David Bronner’s psychedelic justice trip

David Bronner poses with rolls of Dr. Bronner's iconic soap labels. Photos by Jeremy Lindenfeld

His soap company donates millions to psychedelics research and reforms, which the CEO says can lead to a healthier, more just society.

By Jeremy Lindenfeld, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

In the past four years, four states and 15 U.S. cities have legalized or decriminalized psychedelics or reduced the enforcement of laws regarding them. Research into therapeutic uses for psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and other psychedelics is expanding for the treatment of conditions ranging from PTSD to anorexia.

A major funder of these legislative and research efforts is David Bronner, the CEO of All One God Faith Inc., maker of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a globally successful brand of mostly vegan, cruelty-free soaps and personal hygiene products. Bronner also funds causes related to inequality. His company donated almost $3 million to human rights, labor, criminal justice, community betterment and environmental justice groups in 2021 alone.

Psychedelics and inequality are inseparable for Bronner, 49. Drug policy reform, he believes, is integral to criminal justice reform. His company has donated more than $25 million since 2015 toward drug policy reform and research, with a notable focus on psychedelics, according to annual reports. Bronner also serves as a voting board member of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit that has raised over $130 million for psychedelic research and education.

Beyond making the justice system more equitable, Bronner says there is another reason he has invested so much in psychedelics: He believes such substances can also help people to behave better. Psychedelics can be “boundary dissolving,” giving people a better understanding of their relationships to others, themselves and the planet.

With such a boundary-free world view, Bronner believes, people could embrace both social justice and “multistakeholder capitalism,” the idea that businesses have a responsibility not only to shareholders but to their workers, customers, the environment and Indigenous communities. Bronner said his company practices multistakeholder capitalism in its equitable hiring practices, paying a starting wage of almost $26 an hour for full-time workers and capping executive salary at five times the lowest-paid fully vested employees, among many other measures.

Bronner’s business model works. When he took over as president in 1998, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps brought in around $4 million. In 2021, company revenue was almost $170 million.

Bronner’s CV is as colorful as his business outlook. He was a football and rugby player at Harvard, where he studied biology. After college he took psychedelics while hanging out with squatters in Amsterdam which turned him from an apolitical person to someone willing to be arrested for his causes, as he was in 2012, after locking himself in a cage in front of the White House to protest restrictions on industrial hemp farming. Bronner also recently came out as he/they, embracing his “lighter shade of queer” by speaking at events like Queering Psychedelics and “cross dressing every full moon.”

We spoke with Bronner at his company headquarters in Vista, California.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How does psychedelic policy reform fit into Dr. Bronner’s model of “constructive capitalism”?

David Bronner: Psychedelics are upstream from every other issue. It’s how you get people to really heal on a deep level, connect to nature, to their authentic self, to each other and to start grappling with the huge environmental and social crises we’re confronting.

We’ve seen the results of rapacious capitalism — it’s ripped the world apart. Oftentimes, businesses are set up to maximize shareholder return and profit at any cost. We can learn how to build more ethical business models by applying lessons we learn in medicine spaces.

Constructive capitalism is like multistakeholder capitalism. It accounts for all the stakeholders: workers, suppliers, customers and the environment. It’s a way to do business that isn’t making things worse. There are no magic bullets; someone isn’t going to take acid and immediately rock a more ethical business model, but it can be helpful.

How is psychedelic policy reform a social justice, equity and environmental issue?

The psychedelic field is new. There’s a real opportunity to do things much different than what happened with cannabis and try to support companies, organizations and campaigns that have much more equity built in and that enable BIPOC folks and those hardest hit by the drug war to benefit.

With a regulated access program, [which would establish a state-monitored and professionally facilitated regime of psychedelics administration], we should make sure there’s scholarship funds and sliding scale fees for people to become facilitators who can deliver culturally informed care to people dealing with racial trauma or gender related trauma. We can hopefully do things in a good way that didn’t happen with cannabis.

As far as the environment, psychedelics can help us connect to nature and realize that we’re one with the miraculous world we live in. We’re all eating and pooping. We’re like rivers of energy. None of us are going to be here for that long.

David Bronner bends a bar of soap into the shape of a heart at the Dr. Bronner’s factory in Vista, California.

Why did you first take an interest in psychedelic policy reform?

I came up in a Reaganite household in Glendale. I didn’t get politically radicalized until I had a huge psychedelic experience in Amsterdam after college. I died a few different ways into the love and light at the heart of existence and realized these allies can really help us heal and connect. After I got opened up in a big way, I thought maybe I should go to a monastery. I told that to someone who was sort of a spiritual guide to me at the time. He told me, ”You could do that, but it’s hard to integrate back into the world. What the world needs is adults acting in the political process.

