Of all the illegal drugs out there, psychedelics generally keep a low profile. They’re not at the top of any country’s legalization wish list, there’s no epidemic of overdoses to speak of, and while I’m sure border guards find them on occasion, you rarely ever read an international headline about it.
So it was a significant shock to psychedelic researchers and advocates when a Canadian man accused of murdering a beloved ayahuasca shaman was recently killed in Peru. The graphic violence captured on video sent the global ayahuasca community reeling and made some question the safety of DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, and other psychedelic drugs. Peruvian politicians have even made moves to regulate the hallucinogenic plant.
It’s in this context a new study out of the University of British Columbia has found men who take psychedelics are half as likely to be violent with a significant other. The new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology adds to a growing body of research that suggests people who take psychedelics are less violent, but this time there’s evidence that long-term outcomes may be different for men and women.
For Dr. Adele Lafrance, psychologist and one of the co-authors on the study, it’s important to have scientific research, rather than an isolated incident, shaping the public’s perception.
"Our research suggests that psychedelic use may actually decrease the risk of violence in the general population, at least in the context of intimate partner relationships,” she told VICE. “In fact, psychedelic psychotherapy could even be a potential treatment for those at risk for domestic violence."
When I called up lead UBC researcher Michelle Thiessen, she said this is the opposite trend you would see for alcohol or cocaine. “Alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamines, they’re all pretty strongly associated with violence," she said.
Until recently, “classic” psychedelics like acid, shrooms, mescaline and ayahuasca were often lumped in with other hallucinogens like PCP, says Theissen, which is part of the reason why scientists have just begun exploring the drugs’ non-violent associations.
The study builds on Thiessen’s past work, which looked at domestic violence rates and drug use patterns among male prison inmates. The 2016 study found 42 percent of men who had never taken psychedelics were arrested again for domestic battery within six years, whereas only 27 percent of men who had taken them were arrested for the same offences. With this latest study Thiessen and co-authors wanted to expand the sample to include women and the general public.
Researchers surveyed 1,266 people about their experience with drugs and alcohol, how they deal with their emotions, and domestic abuse. About 11 percent of the respondents had pushed, shoved, slapped, or otherwise hurt their partner at least once in the past year.
Psychedelic use was associated with less difficulty "regulating" emotions, and significantly less intimate partner violence—but for men only. About five percent of men who had taken psychedelics had met the researchers’ definition of domestic abuse, compared to 10 percent who had no psychedelic history. “Half is a huge deal,” said Thiessen, “that’s a lot of people not being hurt.”
Apparently the study’s authors didn’t anticipate such a significant gender split. A previous paper by UBC prof Zach Walsh found psychedelic users were less likely to commit violent crimes, but didn’t draw any separate conclusions about men and women. “We thought maybe we should break it up by gender to see if anything is going on,” says Thiessen. “We found it didn’t hold for women at all.”
As an armchair psychologist, I assumed this difference had something to do with men avoiding and ignoring their emotions. The study says “negative emotionality” is a precursor to violence, and tripping on acid or shrooms apparently helps men break out of those negative patterns. Women are socialized to process their emotions already, I thought, so perhaps they don't need drugs to sort out their feelings. But when I put this theory to the researchers, they had a somewhat different explanation.
Thiessen suggests women probably do benefit from heightened emotional processing when they take psychedelics, but they may not have a choice about using violence if they’re already under attack in their relationship. “I think the most plausible explanation is that women who were engaging in partner violence were more likely to be acting in a defensive way,” she said. ‘We wouldn’t hope that psychedelics would make someone less likely to defend themselves.”
Thiessen says more research is needed to understand exactly why the results weren’t the same for men and women. And because of the study’s structure, we can’t know for sure whether psychedelics actually cause people to be less violent, or whether less violent people are just naturally drawn to hallucinogenic adventure.
It’s also hard to know exactly what part of a psychedelic experience may be helping people break up negative emotional patterns. Thiessen says some experimental researchers have looked at fMRI scans of people who are high on psilocybin mushrooms and have seen areas of the brain associated with emotional processing lighting up. Subjects also report an increase in empathy.
But other studies have found the emotional processing extends beyond the “acute” experience of being high, says Thiessen. In other words, a change in worldview may come after you’re done staring at the dancing fractals in your ceiling. This may explain why some people can have a bad trip, but still take some good away from it. “When you’re faced with an emotionally charged experience in the future, you’re possibly going to reevaluate that differently,” says Thiessen.
Whatever is going on, it won't be easy for researchers to develop psychedelic therapies without an overhaul of how psychedelic drugs are regulated in Canada. "Our existing drug policies really restrict us from conducting more of this research," says Thiessen. "It's interesting that as a society we look to our policies and laws as things meant to protect us, yet our research suggests psychedelics may be useful for treatment of things that could protect us."
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