It can seem as though everyone in Silicon Valley is either heading to or coming back from a psychedelic trip, and it is probably Michael Pollan’s fault.
He did after all write a best seller, “How to Change Your Mind,” about how healthful psychedelics can be. His neighbor Ayelet Waldman, whose memoir “A Really Good Day” recounts how taking acid helped her mood and marriage, has something to do with it, too. And now, inspired by Pollan, the writer T.C. Boyle has a new novel, “Outside Looking In,” about Timothy Leary, the charismatic Harvard professor turned psychedelics pied piper of the 1960s.
In the past year, psychedelics have entered the mainstream conversation in a way not seen since then. But now LSD and magic mushrooms aren’t for fun or adventure, but for wellness, life-hacking, therapy and self-care. The Milken Conference, a business event featuring the leaders of major banks, had a panel called “Psychedelics: Mind-Enhancing Methods to Well-Being.” There is a seemingly endless array of psychedelic health events. And no group has embraced psychedelics like Silicon Valley engineers.
On a recent afternoon, Waldman, who like Pollan lives in Berkeley, came to his house for lunch. The two had gotten into psychedelics only in their 50s, and their interest was a mix of academic, spiritual and therapeutic. Boyle, in town for his book tour, joined. Unlike the other two, Boyle had used drugs liberally in his youth and entirely for fun. (Boyle is recently retired from teaching writing at U.S.C., though he prefers the term “pre-dead.”) Over lunch, the three talked about the flood of freshly minted shamans, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand Goop and whether hallucinogens belong at company gatherings.
‘These people became shamans, like, last week’
Hallucinogens can be a particularly jarring, grueling high, and Pollan and Waldman both took the drugs with shaman guides in undisclosed locations. (The drugs are still illegal, after all.) Both found the experience to be life changing, giving them new insights into themselves and their lives. Now they worry about how many people are following their lead. A booming — and unregulated — shaman market has emerged.
“Now when you leave the airport in Quito, there are people with signs for ‘ayahuasca ceremony’ instead of ‘taxi,’” Pollan said. “These people became shamans, like, last week. People are getting hurt.” It’s not as if there’s a licensing board.
All the guys Pollan knew before are booked months out. Suddenly a lot more people are calling themselves experts.
Plus, there is the tricky issue of American wellness seekers taking over South American spiritual ceremonies.
“There’s just something that makes me uncomfortable about a bunch of white people overrunning all these shaman experiences,” Waldman said.
It’s a complicated concern for two people who have just published books about the benefits of psychedelics. They worry about the ayahuasca retreat gentrification even as they usher more people in the door.
Boyle, who wears a goatee and shaggy hair, does not worry as much about this as his Berkeley friends do. Nor does he share the same shamanic spiritual experiences or drug-related wellness goals. “Me, I was just a druggie — I wasn’t looking for enlightenment,” Boyle said. “The LSD we took, the mescaline and so on, it’s just bought from some guy on the street corner, we didn’t know what it was.”
The new psychedelic movement — in which microdosing is for productivity — would not approve.
And the booming wellness industry is ready with promises of what psychedelics can do for you (spoiler alert: almost everything). Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s health and beauty brand, now regularly features pieces with voices touting the health benefits of the drugs, claiming MDMA makes talk therapy more effective or ayahuasca increases a person’s appreciation of nature.
“The Goop-ification is happening,” Waldman said. She seems skeptical.
Waldman took on the soft but authoritative voice of a yoga instructor as she jokingly described how psychedelics might be rebranded.
“You know you take your jade egg, roll it in a little acid, and you shove it up your —,” Waldman said, making a swift upward motion with her hand as everyone around the table laughed. “Absorb it through your mucous membranes and it gives you a kind of extraordinary experience.”
The Trump effect
“Do you guys think Trump has something to do with it?” Pollan called from the kitchen where he was heating up pizza from the The Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley.
“I couldn’t get through Trump without something,” Waldman responded.
Pollan argues that the new interest in psychedelics comes from the growing anxiety in American society today — and not just from the erratic president.
“I think people want these kind of more intense experiences than they’re getting being online,” Pollan said.
The very people who funded the screens are now backing the things to cure people from their effects.
Venture capitalists are getting involved as a new gold rush stirs. Unusual new financiers are finding common cause with would-be hippies. The conservative investor Peter Thiel is backing a psychedelics-for-wellness start-up.
Pollan is now spending at least some of his time trying to stop people from using psychedelics at corporate off-sites. At a recent psychedelic conference at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, he met a 20-something entrepreneur whose start-up had closed a large round of funding and was now hiring.
“He’d come to the conference because he thought he could use psychedelics in his management training,” Pollan said. “And I tried to give him some cautionary notes. Like, ‘You know, you may want to go public one day.’”
Waldman argued that it could be a good idea to incorporate psychedelics into a company off-site, “as long as it’s not compulsory.”
The legalization question
But no one at the table that day in Berkeley was arguing for full legalization.
Pollan, who wrote extensively and positively about his time using psilocybin, wrote an op-ed in May warning against legalization after Colorado effectively decriminalized it.
“Psilocybin has a lot of potential as medicine, but we don’t know enough about it yet to legalize it,” Pollan wrote.
“The lesson from ancient cultures that use psychedelics in their healing or their religion is that they always have a kind of container and an elder involved,” Pollan said. “You did them on certain occasions, and you did it with the clear intent.”
Waldman’s book focused on her experience microdosing, which in her case meant taking small amounts of LSD while continuing her daily life. She said microdosing should probably have different rules. But then again, someone could just take a bunch of microdoses and get high.
New drug trials are underway to study how psychedelics might treat depression, and Pollan sees potential dangers.
“Someone is probably going to commit suicide because they’re getting off of SSRIs,” Pollan said. “I do think we could have another backlash.”
“There will be a terrible backlash if these are suddenly released to the public,” Waldman said.
They talk about bad trips they have been on, even ones that were carefully curated with the best shamans and the finest drugs. (Waldman recently believed she was vomiting rats.)
“Tom, did you ever have a bad experience?” Pollan asked.
Boyle laughed to himself a little.
“I never had a good experience,” Boyle said.
Boyle added that there is another category everyone is forgetting: the people who just want to get high. “We’re old people.”