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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Lebedev

Exploring the Connection Between Violence and Psychedelics: Can These Substances Help Us Find Peace?

In this blog post, we will explore the relationship between violence and psychedelics, and consider whether these substances have the potential to help us find more peaceful and compassionate ways of resolving conflicts.


Violence and aggression are all too common in our world, and it seems that no matter how much progress we make as a society, there are always those who resort to these destructive behaviours in order to achieve their goals. At the same time, psychedelics have a long and complex history, with some people claiming that they have the power to bring about profound spiritual insights, healing and peace, while others make historical references to the use of these substances in warfare and violent cults.

In this blog post, we will explore the relationship between violence and psychedelics, and consider whether these substances have the potential to help us find more peaceful and compassionate ways of resolving conflicts.

Violence takes many forms, from an individual to a global level. Physical assault, emotional abuse, verbal aggression, local conflicts and wars - all these faces of violence can have devastating consequences for individuals, communities, and entire societies. In many cases, violence is fuelled by fear, hatred, and distrust, and it can be difficult to find a way to break the cycle of aggression and retaliation. However, there are also many examples of people and organisations working towards peace and reconciliation, and it is important to remember that there are always alternatives to violence and aggression.

What role do psychedelics have in this discussion?

Psychedelics, such as psilocybin, mescaline and DMT, have a long history of use in spiritual and religious practices, and today, witnessing the so-called psychedelic renaissance, many people believe that these substances can help to facilitate deep personal insights and transformation. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, and a growing body of research suggests that these substances may be able to help with a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and addiction.

Given the potential of psychedelics to bring about personal transformation and healing, it is perhaps not surprising that some people have suggested that these substances may be able to help reduce the prevalence of violence. After all, if more people were able to find inner peace and a sense of connection with others, it seems likely that there would be fewer conflicts and less aggression.

Today with access to big data and advanced analytical tools, scientists can look into statistical links between a variety of outcomes in our population in relation to psychedelic use.

Interestingly, a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology analysed 480,000 United States adult respondents and found that lifetime use of classical psychedelics was associated with a reduced odds of a number of different crimes, such as theft, assault, property crime, and past year arrest for a violent crime (Hendricks et al., 2018). In contrast, lifetime illicit use of other drugs was, by and large, associated with an increased odds of these outcomes. These findings contribute to a compelling rationale for the continuation of clinical research with classic psychedelics.

Another study published in the same journal surveyed 1266 people and identified that males with a history of LSD and/or psilocybin use were less likely to engage in physical violence against their current partner (Thiessen et al., 2018). The analyses also revealed that compared to males with no history of psychedelic use those with such a history reported better emotion regulation, which mediated the relationship between psychedelic use and lower perpetration of intimate partner violence.

While some studies have indeed suggested that psychedelics may have the potential to reduce violent behaviour, as pointed out in the introduction, there are also a number of examples throughout history of psychedelics being used as a means of inciting violence or as a tool of oppression.

The Aztecs

‘Human sacrifice’, Codex Laud folio 8.

Thus, the Aztecs were known to have used a variety of psychoactive substances in their religious rituals and ceremonies, including Ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa), Peyote and Teonanacatl (Psilocybe mexicana) (Elferink, 2016). They believed that these substances allowed them to communicate with the gods and gain spiritual insight. However, some of these rituals were also associated with human sacrifice and other forms of violence. For example, the Aztecs believed that the gods required the sacrifice of human hearts in order to maintain the balance of the universe, and these sacrifices were often carried out under the influence of psychedelics. There is also some evidence for the warfare use of Teotlaqualli, an unction prepared from Ololiuqui and Picietl (fragrant tobacco) (Carod-Artal, 2015). The Aztec priests applied the unction to their bodies as a ritual preparation for serving the gods. This process was believed to help them overcome fear and attain the appropriate state of mind for performing their religious duties. Historical records also indicate that the Aztec emperor and soldiers may have used Teotlaqualli in certain circumstances, possibly as a means of imbuing themselves with the power and strength associated with their spiritual beliefs. Some scholars also suggest that the black color of certain Aztec deities, as depicted in the codices, may be attributed to the use of this unction.

