I Microdosed Before It Was Cool
CW: Below is a story about the sale, consumption, and science of drugs. If descriptions of drug use are difficult for you, please take care of yourself. Any actions described in the story happened more than a decade ago. Sorry, mom and dad—but hey, I never got caught!
There are a lot of rites of passage for poor kids at college—actually poor, not “my parents give me an allowance” poor. They include, but are not limited to: taking any number of shitty jobs, selling clothes (which may or may not be stolen) at Buffalo Exchange, always making it a habit of being in the right place when a pizza is ordered, and dealing small amounts of common drugs.
I did all of the above.
It started simply—going in on a quantity with friends and then paring it off for pocket change. Just enough to make sure we never had to actually pay for what we smoked, maybe a little extra for beer bought with a fake ID.
It never escalated far beyond that. At least, not for the purposes of this story.
Then one day our guy had something new—he pulled out an enormous plastic bag of shriveled, dirt-colored mushrooms. They were cheap, he said, and had a high resale value. Plus, they were an easy investment; you could buy a lot upfront and, because they were dried, wouldn’t need to sell them quickly. You could just keep them around.
We filled a large Adam’s Peanut Butter jar and kept it on the counter in my kitchen.
I was 19 years old and living with severe and untreated depression. I was also deeply immersed in an eating disorder and spent most days feeling anxious and weak. The pot helped calm the nerves, but it didn’t make me happy.
Maybe the mushrooms would, I thought. I’d grown up on the works of Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg and I knew all about the acid tests and the potent power of psychedelics.
The first time I dipped into the stash was for a full-on trip after I’d worked an opening shift at a coffee shop. I measured out a precise number of caps and stems by weight and choked them down between low-fat Triscuits. They tasted, to quote Workaholics, “like a mummy’s dick.”
But the experience was delightful. I went on a walk through the woods, wrote pages and pages in my notebook, completed several assignments, and read most of a novel. I made a real dinner for myself and enjoyed it. I napped.
The next day, I felt a kind of mental clarity that had been distinctly missing amid the fog of anxiety, sadness, hunger, and exhaustion. For days, a kind of halo effect lingered where I felt more capable, more adept.
If a full dose left me feeling this good, I though, maybe just a small amount would help me get through my dark patches.
For the next several weeks, I’d take a bite the size of my pinky finger before I went to school or work. Just a tiny dose. A micro dose, if you will.
I microdosed with LSD, too. Our drug guy sold us an entire sheet of acid tabs the size of a baby’s fingernail for a song. We cut it up with tweezers and a straight razor and kept it in the freezer. One afteroon I put an imperceptible amount in a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper and put it in the fridge at work, sipping on it occasionally. It made me feel a little more cheerful, a little more rosy. There was no hallucination, no loss of coordination. Just a feeling that my neurons were working a little more smoothly and with less static.
I told no one, mostly because I’d ingested a little too much of the rhetoric of the war on drugs. I’d long gotten over the feeling that only burners get high on weed, but had never quite shaken the feeling that real drugs were bad.
What kind of loon takes mushrooms almost every day? I was sure no one would ever get it.
I was wrong.
The history of microdosing
The subject of microdosing first came up among my friends after the podcast Reply All covered it—specifically, after the host, P.J. Vogt, endearingly tried it in the workplace. Suddenly, lots of the nerdy media people I knew were trying to find ways to ask after psychedelics. People who had never had a trip in their life were keenly interested in the ways that it could improve their brain chemistry.
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A website for people who are way too high. Plus, could LSD unlock our better selves? Does PJ even have a better self…
Which is, I suspect, a lot how the Soylent-drinking, bio-hacking, disposable-income having Silicone Valley crowd had stumbled upon it. Or why “Power Women”—you know, the ones who tried a little too hard to “have it all” and are now miserable—have started doing it.
Because microdosing isn’t really doing drugs. It’s not for bad kids and burnouts. It’s an edgy way to get ahead.
Of course, neither I nor the hoodie-wearing tech guys discovered the process. Before microdosing was receiving coverage from elite magazines and newspapers, it was the fodder of those who’d been using illicit substances to enhance their creativity for ages. The bad kids. The burnouts.
Lysergic acid diethylamide is a human-made drug synthesized in 1938 by a scientist looking for new ways to administer medication. Chemist Albert Hofmann was working with the chemical, five years after he’d first synthesized it, when he discovered its alternative principals. In his book, LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann recounted the letter he’d sent to a fellow chemist.
Last Friday, April 16,1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.
Though he would have mixed feelings about its use later in life, Hofmann remained a major proponent of experimentation with the drug and himself continued to take small doses for years. He called it “sacred” and often spoke of the potential medicinal benefits, particularly in smaller amounts.
Following its discovery, LSD was administered under the name Delysid and used to treat alcoholism. A form of the drug was sold in multiple countries and universities were studying its effects and therapeutic uses. Cary Grant famously benefited immensely from the use of psychedelic treatments.
However, in the 1960s, the drug began to acquire a pop-culture following—and it was largely because of the kinds of people associated with it that the perception of LSD as a medication changed.
Though documentation about exact dosages and use from the first “Acid Tests” is predictably spotty, the surviving members of the in-crowd—Ken Babbs, Wavy Gravy—tell tales of daily use, of constantly re-upping the amount, and of hiding LSD in all kinds of foods and beverages.
There’s no early reference to the practice of “microdosing” among the first wave of Deadheads, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t doing it.
