by Emma Hogan
Every three days Nathan (not his real name), a 27-year-old venture capitalist in San Francisco, ingests 15 micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide (commonly known as LSD or acid). The microdose of the psychedelic drug – which generally requires at least 100 micrograms to cause a high – gives him the gentlest of buzzes. It makes him feel far more productive, he says, but nobody else in the office knows that he is doing it. “I view it as my little treat. My secret vitamin,” he says. “It’s like taking spinach and you’re Popeye.”
Nathan first started microdosing in 2014, when he was working for a startup in Silicon Valley. He would cut up a tab of LSD into small slices and place one of these on his tongue each time he dropped. His job involved pitching to investors. “So much of fundraising is storytelling, being persuasive, having enough conviction. Microdosing is pretty fantastic for being a volume knob for that, for amplifying that.” He partly credits the angel investment he secured during this period to his successful experiment in self-medication.
Of all the drugs available, psychedelics have long been considered among the most powerful and dangerous. When Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” in the 1970s, the authorities claimed LSD caused people to jump out of windows and fried users’ brains. When Ronald Reagan was the governor of California, which in 1966 was one of the first states to criminalise the drug, he argued that “anyone that would engage or indulge in [LSD] is just a plain fool”.
Yet attitudes towards psychedelics appear to be changing. According to a 2013 paper from two Norwegian researchers that used data from 2010, Americans aged between 30 and 34 – not the original flower children but the next generation – were the most likely to have tried LSD. An ongoing survey of middle-school and high-school students shows that drug use has fallen across the board among the young (as in most of the rich world). Yet, LSD use has recently risen a little, and the perceived risks of the drug fallen, among 13- to 17-year-olds.
As with many social changes, from transportation to food delivery to dating, Silicon Valley has blazed a trail with microdosing. It may yet influence the way that America, and eventually the West, view psychedelic substances.
LSD’s effects were discovered by accident. In April 1943 Albert Hoffmann, a Swiss scientist, mistakenly ingested a small amount of the chemical, which he had synthesised a few years earlier though never tested. Three days later he took 250 micrograms of the drug on purpose and had a thoroughly bad trip, but woke up the next day with a “sensation of well-being and renewed life”. Over the next decade, LSD was used recreationally by a select group of people, such as the writer Aldous Huxley. But not until it was mass produced in San Francisco in the 1960s did it fill the sails of the hippy movement and inspire the catchphrase “turn on, tune in and drop out”.
From the start, a small but significant crossover existed between those who were experimenting with drugs and the burgeoning tech community in San Francisco. “There were a group of engineers who believed there was a causal connection between creativity and LSD,” recalls John Markoff, whose 2005 book, “What the Dormouse Said”, traces the development of the personal-computer industry through 1960s counterculture. At one research centre in Menlo Park over 350 people – particularly scientists, engineers and architects – took part in experiments with psychedelics to see how the drugs affected their work. Tim Scully, a mathematician who, with the chemist Nick Sand, produced 3.6m tabs of LSD in the 1960s, worked at a computer company after being released from his ten-year prison sentence for supplying drugs. “Working in tech, it was more of a plus than a minus that I worked with LSD,” he says. No one would turn up to work stoned or high but “people in technology, a lot of them, understood that psychedelics are an extremely good way of teaching you how to think outside the box.”
San Francisco appears to be at the epicentre of the new trend, just as it was during the original craze five decades ago. Tim Ferriss, an angel investor and author, claimed in 2015 in an interview with CNN that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.” Few billionaires are as open about their usage as Ferriss suggests. Steve Jobs was an exception: he spoke frequently about how “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life”. In Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, the Apple CEO is quoted as joking that Microsoft would be a more original company if Bill Gates, its founder, had experienced psychedelics.
As Silicon Valley is a place full of people whose most fervent desire is to be Steve Jobs, individuals are gradually opening up about their usage – or talking about trying LSD for the first time. According to Chris Kantrowitz, the CEO of Gobbler, a cloud-storage company, and the head of a new fund investing in psychedelic research, people were refusing to talk about psychedelics as recently as three years ago. “It was very hush hush, even if they did it.” Now, in some circles, it seems hard to find someone who has never tried it.
LSD works by interacting with serotonin, the chemical in the brain that modulates mood, dreaming and consciousness. Once the drug enters the brain (no mean feat), it hijacks the serotonin 2A receptor, explains Robin Carhart-Harris, a scientist at Imperial College London who is among those mapping out the effects of psychedelics using brain-scanning technology. The 2A receptor is most heavily expressed in the cortex, the part of the brain in which consciousness could be said to reside. One of the first effects of psychedelics such as LSD is to “dissolve a sense of self,” says Carhart-Harris. This is why those who have taken the drug sometimes describe the experience as mystical or spiritual.