We must recognise that the Aztecs lived in a complex society, and their religious practices were not only associated with violence, but also with other cultural, economic and political factors. Also, it is worth noting that these practices were condemned by the Spanish Conquistadors who often misinterpreted them (Pennock, 2018). However, it is clear that in this specific historical context, psychedelics were deeply embedded into the fabric of culture connected to violence and aggression.

Violent Cults of the XX century

Charles Manson is escorted to court for a preliminary hearing on Dec. 3, 1969, in Los Angeles | Los Angeles Times.

There are also modern examples of psychedelic use in violent cults. One of them is the infamous cult led by Charles Manson in the late 1960s, known as the "Manson Family." Manson and his followers were known to have used a variety of psychedelic substances, including LSD, as a means of creating a sense of unity and loyalty among the group members (O’Neill & Piepenbring, 2019). Manson attempted to use psychedelics to manipulate and brainwash his followers, leading them to commit a series of brutal murders in the summer of 1969.

It's important to note that the vast majority of people who use psychedelics do not become involved in violent or destructive behaviour, and that the use of psychedelics by these cults was not the sole cause of their destructive behaviour. The use of psychedelics in these cults must be contextualised within the larger framework of the cult's ideology and practices, as well as the personalities and motivations of the cult leaders.


"Woodworm" a miniseries released on Netflix on December 15, 2017.

A well-known and controversial example of how psychedelics can be abused by powerful organisations took place during the Cold War, when the United States government conducted a series of experiments with LSD as a potential weapon. In the 1950s and 60s, the CIA and the military conducted experiments on both soldiers and civilians, in an effort to determine the potential uses of LSD as a truth serum or a means of mind control (Bodnár & Kakuk, 2019). One of the most infamous of these experiments was the so-called "MK-Ultra" program, in which the CIA conducted secret experiments on human subjects without their knowledge or consent. Many of these subjects were given high doses of LSD and other psychedelics, and were subjected to a variety of psychological and physical tests. The results of these experiments were often disturbing, with some subjects experiencing severe psychological trauma and long-term side effects. The use of LSD and other psychedelics in these experiments was highly unethical, and the full extent of the MK-Ultra program was not revealed until the 1970s, when documents related to the program were declassified. Despite the controversy surrounding these experiments, they have had a lasting impact on the way we understand the potential uses and risks of psychedelics in such an unhealthy context. A miniseries “Woodworm” tells the story of these horrifying experiments.

While the use of psychedelics in violent contexts has often been a top-down affair, with abusive individuals, governments or military organisations seeking to harness their power for strategic purposes, many soldiers have also turned to these substances as a way to cope with the intense and traumatic experiences of war. One example of this is the widespread use of marijuana by soldiers in Vietnam, who used the drug as a means of relieving stress and anxiety in the midst of combat. In more recent conflicts, soldiers have also reported using psychedelics as a way to process and come to terms with the psychological trauma of war.

Treating people in the aftermaths of violence and wars

"Study: MDMA therapy for PTSD shows positive results" | CBS News Weekender

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the use of psychedelics as a potential treatment for PTSD, particularly in veterans.

There has been a recent phase 3 clinical trial of MDMA, a psychedelic compound known more commonly as "ecstasy," for the treatment of PTSD. The results of this trial were published in 2021 and highlighted that MDMA-assisted therapy was very effective in reducing symptoms of severe PTSD (Mitchell et al., 2021). These findings are significant because they demonstrate the potential of psychedelics as a treatment option for PTSD, a condition that can be difficult to treat with traditional methods. While more research is needed to fully understand the long-term effects of MDMA and other psychedelics on PTSD, these results suggest that these substances may have the potential to help people cope with the psychological trauma of violence and conflict.

A survey of 65 veterans who completed a specific psychedelic clinical program in Mexico between with ibogaine (a non-classical psychedelic, which is currently being researched in the treatment of addiction) indicated significant and very large reductions in retrospective report of suicidal ideation, cognitive impairment and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety (Davis et al., 2020). Additionally, most participants rated the psychedelic experiences as one of the top five personally meaningful (84%), spiritually significant (88%), and psychologically insightful (86%) experiences of their lives.

