, in a lengthy interview with the Guardian, President Molina lamented the “scars” left on his country by the international war on drugs while criticizing western countries for “fail[ing] to understand the reality that countries such as Guatemala and those of Central America have to live in.”
That reality has indeed been harsh. In the Central American transit countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala (known as the “Northern Triangle”), in which narcotics are neither produced nor largely consumed, murder rates are three to four times higher than in Mexico. And killings are happening largely outside of urban centers, in rural provinces that have strategic value to rival drug traffickers. Facilitated by the instabilities already existing in these countries in the wake of recently-ended civil wars (Guatemala’s was the longest, lasting 36 years), the drug trade has resulted in high levels of corruption throughout the governments of the Northern Triangle.
President Molina’s drug policy initiatives may well gather further support in the coming months. In his Guardian interview, Molina spoke hopefully of President Obama’s “openness” on the regulation debate, as the latter had previously expressed willingness at the 2011 Summit of the Americas to enter into a dialogue on the topic. Any developments in this area would certainly be exciting, as it becomes increasingly clear to just about everyone (even Washington Post opinion writers) that the war on drugs should end. Like they say about organic food and hybrid cars: It’s not just for hippies anymore.