SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A growing number of Bay Area professionals are taking what they call a wonder drug to ramp up their job performance and stoke their problem-solving abilities. They are using tiny bits of an illegal psychedelic drug that came to the nation’s attention in the 1960s – the hallucinogen called lysergic acid diethylamide-25 or LSD.
In the 60s, an unprecedented number of young people flocked to San Francisco, seeing the world in a different light – in part, because of psychedelics.
Timothy Leary, a well-known psychologist and controversial advocate for the drug at the time, popularized the catchphrase “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” In 1968, he told a KPIX reporter, “No one should take LSD unless they are in a state of grace.”
Nearly 50 years later, San Francisco is still the center of the psychedelic universe and a new crush of young people are flocking here.
But those who now drop acid, and how and why they do it, might surprise you. They are not hippies or homeless. They’re tech bros, artists, investors, even entrepreneurs.
KPIX 5 met up with some of them on Bicycle Day at Golden Gate Park. This day commemorates when pharmacist Albert Hofmann, who invented LSD in 1938, did a self-experiment in 1943, and deliberately took LSD to chronicle its effects as he traveled home on a bicycle.
On Bicycle Day 2016, we spoke to participants who all belonged in the tech community but who did not want to appear on camera. They explained they are not taking LSD to hallucinate. They are taking a tiny dose – about a tenth of a normal dose – to be more productive and creative. The practice is called micro-dosing.
“These are the people influencing the world,” said Joseph Mattia, founder of psychedelic therapy group Psychedelic Times. “These are the companies reaching far and wide all over.”
While psychedelic drugs remain illegal, Santa Cruz-based research firm Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has gotten permission from the Food and Drug Administration to study whether psychedelics have medically-based, therapeutic potential.
MAPS Executive Director Rick Doblin was recently at an Oakland fundraiser for psychedelic studies, and offered what he knew anecdotally about micro-dosing for non-therapeutic purposes. “People are finding that low-dose LSD permits their mind to be more expansive in terms of problem-solving, and yet at the same time they’re able to stay focused,” said Doblin.
KPIX 5 found one such individual, a 27-year-old artist named Briana. She said she micro-dosed to focus more deeply on her work; for her, she said it’s actually better than caffeine.
“I feel focused and I can take away my distractions easily, much more easily than if I were just normal,” said Briana, laughing.
Veteran software engineer Kevin Herbert said LSD helped him solve some tough technical problems when he was working at Cisco. “Software engineering and hardware engineering, incredibly complex,” he explained.
Herbert recently tried micro-dosing to learn a complicated new computer language, and he found that there appeared to be a benefit.
But the hard scientific proof about the benefits or the dangers is in short supply.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know enough at this point to say whether micro-dosing with psychedelics like LSD is safe,” said MAPS Communication Director Brad Burge.
He said in 1966, when LSD was declared illegal, promising research involving psychedelics abruptly stopped. “The lack of research means we can’t say for sure whether LSD is going to help in a particular way,” explained Burge, adding no one yet knows for whom it’s safe or for whom it’s less safe, what the dosage is, what the dosage should not be, and how frequently people should use it.
But psychologist and psychedelic researcher James Fadiman has gotten a glimpse. “We were quietly doing this research in Menlo Park,” said Fadiman.
In the 60s, Fadiman conducted pioneering psychedelic research when LSD was still legal. He recruited volunteers – many in high-tech – to take a moderate dose of the psychedelic. “They were people from Varian, from Hewlett-Packard, from the Stanford Research Institute, there were two architects, there was a graphic designer, there were theoretical physicists. There were chip designers,” Fadiman recalled.
Each volunteer brought to the session technical or professional problems they could not solve, problems they had been working on for at least three months. But after the volunteers dropped acid, Fadiman recollected that they had success. “They dove into their technical problems,” said Fadiman. “We had 48 problems, 44 solutions.”
In a new research project, Fadiman is collecting anecdotal reports from hundreds of micro-dosers from around the world. Out of the nearly 400 reports, just two individuals reported an adverse reaction, primarily anxiety. Fadiman said the vast majority said “they feel better, they feel more competent, they feel like they can solve their daily problems more easily.”
As for Briana, she’s working on an interactive sculpture with a team of other artists for the upcoming Burning Man Festival in August. It will be an Adventure Vending Machine that will dole out adventure at the festival.
She says micro-dosing helped.
“I would like to see this be legal one day,” the artist said.
However, LSD remains classified at a Schedule 1 drug, considered the most dangerous and with no medical uses.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and National Institutes of Health have urged caution. Since these drugs are illegal, buying LSD from suppliers may be unreliable and unpredictable. Erowid, a non-profit educational organization that collects and provides information about psychedelic drugs, notes that while LSD is not addictive, it does present some dangers, including psychological.