Finally, an interesting study looked at how psychedelics affect group dynamics in an intercultural context, specifically by studying Palestinian and Israeli participants who took ayahuasca together (Roseman et al., 2021). Through 31 interviews, the researchers explored how these ceremonies might contribute to the process of peace building. The interviews revealed three main themes: a sense of unity and shared humanity, strong connections to other cultures through shared spiritual experiences, and personal revelations related to conflict and trauma. The study found that psychedelic ceremonies can help facilitate peace building not only by promoting a sense of unity, but also by creating spaces for intercultural and interfaith exchange and helping individuals understand the relationship between their personal experiences and larger social and political issues.


Throughout history, the use of psychedelics in violent contexts has often been orchestrated by those who hold positions of power, such as tyrannical leaders, governments, or militaristic organisations, who seek to wield the mind-altering properties of these substances for their own strategic gain. This highlights the importance of contexts in which psychedelics are used and the complexity of the explored topic. It is clear that these substances are not a panacea for all of the world's problems. However, it is also undeniable that psychedelics can have powerful effects on the mind and can help to bring about personal healing, crucial for peaceful coexistence.

As such, it is worth exploring whether these substances might be able to play a role in finding more peaceful and compassionate ways of resolving conflicts and reducing the prevalence of violence in the world. While more research is needed to fully understand the potential of psychedelics in this regard, it is clear that these substances have the ability to inspire deep introspection and self-reflection, which can be crucial in helping people to recognise and overcome the roots of their aggressive behaviours.

As we delve into the topic of violence and psychedelics, it is crucial to acknowledge the cautionary tales from the past, and to recognise the responsibility that comes with working with these powerful substances, particularly for those in positions of power. It is important to note that psychedelics alone are not a panacea for the issue of violence, and that a multifaceted approach is necessary to address this complex issue. This approach should include addressing the underlying social, economic, and psychological factors that contribute to violence, as well as providing education and resources to empower individuals to find more constructive ways of resolving conflicts.

As we work towards these goals, it is worth considering the potential role that psychedelics might play in helping us to find more peaceful and compassionate ways of living in the world, which is a part of our mission at Katharsis Journeys.


Dr. Alexander Lebedev , CEO at Katharsis Journeys

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist with over 15 years experience in clinical and biomedical research. His academic work is focused on understanding complex relationships between global societal dynamics and people's health, wellbeing, beliefs and decision-making. As a part of his academic career, he published dozens of peer-reviewed articles on brain imaging, socionomics, psychopharmacology, psychedelics and coordinated several research studies, including Sweden’s first clinical trial investigating psilocybin's potential to treat depression. Alexander's mission is to develop novel wellbeing models that foster individual and societal resilience.



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  • Carod-Artal, F. J. (2015). Alucinógenos en las culturas precolombinas mesoamericanas. Neurología, 30(1), 42–49.

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  • Mitchell, J. M., Bogenschutz, M., Lilienstein, A., Harrison, C., Kleiman, S., Parker-Guilbert, K., Ot’alora G., M., Garas, W., Paleos, C., Gorman, I., Nicholas, C., Mithoefer, M., Carlin, S., Poulter, B., Mithoefer, A., Quevedo, S., Wells, G., Klaire, S. S., van der Kolk, B., … Doblin, R. (2021). MDMA-assisted therapy for severe PTSD: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 study. Nature Medicine, 27(6), 1025–1033.

  • O’Neill, T., & Piepenbring, D. (2019). Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the secret history of the sixties (First edition). Little, Brown and Company.

  • Roseman, L., Ron, Y., Saca, A., Ginsberg, N., Luan, L., Karkabi, N., Doblin, R., & Carhart-Harris, R. (2021). Relational Processes in Ayahuasca Groups of Palestinians and Israelis. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 12, 607529.

  • Thiessen, M. S., Walsh, Z., Bird, B. M., & Lafrance, A. (2018). Psychedelic use and intimate partner violence: The role of emotion regulation. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32(7), 749–755.

  • Caroline Dodds Pennock (2018). The real Aztecs: brutal, bloodthirsty... and caring? Issue 7 of BBC World Histories magazine.

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