It sounds mad, but ‘microdosing’ — taking hallucinogens in tiny amounts — is a huge Silicon Valley trend
It is an autumn evening in West Hollywood. Twenty or so lithe men and women in yoga-wear and ethnic smocks have gathered at the BE Hive urban sanctuary for a lecture on sacred plant healing. We sit cross-legged on yoga mats listening to Fabian Piorkowsky, a City IT specialist, expound the benefits of San Pedro, iboga and ayahuasca, the three “master teacher plants” that form the basis of his microdosing droplets. Yours for $80 (£64).
“I’ve been selling these for five years now,” says the German healer in an impish, amused voice, his piercing turquoise eyes seeking ours. “I’ve never heard anyone say that they didn’t make an impact. People feel more balanced; more relaxed. Their obsessive tendencies go down. They’re less likely to overeat or take substances. They’re more centred and still.”
In case you have been frequenting the wrong dinner parties, San Pedro is a relative of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus that is native to Los Angeles, iboga is a psychedelic African shrub and ayahuasca is a DMT-rich plant that Amazonian tribes and, latterly, experience-hungry westerners ingest in elaborate shamanic rituals. Famously, it makes you vomit (“purge”) before it brings about life-changing revelations, deep-rooted catharsis, even visitations of the divine. It is “definitely a force to be reckoned with”, according to one of the women who recently attended a ceremony.
When I raise my hand and ask Piorkowsky if there is anyone to whom he would not prescribe his ayahuasca droplets, he says he can’t think of any. Cancer patients, depressives, psychotics; all report positive results. So do their physicians, he insists. “I know a lot of parents who give it to their children. People say to me: ‘How many drops do I give my kid?’ And I say: ‘Three.’ Everything’s three.” Apparently, a five-year-old who was having a hard time dealing with his parents’ divorce felt much more centred after a month on the drops.
Welcome to Los Angeles, a city on the crossroads of technology, entertainment, finance and the burgeoning “wellness” industry — a set of businesses that encompass cosmologists, shamans, astrologers and healers on the one hand and the manufacturers of juices, supplements, probiotics and medicines on the other. Piorkowsky’s microdosing lecture is an event where all of these disparate elements come together.
No one can really say how or when microdosing took off, but it is fast taking hold of California, particularly among the start-ups in Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach (the LA tech hub). The principle is simple: instead of taking a full dose of any given drug, you take a small amount of it regularly. You can microdose anything — Ritalin, cannabis, Xanax, ketamine, paracetamol — yet the practice is most commonly associated with psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms) and LSD, a drug that is experiencing a resurgence in popularity not seen since the electric Kool-Aid acid tests of the mid-1960s.
A typical dose is 10-15 micrograms, about one tenth of a regular tab. It is not enough to hallucinate yet it is enough, as Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, recently told Rolling Stone, “to feel a little bit of energy lift, a little bit of insight”.
Microdosing enthusiasts report that they just feel more energetic, more creative and more at peace. It is a trend that is fast gaining traction outside of the spiritual hippy community. This January, for example, Ayelet Waldman, the American essayist, lawyer and mother of four, is publishing her paean to tiny trips, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. A downtown barista informed me that her partner was microdosed along with the rest of his team at an annual strategy meeting. He works in the music industry.
Piorkowsky, however, says the microdosers in the business community are missing the point. “All they want is mental clarity,” he says. “They’re not using it for a healing process, they’re using it as a performance-enhancer. I measure the effectiveness of psychedelic therapy in how it affects your life, not what you experience while doing the drugs.”
He has been leading ayahuasca ceremonies for 29 years and sees an opportunity to bring it to a wider audience. He has a sandy-grey pony tail, a crease-free face with a striking resemblance to Sting’s and the confidence of someone who is used to people hanging on his every word. Deep psychedelic work is all well and good, he says, but it is hard to fit vomiting and trauma-release into the average western schedule. “One of the challenges in psychedelic medicine is the care and after-care you need in treating patients. The idea is to get to the post-ceremony state without having to go through the whole experience.”
If the reaction of his (three quarters female) audience tonight is anything to go by, he will find an enthusiastic supply of customers. The BE Hive is in one of the oldest buildings in Hollywood, a former brothel that was bought by a tech entrepreneur named Chris Kantrowitz, who founded a media-management software company called Gobbler. Until recently he rented it out as a co-working space for start-ups but — in keeping with the general direction of travel in LA — its rooms are now populated by freelance spiritual healers, cosmologists, reiki practitioners, hypnotists and bodywork therapists with a few overnight rooms that you can book through Airbnb. Tamara Edwards, the creative director and resident meditation instructor, hopes eventually to turn it into a members’ club. “Like Soho House, but for wellness. It will be the first of many,” she says.
Edwards used to be a model and actress but “slowly transferred into this” — she gestures to the space around us — after becoming more in touch with her true essence while meditating. Naturally there will be no ayahuasca ceremonies here — “you know it’s illegal, right?” — yet she is only too keen to spread the message. “Ayahuasca has changed my life for sure,” she says in a swirling, liquid voice. “Or it’s expanded my consciousness. I’m much more present and aware of everything about the Earth and the Universe.”
Like a lot of people who have taken it, she describes it as a communion with nature. “It’s like you’re having a conversation with the plant. It makes you realise that everything is energy and everything is a living being. They’ve proven that if you talk to water you can change the structure of it. Like, if you tell the water it’s blessed and then you hook up contraptions to it, the molecules change. It’s quantum physics.”
