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Psychedelics and their potential as mental health treatments have recently returned to the spotlight after more than 40 years of prohibition and limited research. New studies suggest that drugs like psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) could be used to treat conditions ranging from anxiety to severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Today, psychedelic medicine is a fairly popular and common topic of discussion, so much so that one might easily forget that most drugs in the psychedelic family are still largely illegal. Despite the current legal status, psychedelic medicine leaders like Paul Stamets, Rick Doblin, Dr. Deepak Chopra, and others openly discuss using psychedelic drugs to enhance creativity, concentration, and performance. This has led to the spread of a practice known as microdosing. The conflict between the (perceived or real) benefits of microdosing and the prohibition against these substances has led to a host of challenges, as one tech industry CEO discovered.
The board of directors of Iterable Inc., a Silicon Valley-based marketing technology company that, according to CrunchBase, has raised more than $300M, dismissed CEO Justin Zhu in 2021, claiming he was high on LSD during a company meeting. While Zhu maintains that microdosing helped him concentrate and increased his productivity, ultimately, it was deemed to violate “Iterable’s Employee Handbook, principles, and values.” Zhu believes multiple outside factors contributed to his dismissal, including racial bias, and has brought a lawsuit against his former company based on that allegation.
So, what is Microdosing? It’s essentially the consumption of sub-perceptual (non-hallucinogenic) doses of psychedelic compounds. Most often, either psilocybin (aka. magic mushrooms) or lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). The majority of people who microdose don’t do it to get high. Instead, they believe it aids with focus and creativity, which has led it to become a popular practice in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley tech companies.
Microdosing may have benefits outside of performance enhancement. One study has shown that long-term microdosing (30 days or more) may cause statistically significant positive mood changes. These changes were relatively consistent across all participant age and gender groups. The study also showed some improvements in psychomotor performance, though these results were particular to elderly participants.
However, Iterable, like many other American corporations, has rules and guidelines prohibiting employee drug consumption. For many companies, these rules extend well beyond the workplace, with some companies requiring employees to take regular urine tests. These tests can be used to dismiss workers, even if their drug use is solely off the clock and never affects the workplace. Jeff Smith, founder and CEO of Supermind, thinks it’s time for this to change, and the change has to begin at a cultural level.
“Companies should want to empower their teams to increase their creativity, their sense of purpose, their sense of wonder, and should celebrate those on a path to expanding their consciousness. Those folks are often the drivers of breakthroughs. While I don’t expect that all companies in the near future will feel comfortable affirmatively allowing microdosing, I think the ones that have draconian policies are going to lose the cultural battle for winning and retaining some of the best and brightest talent”, says Smith.
Prohibition, in and out of the office, presents industry members and workers with an interesting conundrum. Take the risk and possibly see a jump in productivity and creativity, or potentially miss out on what might be an asset for employees. That said, the research regarding microdosing is mixed. There is some evidence that it may improve their performance at work, while other research indicates that the perceived benefits could be chalked up to the placebo effect.
Whether or not it proves to be an effective practice, it certainly can become a professional and legal issue if discovered. Many of these prohibitory corporate codes are holdovers from the early days of the War on Drugs and are often based on outdated information and cultural ideals. Most policies likely assume the scenario of an employee using typical doses of substances that would produce significant effects, unlike microdosing.
Smith explains that “The primary concern should be one of education and awareness regarding dosing and the substantial power of psychedelics. There are contraindications to be aware of, and very specific regimens, doses, and guidelines that those new to microdosing must carefully study and follow to minimize their risk of harm, of their investors’ faces melting in the boardroom, and to maximize their likelihood of sustained, positive results. Take it seriously, take your time, do it outside of the work setting until you’re very comfortable with microdosing. A lot of this is just common sense, but there also can be a learning curve simply because everyone’s chemistry is different, their psychology is different, and they need to respect that and learn to work skillfully with these medicines.”
Smith’s belief would carry over the foundation of Supermind, his brainchild, and most recent tech endeavor. Supermind is the parent company of various domains, including soon-to-launch Microdosing.com, where individuals seeking knowledge or support can find information and resources that Smith hopes will help change public perception about psychedelics and their role in mental healthcare, as well as personal optimization.
“While psychedelics and microdosing aren’t right for everyone, and in some cases are an outright contraindication to be avoided, the fact remains that there are vast numbers of personal testimonials to the benefits people have subjectively experienced from microdosing. There are countless podcasts, documentaries, videos on social platforms, and articles with well-educated, credible people sharing detailed accounts of their firsthand experiences. At this scale, it becomes hard to ignore, and hard to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to try that… shouldn’t be allowed to have sovereignty over their own consciousness. Meanwhile, there are startup offices with beer kegs, open bars at office parties, endless amounts of caffeine and energy drinks, all of which have very perceptual and in some cases potentially harmful effects.” says Smith in summary of his view on the topic.
As a proponent of sensible drug reform and public access to psychedelic medicine, Smith believes that a hands-off and open-minded approach to corporate drug policy, particularly microdosing, can lead to a more positive work environment. It can also stimulate change in the public and corporate perception of psychedelics.
Fortunately, other major corporations are starting to make similar changes to their drug policies. Many companies in states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana use have begun to drop drug testing or prohibition from their corporate policies altogether. While other companies, such as Doctor Bronner’s Magic Soaps, have taken things a step further and are offering or covering psychedelic-assisted therapy for their employees. Popular superfood drink maker MUD\WTR’s CEO Shane Heath has gone so far as to write a company blog post announcing they allow microdosing and sharing his personal experiences with psychedelics on the blog as well. Often these industry leaders will cite evolving medical and scientific consensus around psychedelics, changes to federal drug regulations, and even positive shifts in public opinion when asked why they’ve dropped prohibitory drug policies.
All of this poses some important ethical and legal questions to other employers:
- Do the benefits of increased employee performance outweigh the potential risks?
- Do employees have an inherent right to bodily autonomy?
- What are the ethical considerations of policing employees’ off-duty activities, and how far should company policies reach?
- Would dropping drug prohibition hurt your organization?
- Does off-duty drug prohibition create a hostile work environment, and how does it impact company culture?
For Smith, making positive drug policy changes and highlighting the benefits of psychedelics are of utmost importance as companies increasingly offer preventative care for employees and shift from a culture of managing symptoms to one of thriving.
Time will tell if companies like Iterable will ultimately alter their policy prohibiting microdosing and open the door to what may be a tool to support employee productivity, offering them a possible competitive advantage.
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