Do Psychedelics Make People Less Likely to Commit Crimes?

Maybe people who are inclined to try psychedelics are less antisocial to begin with.



People who have used psychedelics are less likely to commit property and violent crimes than people who haven't, according to a new analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). A press release from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where three of the study's four authors work, says these findings "suggest that treatments making use of classic psychedelics like psilocybin could well hold promise in reducing criminal behavior." Although I agree that psychedelic-assisted therapy looks promising based on other studies, this interpretation of the survey data seems dubious to me, mirroring the faulty logic of prohibitionists who assume that associations between drug use and antisocial behavior are causal.

UAB psychologist Peter Hendricks and his colleagues looked at 13 years of NSDUH data and found that "lifetime classic psychedelic use [i.e., use of ayahuasca, dimethyltryptamine, LSD, mescaline, peyote or San Pedro cactus, or psilocybin mushrooms] was associated with a 27% decreased odds of past year larceny/theft, a 12% decreased odds of past year assault, a 22% decreased odds of past year arrest for a property crime, and an 18% decreased odds of past year arrest for a violent crime." That is after controlling for sex, race, education, income, marital status, religiosity, and several other potential confounding variables.

Hendricks et al. say their results "were consistent with a protective effect of psilocybin for antisocial criminal behavior" and "contribute to a compelling rationale for the initiation of clinical research with classic psychedelics, including psilocybin, in forensic settings." They argue that the associations they found bolster the evidence from three studies conducted in the 1960s indicating that psychedelics might help rehabilitate criminal offenders: two LSD studies with tiny samples and one psilocybin study with a larger but still small sample. The latter study, known as the Concord Prison Experiment, was conducted by Timothy Leary. Hendricks et al. note that a 1998 review of the Concord Prison Experiment by Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, "concluded that these findings were overstated, inadequate support was provided outside of psilocybin sessions, and that serious methodological flaws preclude any conclusions."

It is certainly worth trying to replicate those early, tentative findings. But so far the evidence that psychedelics curb criminal tendencies is thin, and the NSDUH results do not make it much thicker, because they could be due to pre-existing differences in the sort of people who are inclined to try psychedelics. Only 15 percent of Americans say they have tried psychedelics, and they are bound to be different from the 85 percent who haven't in ways that a) cannot be readily measured and b) may affect their propensity to commit crimes. In seems plausible, for instance, that they are, on average, more introspective, more patient, more tolerant, and more open to alternative perspectives, even before they have dropped acid, drunk ayahuasca, or eaten magic mushrooms.

Hendricks et al. concede that cross-sectional data like the NSDUH results "limit causal inferences," that "a number of shared underlying or 'third' variables may be responsible for the associations reported here," and that "we could not evaluate potential mechanisms of action underlying the associations of classic psychedelic use with criminal behavior." The importance of those points becomes clearer when you consider what NSDUH tells us about people who use other illegal drugs, who unlike the psychedelic fans are more likely to commit property and violent crimes.

Hendricks and his colleagues found that people who had tried heroin were almost twice as likely to be arrested for property crimes as people who hadn't. You might assume that association has something to do with heavy users who steal to support their habits (a problem magnified by prohibition-inflated prices). But marijuana users were also about twice as likely to be arrested for property crimes, which is probably not due to habit-financing theft.

Prohibitionists might argue that marijuana makes people lazy, unemployable, and therefore financially stressed. But as with psychedelics, there are alternative explanations. Maybe marijuana use and theft are both related to a general disrespect for the law, or maybe they both reflect pre-existing social, economic, or psychological difficulties.

People who have tried marijuana are also twice as likely as people who haven't to be arrested for a violent crime—more likely than people who have used heroin, PCP, cocaine, or "other stimulants," including methamphetamine. In fact, people who have tried "other stimulants" are not significantly more likely to report an arrest for a violent crime than people who haven't. These findings seem inconsistent with current beliefs about how different drugs affect people's behavior.

In any case, it is surely risky to assume that the association between marijuana use and crime reflects a cause-and-effect relationship. It is equally risky to make the same assumption about the negative correlation between psychedelic use and crime.