What kind of reactions have you seen for psychedelic policy reform across the political spectrum?

Surprisingly, there’s real support from places like the Koch Foundation. Drug policy reform has always in a way been a coalition of libertarian right and progressive left. We’ve got [Columbia University professor] Carl Hart on the board of MAPS, really signaling to the larger psychedelic ecosystem that it’s not just about psychedelic healing — we need to stop the mass trauma we’re inflicting with the drug war.

There’s an MDMA study being initiated by Chris Stauffer and team up in Oregon for veterans suffering gender related trauma. I think that’s an interesting way to bring what is associated with the “woke left” to folks on the right. Bringing that conversation into households on the right in a way that maybe they can wrap their heads around.

I’m on the advisory board of VETS, Veterans Exploring Treatment Solutions, founded by Amber and Marcus Capone. Marcus [was] former SEAL Team Six and really spinning out in desperation; Amber got him into an Ibogaine clinic with 5-MeO. Marcus healed up on a super deep level and committed both of them to bringing this healing, lifesaving medicine to their fellow vets.

The veteran community has been a godsend to the movement, really enabling this to be a bipartisan cause. In such a polarized political environment, the fact that we do have such a bipartisan coalition is just incredible and is why we’re making so much progress.

What are some things you worry can go wrong if lessons are not learned from the way cannabis was handled?

Take the regulated access programs. There’s going to be a lot of demand and temptation to set up retreats for the affluent who can afford real high prices. We need to actively support entities and companies that are set up with access and equity in their core.

Decrim is also important because as much as we want to have equitable regulated access programs, anything that’s regulated is going to have costs involved. We can grow these medicines at home, though. There’s no getting around that the most economically accessible model is community use in a church. Decriminalizing these medicines and allowing community healing circles and entheogenic churches to flourish is arguably best for mental health in the long term.

What does ensuring access to psychedelics look like?

I really like the Natural Medicine Health Act in Colorado. It’s got an equity access fund built into the regulation scheme so that fees are raised to support access in the regulated program itself.

I’m on the board of the Sheri Eckert Foundation. She was the visionary behind the regulated access program along with her husband, Tom. She tragically died a few weeks after the passage of 109 in Oregon [which directed the Oregon Health Authority to regulate psilocybin products and psilocybin services]. In her honor, Tom set up this foundation that is going to be providing scholarships for facilitators and for people accessing services [this would help people with lower incomes afford state approved psilocybin facilitator training programs].

Ideally, we do what we can at the state level and keep learning. Colorado [which has decriminalized the possession and use of “natural medicine”] is better than Oregon as far as what we’re able to build in, and I’m sure in the next round we’ll just keep learning and making things better.

What does the next round look like?

Any drug policy reform is a precursor to the endgame: decriminalizing all drugs and favoring treatment, not jail.

Colorado was great because with the Natural Medicine Health Act, we passed regulated access and community healing in a decriminalized context together. In California, SB 58 is going to just be decrim, and allow healing in a community context. Assuming we pass that, Sen. Scott Wiener will introduce a regulated access bill in 2024.

We’re about a year away from FDA approval of MDMA, which is huge. Our timeline keeps getting delayed, it’s been three years later than we thought it was going to be, but overall, it’s a surprise how successful we’ve been.

What are your concerns about what people are calling “corporadelia” ­— the corporatization of psychedelic spaces?

In the FDA pharma world, we are seeing that with the Compasses of the world. [Compass Pathways is a Peter Thiel-backed drug developer that has drawn criticism for patenting forms of psilocybin]. We’re seeing more traditional pharma coming in without that deep mission. But the regulated access at the state level is also a real check on medical pharma and the Compasses. They’re going to have a role, but we’re making sure regulated access is available to all who can benefit in an equitable way.

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of examples showing how the values of multistakeholder capitalism are not necessarily being integrated in various models out there, but there definitely are good ones like Alma Institute up in Oregon. They’re a training program, and they will also be serving clients. They are really prioritizing BIPOC and LGBTQ facilitation as well as having a scholarship fund to help with both the training costs to be a facilitator and patient access.

You’ve spoken about the benefits of psychedelics, but what do you see as potential downsides?

Unfortunately, there are plenty of problematic things in psychedelics. The shadow side of psychedelics can be ego inflating and reinforcing of narcissistic personality traits. They can be liberatory, but look at the QAnon shaman. It’s definitely possible to take psychedelics and not come out changed for the better.

Integration is really where the work is. Whatever insights you have you have to apply them in life. Psychedelics can be helpful, but they are not sufficient.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.

Be the first to comment on "David Bronner’s psychedelic justice trip"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.