Collage of Two Police Officers and MDMA Capsules

Police Officers Are Turning to Psychedelics to Overcome Trauma   

In the face of a deepening mental health crisis, more police officers and public servants are turning to psychedelics for relief and healing from work-related trauma.

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Anguished by the constant drip of trauma and the recent suicide of a colleague, Officer John had reached a breaking point. He had become emotionally numb, his marriage was deteriorating, and life as he knew it was crumbling. Then, he turned to ayahuasca in the hope of relief. “It not only saved my sanity and my marriage,” he reported, “it also made me a better and kinder police officer.” 

Law enforcement faces a lot of trauma at work. They may face life-threatening situations and witness horrific crimes at any given time, all while under pressure to stay composed. The ongoing stress of the job takes a staggering toll on their mental health. And now, a growing movement of officers is campaigning for access to psychedelic therapy.

“There have been many stories about poor behavior, misogyny, and racism within policing. But this crisis can’t be seen in the absence of the mental health crisis within policing,” said Neil Woods, former undercover police officer, author, and campaigner. Woods is a board member of The Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a movement of current and retired law enforcement members who advocate for drug policy and criminal justice reform. 

READ: Spanish Police Bust Ayahuasca Syndicate

Like many former and serving officers, Woods’ turbulent career, which he writes about in his bestseller Good Cop Bad War, led to him developing chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition may affect one in seven police officers worldwide, and anxiety and depression in the industry are rife. Officers are more likely to die from suicide than they are from being in the line of duty, and their suicide rate is over 50 percent higher than that of the general population, according to US data. 

On March 20, Woods joined four other officers at the United Nations annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs in a panel titled “Why Police Need Access to Psychedelics Urgently.” They discussed the grave state of mental health problems within the police force and overwhelming evidence supporting that psychedelics could help. 

“What I experienced was numinous love and sacred gratitude for everything that went into me being who I am in this present moment,” Sarko Gergerian, a panelist and lieutenant in the Massachusetts Police Department, said about his own experience receiving MDMA therapy as part of a federally sanctioned research project. “It changed my life forever.” 

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Gergerian is also a psychotherapist and said he gained “a needed perspective as to how MDMA is going to help someone with treatment-resistant severe PTSD.” He has since completed MAPS’ MDMA facilitator training and plans to use MDMA in his practice once the drug is federally approved. 

Outside of psychotherapeutic settings, psychedelic ceremonies are increasingly capturing the interest of law enforcement. Woods recounted meeting a facilitator in Amsterdam who has been experiencing a surge in attendance from police officers at his magic truffle retreats.

Paul Haylock, a serving officer and dog trainer, recently attended several ayahuasca ceremonies in the Peruvian jungle, where ayahuasca is legal for sacramental use. The retreat was organized by the not-for-profit Heroic Hearts UK (HHUK), an independent organization that connects first responders and military veterans with mental health support, including psychedelic therapies.

Throughout Haylock’s career, he has encountered a myriad of traumatic events. He witnessed a fatal car accident during one of his first days on duty at age 19 and was one of the first officers at the scene of the 2017 Westminster, London, attack when a terrorist killed four pedestrians and stabbed a police officer to death. 

Haylock internalized these experiences rather than seeking the emotional support he needed. He reflected on the prevailing stigma within police culture surrounding seeking help for mental health. “You don’t talk about it,” he said. “You don’t really deal with it.”  

Haylock’s mental health hit rock bottom when he and his wife lost a baby in 2019. The situation made him realize that he “had to deal with a lot of demons from past traumas” and change the way he was living. He came across ayahuasca while listening to the HHUK company founder, Keith Abraham, and was inspired by his journey.

Abraham served nine years in the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, causing him to develop severe anxiety and depression. Having experienced profound healing with the aid of ayahuasca and psilocybin, he established the UK branch of Heroic Hearts to help other veterans find similar relief.  

The program was later opened to include members of law enforcement and other first responders after Abraham began teaching QiGong to an officer. “She suffered in a very similar way to how I would have suffered from traumatic events as a combat veteran,” he said.

Haylock was one of the first officers to attend a Heroic Hearts retreat. His first journey with ayahuasca was described as profound and “like a video game,” as he experienced what felt like different tests on how to deal with challenging life scenarios. 

READ: States Are Embracing Psychedelics, Paving the Way for FDA Approval

The retreat gave him a greater understanding of his own life and the lives of those around him. “My relationships have no doubt improved,” he said. “I am more compassionate towards people and don’t hold things against them. I try to understand why they have been treating us like that.”

Multiple studies highlight the interpersonal benefits of psychedelics, echoing Haylock’s experience. Psilocybin has been shown to increase emotional empathy and feelings of social connectedness. MDMA and mescaline are also known as entactogens, characterized by increased experiences of oneness and emotional openness.

