Could Psychedelic Drugs Help Keep Ex-Inmates Out Of Jail?

A new study suggests that mushrooms and LSD might reduce domestic violence.

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Apr 29 2016, 3:04pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Psychedelic drugs might actually help reduce incidents of domestic violence among men with substance abuse problems.

That's the implication of a new study, which found that 42 percent of US inmates who hadn't taken psychedelic drugs before doing time were arrested within six years of their release for domestic battery—compared to 27 percent of those who had taken drugs like acid, mushrooms and ecstasy.

It's a small, observational study, and a lot more research is needed. Even so, "it adds to growing evidence that these substances may have positive effects," Zachary Walsh told me. Walsh is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, and the lead author of the study in The Journal of Psychopharmacology.

He and his coauthors interviewed 302 adult inmates at a county jail in Illinois. All of them had a history of substance disorders, and 72 percent had past histories of violent crime (though not necessarily domestic violence). After they were released from jail, these researchers monitored the men through FBI records and other sources for an average of six years, checking for any domestic violence arrests.

Most of the men—about 56 percent—had tried hallucinogens before, while another 13 percent had a disorder relating to psychedelic drugs, according to Walsh. Most had used "classic psychedelics" like LSD, magic mushrooms and to a lesser extent mescaline and DMT. This study was initiated in the early 2000s, and the date may be a sign of the times: only 45 percent had tried what researchers classified as "a-typical," or less common, psychedelics, including ecstasy, special k (ketamine) and angel dust (PCP).

A 2015 study found that people who'd used psychedelic drugs were not at increased risk of developing mental health problems

"Maybe there are some personal health benefits to these substances," Walsh said.

The reason why the inmates who have tried hallucinogens tended less towards domestic violence than other drug users is difficult to say based on these results, but Walsh said that it may have to do with the nature of the experiences the drugs afford.

"The experiences of unity, positivity, and transcendence that characterize the psychedelic experience may be particularly beneficial to groups that are frequently marginalized and isolated, such as the incarcerated men who participated in this study," he explained in a release.

He also says the researchers couldn't tell whether the people they followed had taken more psychedelic drugs after being interviewed or released, but monitoring drug use post-release could be the basis for another study in the future.

A lot more research is needed—as well as clinical trials, Walsh emphasized. Other work has also suggested that psychedelic drugs could be used as therapeutic alternatives.

Before the 1960s, doctors had a lot of optimism for psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, mescaline and LSD, but the culture wars of the 60s and 70s put an end to that. Now Walsh says that we're just coming out of the "dark ages," with a growing amount of research on hallucinogenic drugs.

He says that the stigma still continues to this day.

Some websites that aim to help addicts warn that LSD use can lead to psychosis, which in turn may prompt violent mood swings. But Walsh says that there isn't a lot of evidence to support these assumptions, and any clinical trials conducted in the future would likely avoid using subjects prone to mental health conditions like psychosis.

Other literature also points to this lack of evidence. A 2015 study, which looked at US population surveys, found that people who'd used psychedelic drugs were not at increased risk of developing mental health problems, including schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and suicide attempts.

"Psychedelics are psychologically intense, and many people will blame anything that happens for the rest of their lives on a psychedelic experience," Teri Suzanne Krebs of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology told told Nature.

Walsh says that many of the negative stories floating around about acid and other psychedelics come from uncontrolled situations outside of laboratory settings, without any clinical evidence or medical trials to back them up. Studying these drugs in a controlled and methodical way may lead to the discovery of new therapeutic treatments for people with mental health issues like alcoholism or depression.

"Stigma is not something we should be taking into account seriously when talking about public health," Walsh said.