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A Brief Trip to the Wasteland: Psychedelics and Recidivism

All the studies and all the research in the field of criminology affirm that prison education is the least expensive and most effective solution to overcrowding and strain on the budget caused by recidivism.” –Christopher Zoukis

A study from 2017 investigated the relationships of classic lifetime psychedelic use, specifically psilocybin, with criminal behavior. Three studies conducted between the 1950s and early 70s had already tested the impact of psychedelic therapy on criminal offenders–”psychopaths” to sexual deviants–with promising results. But the regulatory laws prohibited further examination. The resurgence of psychedelics in recent years, however, has allowed more profound research into their potential therapeutic benefits. With prisons packed to the brim and recidivism rates alarmingly high, it appears that serious inquiries into methods to alleviate the problem have turned researchers towards psychedelics. It’s important to note that this subject matter has yet to be thoroughly explored.

This particular investigation pooled from 480,000 U.S. adult respondents from the previous 13 available years. It departed from the methodology of previous clinical examinations on this subject, in that the majority of respondents were not involved in the criminal justice system.

We hypothesized that lifetime classic psychedelic use would be associated with decreased likelihood of past year criminal behavior.”

After reading about this study, I was reflecting on the deeper implications of this pursuit. Firstly, this idea of “inhibiting criminal behavior.” Secondly, I wondered, did they consider the racial disparities in prison? That the system itself plays a fundamental role in creating its criminals, and most importantly, in this case, perpetuating criminal behavior? Then, finally, I asked myself, “What makes a criminal?”

The Village, The Wasteland and The Journey

This brought to mind the work of Joseph Campbell. In his blockbuster book, A Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell outlines the three possible life paths that an individual, born into a society, can take: the village, wasteland, and the journey. Of course, the most famous is the latter, the Hero’s Path, but what about the path of the rebel, the criminal–The Wasteland?

I’ll first unpack Campbell’s framework, then give the results of the study, and end with the example of “re-entry” to illustrate the relationship between The Village and The Wasteland in action.

“We all operate in our society in relation to a system.” –Joseph Campbell

The Village

To begin on a light foot, the Disney film–Beauty and the Beast–begins with the damsel dreamer Belle who, through song, takes us through the everyday humdrum of the village. There must be more than this provincial life. From the village’s perspective, Belle is a little weird. A funny girl that Belle. She’s pretty, but her father is a disheveled inventor, and she likes to read and isn’t into muscleman Gaston. She dreams, in other words, for another life.

The village represents the life mapped out by the society and culture into which the individual is born. Often referred to as the track of the “ego,” the individual follows the values and traditions set in place. For some, this path is harmonious, in accordance with their nature, and offers stability and assurance. But for some, this road is so narrow, confusing, and/or treacherous that it suffocates, represses, and oppresses the individual. It opposes the individual’s truth, even rejects it. The village may not afford those of “another” orientation; whether that be race, gender, and sexual preference, the same access or invitation.

Regardless of the reasons, there are two choices, according to Campbell, for those who do not fit in.

The Wasteland and The Path

“The Wasteland, let us say then, is any world in which…force and not love, indoctrination not education, authority not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives, and where the myths and rites enforced and received are consequently unrelated to the actual inward realizations, needs, and potentialities of those upon whom they are impressed.” –Joseph Campbell

The Wasteland is the path of the rebel, outlaw, or outcast. It represents those who reject and escape the village through the pathways that lead to addiction, criminal behavior, or simply isolation; the “crazy” old lady in town that becomes a mythological figure for the children. “A witch.” Those on the fringes of their society, culture, and family are those beyond the village’s limits of the norm.

Whereas the other option is the path, the hero’s journey. The individual feels a calling, makes a decision and carves their own path with an internal tool, which is their bliss. The growth of the individual causes the village to evolve–bringing new ideas, a new way to live and creates the possibility for others to flourish. That is why structurally speaking, the story comes full circle–the individual leaves and returns a hero. 

But What About the Wasteland? 

Prison populations have increased by 500 percent in 40 years. The cells are bulging at the beams.

Recidivism rates, that is the rate that criminals return to prison, are alarmingly high. 67.8% and 76.6.% of released inmates return within 3.5- five years for a new crime. This is another full circle narrative, but one that our society doesn’t seem to learn from. The current system creates a closed-circle loop that keeps a majority of its constituents out of the village, so-called “minorities.” Most of them weren’t even welcome in the “village” to begin with.

The Results of the Study

The study split the respondents into two categories: those who reported any use of a “classic” psychedelic (LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin mushrooms) in their lifetime, even once, and those who had never taken any of those substances. Psilocybin appears to have been the focus due to its success in reducing anxiety, depression, and addictive behavior.

Overall, the study suggests that lifetime classic psychedelic use reduced the odds of criminal behavior; from theft to violent crimes:

  • 27% decreased odds of past year larceny/theft
  • 12% decreased odds of past year arrest on property crime
  • 18% decreased odds of past year arrest for violent crime 

However, the use of “illicit drugs” was associated with increased odds of criminal behavior. Furthermore, the majority of those who used classic psychedelic drugs were non-Hispanic white men, Native Americans/Alaska Natives. They also had “greater educational attainment and income.” The study goes into greater detail.

Already, these details alone indicate the narratives associated with these “bad” and “better–now” drugs, who they involve, and where they end up. The results produced enough substantial evidence to viably consider further clinical research with classic psychedelics in forensic settings. But what about the system itself which perpetuates the very behavior it seeks to rectify?


“The prison sentence doesn’t end when the prison gates open.”

The first few hours are the most vulnerable for many of the 10,000 prisoners released from every week. Yet, these first few hours are critical, experts purport, to an inmate’s success in staying out of jail. Most re-enter society in a state of emergency.

Transportation, shelter, food–they have to fend without much, if any, systemic support. To quote Katy Steinbruck, director of programs for Offender Aid and Restoration of Arlington, a reentry nonprofit in Northern Virginia, “How is that ensuring public safety?”

“They lock us up in the name of public safety but then they release us and at that point we’re more in a menace than we were when we went in,” said Adryan Glenn, a former prisoner. 

Ideally, prisons release inmates to family members, friends, or a facility. They have prepared them with a plan to overcome the initial hurdles, like transportation assistance, and shelter. However, “Most jails are not set up for reentry” according to the Virginia Department of Corrections’ own head of reentry.

Many don’t have anywhere to go upon release; they come back into the world alone. On top of that, they carry their scarlet letter wherever they go. On a basic level, their sentence–though they served it– impedes their ability to find employment, obtain a lease, and fit into the context of a society. 

“A criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent.”


Psychedelics might be a valuable asset to the process of dealing with emotional, mental, spiritual, chemical, historical–trauma. Giving psychedelics to inmates, however, does not address the root of the problem. The issue here is not whether or not psychedelic-assisted therapy could inhibit criminality and recidivism rates. Without the systemic support and comprehensive prison reform, how much can psychedelic-assisted therapy really do in this case?

We have to systemically create the possibility for criminals to move past this label. The system keeps them in a perpetual Wasteland. Some are heroes in their own right. Stories exist of successful transitions, but for the most part – the statistic proves –most aren’t. As a rehabilitation strategy, the logic doesn’t make sense.

Come to think of it, the criminal justice system could use a lot of therapy and some quality time reflecting on the nature of its design, who it targets, and why.

What about giving psychedelic-assisted therapy to law enforcement officials, judiciaries, and prison guards?

Contributor | Maria Mocerino

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