Psychedelic Drugs Could Make People Less Violent, Study Shows

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A package of "magic" mushrooms bought legally from a store in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district is displayed May 18, 2001. Under Japanese drug laws, the compound that makes them hallucinogenic is illegal but the mushrooms themselves are not. REUTERS

Turn on, tune in...stay out of jail?

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have found that psychedelic drugs, like magic mushrooms, LSD, peyote and ayahuasca, might make people less violent and less likely to commit assault or steal.

People who had used psychedelic drugs at least once were about 12 percent less likely to have assaulted someone, 18 percent less likely to have been arrested for a violent crime, and 27 percent less likely to have stolen someone than people who had never taken the drugs, the researchers explained in the Journal of Psychopharmacology this week.

“Simply put, the positive effects associated with classic psychedelic use appear to be reliable,” the study’s authors wrote, calling the research "compelling rationale" for more clinical research, despite "political hurdles."

The data came from 480,000 survey responses that the National Survey on Drug Use and Health had collected from 2002 to 2014. Researchers looked at how the respondents answered questions about drug use and questions about crimes and arrests. People who said they had taken other illicit drugs — like cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and painkillers — were more likely to commit violent crimes.

But life on an acid trip is not entirely a crime-free Utopia. The study showed that lifetime users of classic psychedelics were 47 to 68 percent more likely to distribute drugs to others, albeit mostly for the “prosocial intention” of sharing what they believe is a medication with strong therapeutic capabilities.

Violent crimes are at a historic low — they account for five percent of all arrests — but that they still bear a high cost to society, both intangibly and financially. Murder costs the country $9 million per case, the researchers wrote. And survivors of violent crime face a variety of mental health problems.

Some studies in the past have tested the effects of psychedelics on violent behaviors and convicted criminals in particular — two recent studies have touched on it — but there isn't enough data yet. In their study, the researchers from the University of Alabama warned against mandated psychedelic-assisted treatment.

“Mandated treatments are common in correctional settings, yet are generally ineffective,” they wrote. Studies between the 1950s and 1970s featured this kind of forced treatment, including to prisoners, and the authors wrote it should serve as a "cautionary tale" to those looking into the benefits of the drugs. 

Overall, psychedelics remain difficult to study. Despite Timothy Leary's experimentation in the 1960s, which led to his acid-boosting advice, "Turn on, tune in, drop out," psychedelics are illegal in the United States, which means that the Drug Enforcement Administration is unlikely to approve funding for such studies. 

It's not the first time researchers have found evidence of acid's benefits. The New Yorker reported on findings at several universities in 2015 that showed "exciting results" for psychedelic treatments. Researchers found that acid could "treat anxiety, addiction (to smoking and alcohol), and depression," Michael Pollen wrote.