GL: What can be done?
AF: We outlined ways in which a country or group of countries can adapt the conventions to allow them to implement policies better-suited to their special needs. At the moment that is not possible. Bolivia, for example, asked the United Nations if it could amend the conventions so that chewing coca leaf wasn't a crime. The United Nations said no.
A lot of Latin American countries are getting fed up with failed policies that are turning them into war zones. Criminalization hasn't worked because there's no way of stopping demand. The only way forward is to get the trade out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of government.
GL: You are working with one of those countries, Guatemala. What is the situation there?
AF: Guatemala's problem is the transit of cocaine from producing countries into the United States. It isn't a producer itself, but the cartels use it as a base, which has turned it into a war zone. President Pérez Molina invited us in to advise him. As head of military intelligence he led the fight against the cartels for 20 years. He put the top cartel leader behind bars; seven years later he came out, still one of the richest men in the world, and Guatemala was still a war zone. It does not work. It's fantastic to be advising a sitting president who is saying, "We have to rethink."
GL: Do you support total legalization of drugs?
AF: The word legalization has become too charged. I prefer strict regulation. Illegality means the drugs market is completely unregulated and controlled by criminal cartels. It seems obvious to me that governments could do a better job, although each substance needs to be carefully analyzed and have its own regulatory system.
GL: Wouldn't a move to regulation send out the wrong signals?
AF: Youth are simply not interested in "signals." They know governments often don't listen to the science.
GL: Is it true that you drilled a hole in your skull?
AF: Yes. I did it as an experiment, following the hypothesis that trepanation could improve cerebral circulation. Subjectively, I think there was an improvement, but I am open to the idea there wasn't. Since then, we have done research in Russia which supports the hypothesis. It would be interesting to investigate it further—in particular the possibility that improved cerebral circulation could protect against dementia.
GL: You've been portrayed as an aristocrat in a grand house writing checks to fund your hobby horses. Is that a fair picture?
AF: I wish! I have no money. Every penny we spend, I raise—with difficulty. The Beckley Foundation is me and three or four others.
GL: Has it all been worth it?
AF: Yes. Things are changing; that's the satisfaction of it. I have always kept my head under the parapet because I realized that I don't fit the establishment image—but I have been behind a lot of the developments over the years. I won't have struggled away most of my life for nothing.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.