However, it wasn’t just the psychedelic effects of ayahuasca that benefited Haylock. Being among other first responders and veterans throughout the retreats, he found solace and increased perspective that he “wasn’t alone.” 

“It’s about trust. It’s nothing that we ultimately do, but it’s how we are,” Abraham explained, “It’s that sense of collective community and collective experience that is really valuable to these professions. We try to re-establish that and develop it over the course of our programs.”

Haylock said his work-related interactions have significantly improved since the retreat, too. Not only is he more understanding and less judgemental of others, but he can also remain calmer when dealing with escalating situations. “It has certainly made me take that step back [and] take that deep breath. We’ve got to try to empathize and understand that person.”

Cases of gross misconduct and illegal behavior by police officers have markedly increased in recent years. Over 40 percent of adults in London reported somewhat or strongly distrusting the Metropolitan police in a 2023 survey.  

“If people have confidence in the police, then that causes all sorts of societal and political problems. This is urgent, and it’s rapidly becoming a bigger problem,” said Woods. He believes psychedelic therapies could help police make better decisions, reduce their temper, and prevent poor police behavior. 

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However, some critics have expressed concern that psychedelic therapy could increase public harm. Psychedelics are often referred to as “non-specific amplifiers” and could potentiate certain harmful traits or skills to be misused. Erik Davis, a journalist and writer, raised the “disturbing possibility” that MDMA therapy used in active-duty soldiers could become “affective grease for the military machine.” He said it’s unknown whether MDMA would make someone more or less likely to commit war crimes. 

Nonetheless, the interpersonal benefits highlighted by Haylock and other officers raise hope that psychedelic therapies could be a force of good when it comes to police public engagement.

Similar to law enforcement, the frontline medical industry regularly experiences critical incidents, and statistics highlight that mental health problems similarly prevail. Over 35 percent of paramedics may be affected by depression and anxiety, according to one study review.

READ: What Happens When Psychedelic Evangelism Goes Too Far?

Keith hopes the powerful experiences of those like Haylock will encourage more first responders, including medical staff, to join the HHUK project. “All of us who experience professional trauma deserve a shot at healing,” he said. 

Julie Favell is a frontline paramedic who began using psychedelics five years ago to help manage the trauma-related impact of her job. She described having become “desensitized” to her emotions through the constant exposure to horrific circumstances. “You wouldn’t believe some of the horrendous and sad living situations I’ve seen, what people do just to survive,” she said.

Having “lost those little joys in life,” she took an intentional journey with psychedelics and experienced a significant transformation in her emotional, physical, and mental health. Now, if she feels the “numbness build up,” she drives into nature, usually with her partner, where she carefully uses psychedelics to reconnect with her core values and nature. 

Micheál de Barra, an emergency medicine doctor, also described a tremendous sense of emotional opening after journeying with ayahuasca. “There is definitely something about working in the Emergency Department that I originally learned to shut down my heart. But through plant medicine work, I have learned to feel those emotions,” he said. 

He also said ayahuasca helped him to feel increased presence, acceptance, and gratitude at work. This greatly benefited his work-related interactions, as he became “kinder to other staff and patients” and, in turn, “provided better care.”

Despite these success stories, those on the frontline continue to face sizable challenges when it comes to using psychedelics, especially officers who may be violating the very laws they are sworn to uphold. “It’s hard for a cop to face up to the fact that the thing might actually help them they’ve seen as a Class A drug for the most of their career,” said Woods. 

Lovell similarly highlighted that there is a taboo around using psychedelics among her colleagues. She says her journeys can feel like a “dirty little secret.”

READ: Shamans Are Going to Jail for Ayahuasca Possession

Nonetheless, the rhetoric around psychedelics within these industries is markedly changing. Australia’s recent legalization of MDMA and psilocybin therapy highlights a significant shift from the entrenched notion of psychedelics as a source of harm used only within the context of abuse. Ongoing research investigating psilocybin therapy for burnout in frontline clinicians and nurses could also be pivotal in changing attitudes within these industries. 

Increasingly, officers are uniting to challenge the outdated Schedule 1 classification of psychedelics. LEAP members foregrounded the antiquated scheduling of psychedelics in an event co-organized with Open Eye Visual (OEV) partners and the Birmingham University of Law last month. They called for increased access to psychedelic therapy, recognizing its potential to address the mental health crisis among law enforcement and the impact of such on society at large. 

“The advocacy is gathering pace, and we’re developing new allies all of the time,” said Woods. He is optimistic that this movement could have huge effects on the psychedelic movement at large. “For those people who are dubious about demanding psychedelic therapy to police officers when police leaders start demanding access, this is going to drastically disrupt public opinion on psychedelics and move the course along faster.”

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DoubleBlind is a trusted resource for news, evidence-based education, and reporting on psychedelics. We work with leading medical professionals, scientific researchers, journalists, mycologists, indigenous stewards, and cultural pioneers. Read about our editorial policy and fact-checking process here.

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DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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