Alexandra Roxo, 31, a film-maker and intuitive therapist with vibrant red hair, reports similar revelations on ayahuasca. “My mom was always super-new-age-y so I saw my first intuitive healer when I was 12 and then I started meditating when I was 18,” she says. “But doing ayahuasca has really been exponential growth.”
She likens one ceremony to ten years of meditation. “You’re like, ‘What the f***?’ It’s painful when you have rapid growth like that, but this year has been transformative. I did ceremonies three nights in a row in February and they were a big shift for me. It was awesome.” She is here because she is looking beyond ceremonies. “For me, to have that spirit close to me often seems so awesome. I’m so keen to try them just to see how that translates.”
Piorkowsky addresses the crowd for almost two hours and holds everyone rapt — including a toddler who wanders in at one point. He has a salesman’s habit of talking in threes. There are three lots of droplets for the three parts of the day (sol, lun and cosmos for morning, evening and night). You take three drops at a time. He makes the lun drops with three parts of the ayahuasca plant according to a “spagyric” process: he extracts the essential oils; then he macerates the plant for three weeks to make a sort of ayahuasca tea; then he incinerates the remains into white ash that he dilutes and filters. Then he recombines the mind, body and spirit of the plant. “It’s like the philosopher’s stone. This is the plant stone. It contains the whole essence of the plant in every drop.” He’s an alchemist.
He talks us through the legalities. Ayahuasca is a controlled substance in the US — ceremonies are illegal — but Piorkowsky gets round this by removing the psychoactive compounds. You can’t trip on his drops (though he tells me he knows lots of people who have fallen asleep and had psychotic episodes on them). He is also selling them as “supplements” rather than medicines, which allows him to bypass any time-consuming FDA regulation.
“All of that takes years and causes much suffering to sentient beings. So the idea is: why don’t we just cut the dose down so substantially that there is no toxicology but we can still observe some of the effects?” While cannabis is likely to be legalised in California soon, progress is slow — and for the moment, microdosing presents a huge liability risk for employers (as well as boom time for drug dealers). “The idea was to create something that was legal and marketable now.”
"I know lots of people who give it to their children"
Piorkowsky is also keen to flash his scientific credentials. He stresses that microdosing is distinct from the largely discredited practise of homeopathy, which deals in infinitesimal dilutions. “I studied chemistry and physics and technically there is nothing in homeopathy.” He describes microdosing as “a bit like taking a vitamin C tablet”. It has a beneficial effect, but it’s “sub-perceptional” — that is, you don’t notice it. With microdosing, he explains, the molecules enter the body “underneath the radar of the immune system” so your natural defence mechanisms do not try to counteract the drug. “If the ego doesn’t know what is happening, then it can’t defend itself.”
When I run this explanation past a chemist friend of mine, he rolls his eyes; apparently molecules just don’t work like that. However, Piorkowsky insists that microdosing ayahuasca can have even more profound effects than macrodosing it. He tells us about a friend of his who has meditated so much, regular ayahuasca ceremonies have next to no effect on him. However, he found that microdosing gave him more of an experience than regular ayahuasca. “He’s an avid user now.”
In any case, Piorkowsky is sceptical of western medicine with its causes and effects. “They’re a causal medicine rather than a systemic medicine. They treat the root causes of problems.” His wider aim is healing in its true sense. He tells us all the ways that modern life poisons us; how meat and wheat are full of exorphins which block our opiate inhibitors; how food is an addiction that no one is willing to admit (“Every healthy human can fast for 30 days without any preparation. It’s a fear-of-death thing”); how our society is built on extremes — “it’s all about having the best, the fastest, the most beautiful, the highest, the deepest” — and if we live on extremes we’re more susceptible to quick fixes such as retail therapy and substance abuse and TV addiction and junk food. Perhaps also to ponytailed shamans selling miracle cures?
After the talk I gauge the mood in the place. I speak to Noah Berman, 26, a soulful New Yorker who is staying at BE Hive. He tells me he has done about a dozen ayahuasca ceremonies and refers to taking drugs as “work” — as in “the work I’ve done taking psilocybin”. He’s open to the idea that you can take ayahuasca every day. “Certain people are like, ‘You have to follow these rules.’ I’m not that way. I’m like, ‘This works for me, I’m going to see how it goes.’ ”
Marianna, 31, is a softly spoken actress in a headdress. She found out about the event on Facebook. “I’m always interested in everything related to healing the soul and the awakening process and ego-death,” she tells me. What did she think of Piorkowsky’s talk? “It was brilliant actually. I agreed with everything that he said. I’m going to try some.” Wasn’t she surprised when he said it is OK to give it to children? “I think it’s OK because it’s a natural substance. The system has made us see things as the opposite of what they actually are. We think it’s normal to feed our children fast food and concentrated doses of sugar which is actually a poison, but we’re socially conditioned not to question that.”
Over the next week I experiment. I take sol (iboga flavour) in the morning with my coffee. I take lun (ayahuasca flavour) in the evenings with my G&T. I take cosmos (San Pedro flavour) with my camomile tea. Peculiarly enough, it is hard to tell how much a sub-perceptional drug is affecting you. I have listened hard and I cannot hear plants talking. I still get annoyed with LA drivers and I still have a weakness for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I do feel serenely contented a lot of the time . . . but might that be the California sunshine? Still, as Piorkowsky told me: “Healing is always self-healing. You can lead the horse to water but if someone doesn’t want to be healed there is nothing you can give them that will heal them.”
In these fractious, tense times, when it feels as if America is on the brink of madness, we don’t even realise what we need. I’m left pondering Roxo’s warning. “I think the medicine is really trying to help everybody out. I mean, these plants are like: ‘C’mon, these humans really need some f***ing help. Let’s try and spread it around.”