When society thinks about psychedelics, there are usually many stigmas surrounding these types of drugs. Beginning in the late 1960s when these drugs came to be used more “recreationally,” a moral panic started to spread around the country. People did not know the true characteristics of psychedelics, eventually leading to the illegalization of this class of drug. This also caused the rapidly growing field of psychedelic research to be forced to shut down, ignoring the many benefits to psychedelic therapy researchers were beginning to find. These included therapeutic benefits for a range of diseases or disorders, from cancer to depression and anxiety to substance use disorders (Pollan, 2018). However, this psychedelic research has been picked up again in recent years, leading to new areas of research in how psychedelics can benefit the population.
One of these newer research ideas connects the effects of psychedelics on substance use disorders with researchers beginning to look at how psychedelics affect violent or aggressive behaviors in humans. Two of the main areas for this subject of research are intimate partner violence (IPV) and criminal behavior. Each of these have a connection to substance use, as the study of IPV has found a positive relationship with substance use disorders and rates of arrest for IPV (Thiessen et al., 2018). Research has shown that substance use can be a predictor to IPV, as well as the therapeutic benefits hallucinogens have for substance use disorders. Therefore, researchers were interested in how psychedelics in turn affect IPV, specifically as having a protective effect that blocks IPV.
Walsh et al. (2016) investigated a sample of incarcerated men with substance use disorders to evaluate the relationship of hallucinogens and IPV. The idea for this study branched off of previous research on psychedelics, specifically with how it was used for externalizing behaviors, such as substance misuse or criminality. Previous research did not look at how the hallucinogens might influence these externalizing behaviors, which is what this study aimed to do. Reflecting on past results that showed positive personality changes after hallucinogen use, the researchers predicted that any hallucinogen use in the participant’s lifetime would reduce re-arrest for IPV.
In this study, the researchers measured hallucinogen use as well as criterion values for IPV. It was found that higher levels of alcohol dependence predicted higher levels of IPV, whereas use of hallucinogens lowered the rates of IPV. The participants who met the hallucinogen use criteria were less than two thirds as likely to be arrested for IPV than those who did not meet the criteria, showing how hallucinogens lower recidivism rates and can be protective or help reduce IPV arrests. Reducing the recidivism rate for the participants, specifically arrests for IPV, helps to show the positive attributes of a class of drugs that has been deeply stigmatized in society. These results help to expand the limited amount information on hallucinogens and IPV by helping to show that hallucinogens can reduce levels of IPV. Future research of hallucinogenic therapy for reducing recidivism rates for IPV is also supported through these results. There are, however, still some unanswered questions, such as what the mechanisms behind this hallucinogen-IPV reduction relationship are (Walsh et al., 2016).
To attempt to find a mechanism behind the psychedelic-IPV relationship, Thiessen et al. (2018) conducted a similar study to Walsh’s, but aimed to spread it to a more generalized community. This study also looked at emotional regulation with IPV. Thiessen and her fellow researchers wanted to help provide more research on the topic of psychedelics and violence, as well as create a stronger argument to show how psychedelics can help reduce violent or aggressive behaviors. Previous research mentioned in this study looked at how IPV is connected to substance abuse, as well as how negative emotionality could also lead to higher rates of IPV. While there was no previous research specifically on how psychedelics are connected to emotional regulation, other research has shown how emotional empathy can be enhanced by psychedelics, leading to a possible theoretical connection between IPV and emotional regulation. As in the Walsh study, the aim of this experiment was to examine the psychedelic and IPV relationship. However, this study also looked at the association between the use of psychedelics and emotional regulation, with emotional regulation playing the mediator role or mechanism behind the aforementioned effects of psychedelics on IPV.
Different from the Walsh study, the participants in this study consisted of people from the general public. Each participant completed self-reports for their psychedelic use, an emotion regulation scale, an IPV scale, and an alcohol use measure. The researchers found that for only the men participants who had psychedelic use history, there was an inverse relationship between psychedelic usage and IPV, as well as an association between emotional dysregulation and high IPV. One of the suggestions for why this inverse relationship only occurred in the men participants was that if women perform acts of IPV, it is usually self-defense. Elaborating on previous research, this study has a couple of important implications for psychedelics and IPV. With the sample used in this study, we can now see that psychedelics can help reduce IPV for the broader community instead of the specific correctional community. The results also provide information for a possible mechanism underlying the effects of psychedelics on IPV, as the researchers concluded that emotional regulation is a mediator between psychedelic use and reduced IPV (Thiessen et al., 2018).
Psychedelics have also been found to have an effect on criminal behaviors. In the United States criminal justice system, there are high rates of recidivism, with about 67.8% of people getting re-arrested three years after their release (Hendricks et al., 2017). There have been attempts to lower this rate, from employment programs to cognitive behavioral approaches, but they have not been fully successful. So, researchers decided to see the effects of psilocybin on recidivism as previous research has provided positive benefits of psilocybin. Studies have been done that looked into the relationship between psychedelic use at any point in a participant’s lifetime and criminal behavior. One study found that the use of psychedelics is associated with lower odds of crimes such as larceny, assault, property crimes, or other violent crimes. This supports the idea of psychedelics acting as a protective effect for antisocial criminal behaviors, leading to lower recidivism rates (Hendricks et al., 2017). Another study came to similar results, with the use of hallucinogens lowering the likelihood of supervision failure, i.e. failing to comply with laws relating to alcohol and drug use. It was also found that the use of hallucinogens could lower alcohol or drug use, as well as promote prosocial behaviors (Hendricks et al., 2014).
The findings from these studies are in agreement with previous research on psychedelics, and support the idea of psychedelics reducing IPV or criminality, as well as having positive effects on people’s behavior. And while a lot of this research is new and does not completely answer the questions about the relationship between psychedelics and violent or aggressive behaviors, it does open the path and support future research on this topic. These studies provide a beginning point that show a connection between psychedelics and the reduction of these behaviors, leading to more questions and studies to help fill in the holes and provide stronger evidence for the connection.
Hendricks, P. S., Clark, C. B., Johnson, M. W., Fontaine, K. R., and Cropsey, K. L. (2014). Hallucinogen use predicts reduced recidivism among substance-involved offenders under community corrections supervision. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 28, 62-66. doi: 10.1177/0269881113513851
Hendricks, P. S., Crawford, M. S., Cropsey, K. L., Copes, H., Sweat, N. W., Walsh, Z., and Pavela, G. (2018). The relationships of classic psychedelic use with criminal behavior in the United States adult population. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32, 37-48. doi: 10.1177/0269881117735685
Pollan, M. (2018). How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Penguin Books.
Thiessen, M. S., Walsh, Z., Bird, B. M., and Lafrance, A. (2018). Psychedelic use and intimate partner violence: The role of emotion regulation. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32, 749-755. doi: 10.1177/0269881118771782
Walsh, Z., Hendricks, P. S., Smith, S., Kosson, D. S., Thiessen, M. S., Lucas, P., and Swogger, M. T. (2016). Hallucinogen use and intimate partner violence: Prospective evidence consistent with protective effects among men with histories of problematic substance use. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30, 601-607. doi: 10.1177/0269881116642538