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A sex trade worker is pictured in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, June 3, 2014. A recent study by the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS finds that sex workers who use psychedelic drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms are associated with a markedly reduced risk of suicide.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Sex workers who use psychedelic drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms are associated with a markedly reduced risk of suicide, raising the possibility of new and innovative ways to treat a marginalized population.

That's the conclusion of a study by the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, which investigated whether such drugs could have a "protective effect" on sex workers, who are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts than the general population.

It found that, among female sex workers, naturalistic psychedelic drug use was associated with a 60-per-cent reduced risk of suicidal tendencies.

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GSHI researcher Elena Argento said the study, and its potential implications, highlight the urgent need to advance research on the therapeutic utility of psychedelics.

"Marginalized women, such as sex workers, face significant socio-structural risks for suicidality that come from criminalization and experiences of violence and past trauma," she said. "There's a need to start coming up with more innovative and evidence-based interventions that are tailored to marginalized women."

Researchers gathered longitudinal data from January, 2010, through August, 2014, from female sex workers across Metro Vancouver, recruited through community outreach. The analysis was restricted to only those who had never had suicidal attempts or thoughts before the study – a total of 290 sex workers, or roughly half of participants.

The women completed bi-annual, interviewer-administered questionnaires. Researchers controlled for variables such as non-psychedelic drug use, childhood abuse and homelessness.

Other researchers have hypothesized that psychedelics might be protective because they regulate serotonin receptors that have been linked to major depression and suicide.

"In more plain language, psychedelics increase the permeability between the conscious and unconscious mind, and help to recall autobiographical memories," Ms. Argento said. "So they may facilitate a more positive reprocessing of traumatic experiences."

Ms. Argento presented the study on Tuesday at the Harm Reduction International Conference taking place in Montreal.

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There is a growing body of research into the benefits of psychedelic drugs. In 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore reported that some long-time smokers who had failed many attempts to quit did so successfully while receiving magic mushrooms, in the context of a cognitive behavioural therapy treatment program.

And, in 2015, an analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal highlighted several small studies that found psychedelics may be effective at treating patients struggling with addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, but that "popular misconceptions" were hampering research efforts.

The B.C. Centre on Substance Use, struck last year as one effort to combat the province's overdose crisis, is also planning to study the effectiveness of psychedelic-assisted therapy in treating opioid and other substance use disorders. Psychedelic drugs are considered less harmful than opioids.

Thomas Kerr, director of research at the BCCSU, said such therapy has immense potential.

"The research that has been done to date using these approaches in tobacco and alcohol addiction treatment has been promising," Dr. Kerr said in a statement issued last month. "Given the limited number of tools used to help support addiction treatment, we urgently need to further our understanding of how these substances may help heal underlying trauma that can be such a barrier to recovery."

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