Could LSD Lessen Lawlessness?

In a new study, use of psychedelic drugs is linked to lower rates of criminal behavior.
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Pink elephant blotters containing LSD.

Pink elephant blotters containing LSD.

Tune in, turn on, stay out of jail.

Timothy Leary might be taken aback by that variation on his declaration. But it succinctly describes a new study, which finds people who use psychedelic drugs are less likely to engage in many types of criminal behavior.

"These findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that use of classic psychedelics may have positive effects for reducing antisocial behavior," psychologist Zach Walsh of the University of British Columbia–Kelowna, one of the paper's authors, said in announcing the findings. "They certainly highlight the need for further research into the potentially beneficial effects of these stigmatized substances for both individual and public health."

The research team, led by Peter Hendricks of the University of Alabama–Birmingham, used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. It analyzed responses from more than 480,000 adult Americans who participated in the survey, conducted by the federal government, between 2002 and 2014.

All were asked whether "they had ever, even once, used ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), LSD, mescaline, peyote or San Pedro, or psilocybin mushrooms." They also indicated whether they had committed, and/or been arrested, during the past year for various types of criminal offenses.

After taking into account such variables as age, gender, education, marital status, and employment, the researchers found a clear pattern: "Lifetime classic psychedelic use was associated with 27 percent decreased odds of past-year larceny/theft; 12 percent decreased odds of past-year assault; 22 percent decreased odds of past-year arrest for a property crime; and 18 percent decreased odds of past-year arrest for a violent crime."

They may have been tripping, but those trips were not to the courthouse.

"Lifetime illicit use of other substances, in contrast, was largely associated with increased odds of criminal behavior at or above the trend level," the researchers write in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Hendricks and his colleagues did find that experience with one or more psychedelics increased the odds of engaging in one type of crime: drug distribution. They suspect that this reflects the likelihood that individuals who experimented with these drugs have "more liberal and anti-authoritarian attitudes toward drug use, as opposed to a more broadly antisocial propensity."

Altogether, "these findings are consistent with a growing body of research suggesting classic psychedelics confer enduring psychological and pro-social benefits," they conclude.

While the results cannot prove that the use of these drugs dampens antisocial impulses, the researchers express the hope that they inspire studies involving the use of these drugs "among groups at increased risk of engaging in criminal behavior, including released inmates."

That would be the acid test.