I suspect there are hundreds of folks who have been microdosing since the Summer of Love and never thought it was anything worth writing about — because, if they’re anything like me (many of them are; I grew up in Eugene, Oregon and received a lot of my education from actual Merry Pranksters and their disciples), they’ve been self-medicating with Schedule I drugs since Nixon was in office.
But there is evidence that the old-timers of counter-cultural science were curious about the impacts of these drugs in small doses, as well as the large ones.
Everything You Wanted To Know About Microdosing
Long before microdosing was being touted as the Silicon Valley life hack du jour, Dr. James Fadiman was investigating…
Timothy Leary, the godfather of tuning in and dropping out, conducted numerous experiments about the benefits of hallucinogenics. Along with the current king of microdosing, Ralph Metzner, Leary’s research included instructing those leading a study to take “small amounts” of mushrooms to “increase the sense of collaborative trust” among the group of participants.
And of course, the United States government was trying microdosing as well, though they didn’t call it that. In addition to experiments involving volunteers (that’s how Kesey reportedly first discoverd the stuff), the CIA was also dosing unknowing members of the public. Under the MK-ULTRA experiment, which spanned for almost a decade until 1964, members of the CIA would slip LSD into the food and drink of people in public spaces who they thought might be spies.
The experiments were kept under wraps and only exposed in 2012.
Acid’s Bad Name
It wasn’t the government’s shady dealings, though, that turned LSD into a public enemy. It was the use of LSD to trip, rather than to treat, which lead to its criminalization. Or rather, it was who it was used by.
A quick Google search about the trend reveals that no matter how many high-profile lifehackers like Tim Ferriss espouse the benefits, many interested parties are still see these the use of these drugs — even microscopic amounts — as something relegated to “bad kids.”
At a time when the battle between counter-culture and figures of authority had become all-encompassing, the crackdown on acid and other drugs was unavoidable.
While hippies in San Francisco were flouting the law with acid parties, loud music, free love, and calls for nuclear disarmament, the establishment began to grow weary of their perceived loose morals. In the same way that marijuana was first linked to various marginalized communities—primarily Mexican and African-American—in order to make it scary, acid was easily linked to the flower children and the draft dodgers.
That is, of course, on purpose. Following the criminalization of LSD in 1966, it became a kind of public enemy, demonized by the government and made to seem deviant by the mainstream culture.
There have been generations, now, who have only known psychedelics as the fodder for wild criminals. Millennials who grew up on Johnny Depp’s portrayal of ultimate drug-enduced madness in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gen-Xers who were innundated with anti-drug messages paid for by tax dollars. Boomers who were warned that any and all drugs would make you crazy thanks to books like Go Ask Alice and Junky.
LSD was re-colored in the media. No longer fun and effective, it became scary and deadly. And so it’s remained until a new generation of folks have become hip to its powers.
Part of that is due to the personalities who have deemed microdosing acceptable. Writers, techies, Steve Jobs.
More than anything, he serves as a grandfatherly figure to those who have long believed that using LSD or mushrooms also requires a person to stare at a blacklight poster, listening to jam bands, and holding asinine conversations about the meaning of life.
That reputation has kept the squares away from experimentation — and have ensured that there’s been relatively little science on the impact of these substances on the brain or of their potential therapeutic effects.
By the time the Controlled Substances Act went into effect in 1971, LSD had already been illegal for several years. But it was the CSA that really prompted the United States government to go all in on the drug war.
Drugs classified as Schedule I—the most dangerous and the most illegal—are noted to have “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” Despite having been developed just a few decades before by a chemist explicitly for medical purposes, LSD was deemed a Schedule I drug. Also listed: Mushrooms and cannabis.
For more than 40 years, this crackdown on acid and other drugs meant that scientists weren’t allowed to conduct research, in spite of the potential uses. In spite of a renewed interest in alternative medications and white-label prescription usage.
In spite of the explosive opioid epidemic that has both patients and doctors looking at care options that are neither addictive nor detrimental to the liver.
This is Your Brain on Drugs
In recent years, researchers have begun probing those dark places to look for answers—in part because government officials are allowing them. The FDA, for example, recently lifted a ban on studying MDMA.
There’s a promising body of work shaping up around psychedelics and mental health. A 2014 double-blind study found that LSD may be useful in treating anxiety (though the experiment also found that a full dose is the most effective).
There are also renewed assurances that many of these drugs are safe, too; a 2017 global health survey found that the three drugs which sent the fewest people to the hospital were cannabis, mushrooms, and LSD.
This does not, of course, mean that daily drug use will make you smarter or happier or better at work, or that Schedule I chemicals are the best option for what you’re going through.
But when health care is under attack and prescription drugs—you know, the ones that are perfectly legal and paid for by insurance—are disintegrating entire communities, it is unsurprisingly that the line between “good” drugs and “bad” drugs is being bent, pushed, or smudged.
And anyway, street drugs have been used by folks who can’t get access to a prescription for ages; people with ADHD self-medicate with cocaine, anxious people use marijuana. Everyone uses alcohol for everything.
The most recent study on mushrooms was no surprise to me—mostly it just confirmed what I’d already known, what I’d figured out by trying anything I could get my hands on.
Microdosing is, like a lot of things, a practice that existed long before Silicon Valley discovered it—and the idea of using LSD or mushrooms as medicine is neither novel nor unheard of. In fact, it’s kind of what Hofmann had in mind. But if microdosing is what helps a lot of guys in vertically-striped shirts to reconsider their neurochemical makeup or better empathize with the people around them who have to take medicine every day, or if it’s what begins to tease apart the arbitrary nature of drug classifications and laws, then by all means, guys. Tune in. Drop out.