Psychedelic drug use linked to reduced risk of opioid abuse and dependence, study finds

New research has found that the use of psychedelic drugs is associated with a decreased risk of opioid abuse and dependence.

The study examined so-called classic psychedelic drugs, which included lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mescaline, psilocybin, peyote, San Pedro cactus, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and ayahuasca. The use of these psychedelics was associated with a 27% reduced risk of past year opioid dependence and 40% reduced risk of past year opioid abuse among the 44,678 respondents with a history of illicit opioid use.

In contrast, the use of most other drugs was associated with increased risk of opioid abuse and dependence.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, was based on data collected in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2008 to 2013.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Vincent D. Pisano of Touro College. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Pisano: Due to the ongoing opiate epidemic there is clearly a need for new treatments for substance use disorders. Both prior and recent controlled trials have shown some success of psychedelic-assisted therapy for substance use, PTSD, anxiety, and depressive disorders. Additionally, recent epidemiological research has indicated that even non-medical psychedelic use was associated with decreased psychological distress, domestic violence, psychoses, and suicidality.

We wanted to build on the prior epidemiological research using the federal government’s data to see if there is an indication that non-medical psychedelic use is associated with reduced substance use disorders.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Among 40,000 respondents with a history of opioid use, those that had also used psychedelics were 27% less likely to have struggled with opiate abuse, and 40% less likely to have struggled with opiate dependence in the previous year when compared to those who had never used psychedelics.

Our findings suggest that psychedelics may have some protective mechanism if opiate users have also used psychedelics, which challenges the current designation of psychedelics as illicit substances with a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use. Our findings add to the justification of ongoing investigations of psychedelic-assisted therapy of treatment of alcohol, cocaine, opiate and tobacco use disorders with drugs like LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine. That our results stem from unsupervised and unmonitored non-medical use adds compelling empirical support to the multitude of anecdotal successes with psychedelic self-medication.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

First and foremost, though our findings are significant, these results are preliminary, and at best we hope that others will replicate our work in further research. The survey data relies largely on personal self-report, which leaves open the large possibility of flaws and low reliability in the sample.

The main drawback of a cross-sectional analysis is that it can only show that psychedelic use is associated with decreased opioid use, and not that psychedelics specifically cause reduced use. There’s also the possibility that another factor, unaccounted by the model, is the true driving force behind the outcomes, although our analysis attempted to account for variables such as age, education and sex.

But without significant funding sources from government agencies, or removing psychedelics from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, these questions cannot be answered more quickly and directly, especially given the high cost of running large multi-center clinical trials. However, public benefit and private foundations are making good progress.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Although we encourage the development of psychedelics into prescription medicines, research should be conducted by trained clinicians and medical professionals. Non-medical use and self-experimentation is not encouraged. Nevertheless, we recognize that millions of people are using illicit drugs all the time. Given the discrepancy with the harms of illicit opioid use, a legally approved substance, and the physically low-risk, psychologically manageable, and potentially beneficial qualities of psychedelics, a banned substance, we hope our research will draw attention to the need to move toward medical recognition of psychedelic use, and embrace decriminalization and harm reduction measures for non-medical use.

The study, “The association of psychedelic use and opioid use disorders among illicit users in the United States“, was also co-authored by Nathaniel P. Putnam, Hannah M. Kramer, Kevin J. Franciotti, John H. Halpern, and Selma C. Holden