Blog Post

Psychedelics Help Reduce Opioid Addiction, According to New Study

Jag Davies

The criminalization of people who use psychedelics is rooted in myths that are the vestiges of colonialism and the drug war – and, one by one, those myths are crumbling down.

We’ve learned in recent years that people who use psychedelics are significantly *less* likely to end up developing mental health problems, perpetrating domestic violence, or suffering from psychological distress and suicidal thinking.

Meanwhile, recent research has shown that psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy can be an effective treatment for people struggling with difficult-to-treat conditions such as substance use disorders. Not much has been known, though, about the connection between psychedelic use and substance misuse in the general population.

Now, a new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology has found that experiences with psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are associated with decreased risk of opioid abuse and dependence among respondents with a history of illegal opioid use. Psychedelic use is associated with 27% reduced risk of past-year opioid dependence and 40% reduced risk of past-year opioid abuse.  Other than marijuana use, which was associated with 55% reduced risk of past-year opioid abuse, no other illegal drug was associated with reduced risk of past-year opioid dependence or abuse.

The study is based on six years of data from the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which surveys 70,000 people each year.  While the findings are far from causal, the authors conclude that the associations between psychedelic use and opioid misuse are “pervasive and significant” and “suggest that psychedelics are associated with positive psychological characteristics and are consistent with prior reports suggesting efficacy in treatment of substance use disorders.”

Although more research is needed to determine exactly why there’s such a strong correlation between psychedelic use and decreased risk of opioid misuse, this study does appear to validate the experiences of many people who have found substances like ibogaine, marijuana or kratom to be life-changing tools that have helped them lead happier, more fulfilling lives. For many, these substances have helped them cut back or quit their use of opioids or other substances with which they’ve had a problematic relationship. Safe access to these substances – along with 911 Good Samaritan laws, naloxone access programs, supervised injection facilities, various forms of maintenance therapy, and, of course, ending the criminalization of drug use – should be part of the discussion when it comes to dealing with addiction and skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths.

And let’s not forget our commander-in-chief is ramping up the drug war and thinks he can deal with opioid addiction by building a giant wall and deporting millions of people, both documented and undocumented.  Let’s remember, too, that thousands of people are getting handcuffed, arrested, branded as criminals, and serving time behind bars every year simply for using or possessing a psychedelic substance in the U.S. – and these people are more likely to be young, non-white, and socioeconomically marginalized than most people who use psychedelics.

While psychedelic-assisted therapy could be approved by the FDA in the next decade, that would do nothing to change the criminal penalties faced by millions of people who use psychedelics outside of government-sanctioned, medically-supervised settings. That’s why it’s incumbent upon people who care about psychedelics to advocate for reducing the criminalization of people who use them outside of medical contexts, while also advocating for psychedelic-assisted therapy research.

Given the widespread scientific consensus that drug use and addiction are best treated as health issues, there’s no good reason for people who use psychedelics to be treated as criminals – especially considering how much we already know about prohibition’s discriminatory impact on people of color and other marginalized groups.

This study also forces us to reflect on why abstinence-only policies can be so harmful and counterproductive.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, federal government data has consistently shown that the vast majority of people who use opioids, including heroin, don’t end up developing an addiction. So our focus should be not just on preventing people from using opioids – after all, they can be essential medical tools – but also ensuring, above all else, that people who use them don’t go on to struggle with addiction.

A truly health-centered approach to drug addiction assesses improvement by many measures, not simply by someone’s drug use level, but also by their overall health, their social relationships, and their general well-being.  Determining success by boiling it down to the single measure of abstinence to an arbitrary group of certain drugs isn’t realistic or effective.

Addiction is a complex phenomenon, but I think it’s safe to say that it can only be genuinely resolved when people find meaning in their lives.  This study is yet another indication that the meaning people seem to find from psychedelics has considerable implications for our prevailing healthcare and criminal justice paradigms.

Jag Davies is the director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)

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