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UBC study explores reducing domestic violence through psychedelic drugs

A recent UBC observational study suggests that the use of psychedelic drugs may lower rates of domestic violence offences in former inmates.

Zachary Walsh, a UBC psychology associate professor, collaborated on a study that followed 302 male inmates for about six years after their release from an Illinois prison on domestic violence charges. Using data gathered from his master's thesis, the study found that the rate of re-arrest for those who used psychedelic drugs was significantly lower than that of those who did not. Each participant in the study had a history of substance abuse.

Walsh, who has a standing research interest in partner violence, noted that “we saw reduced recidivism for people who had used the substances -- and they weren’t taking it in a therapeutic setting. One of the things that’s remarkable is that even looking at data from the population, not controlled experiments, we are seeing positive effects even though people are taking them in sub-optimal conditions.”

Drugs such as MDMA, LSD and psilocybin (the psychoactive compound found in "magic mushrooms") are currently illegal and unavailable for doctors to prescribe. Walsh noted that this puts restraints on the studies that can be done and limits treatment options.

“Right now there’s no approved context for using things like psilocybin and LSD, and I think that’s shut down the potential for what could really be medicine that could help a sizeable number of people,” he said.

The study was co-authored by Peter Hendricks, a University of Alabama associate professor whom Walsh met at a 2011 Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science (MAPS) conference. They found similar patterns in data they were presenting, and the idea for the study was triggered.

Unlike alcohol, which often aggravates domestic violence, Walsh believes that the feelings of interconnectedness, compassion and spiritual experiences that many encounter through psychedelic drug use actually leads to lower engagement in violent behaviour.

“They’re powerful things that can lead people to question basic assumptions like how society runs and the meaning of life. Without being too dramatic, there are aspects of the psychedelic experience that are challenging to the mindset of late capitalism and a Judeo-Christian conceptualization of the universe.”

The study was not a clinical trial, meaning that there was no placebo control and drugs were not administered by doctors, but rather taken independently. Walsh noted that there could be other factors that differentiate those who had used the substances with those who hadn’t.

“It’s not going to be for everyone, but I think that the conditions we’re talking about – substance abuse, partner violence, trauma, anxiety – are things we don’t have great existing treatments for, so there’s a lot of people not being helped,” he said.

Walsh hopes that within the next decade or so, psychedelics will become accepted as prescribable medication, and plans to continue with ongoing studies that will explore the possibilities of alternative treatment options.