Microdosing has a critic — one of its pioneers

Microdosing has a critic — one of its pioneers

Guy who accidentally started the trend does not recommend it

VicesJuly 15, 2019 By Reilly Capps

Psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms were good in the Sixties, then bad in the Eighties, and now they're good again, and the best psychedelics — according to some in the media — are microdosed psychedelics, which is when you don't take enough to feel anything psychedelic. 

What you feel on a microdose is just a smidge happier, a tinge brighter, a degree sharper. Fitter, happier and more productive. Hyper Industrious asps microdose and code apps in Silicon Valley — ironically just down the road from San Francisco, where, in the Sixties, hippies took so much LSD they couldn't find their own faces. 

The wider world learned about microdosing from a 2011 book by psychedelic researcher James Fadiman called "The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide." Fadman is a wonderful man, an optimist and journeyer since those hippie Sixties, with a wide easy smile and lots of time for strangers. He knows psychedelics better than nearly anyone, and believes they can be tools for self-improvement.

Fadiman's "Explorer's Guide" is big-picture stuff — how to use psychedelics to meet "the divine within" and find transcendence. It's heavy with the word "entheogen" — meaning "god-engendering." 

Chapter 15, just 14 pages long, is more mundane. It's titled "Can Sub-Perceptual Doses of Psychedelics Improve Normal Functioning?" Fadiman reprints stories from folks using microdoses — the word didn't fully exist then; they're mostly called "sub-doses" or "teners" — to live better lives: write nonfiction books, edit movies, ace cocktail parties and admire the beauty of spider webs.  

"I could do [it] during my regular workday and nobody else had to know what I was up to." "I can use it to work out with weights, do Pilates…" "I feel deeply connected to my work." "Family members appointed me executor to their estates almost immediately after I began using sub-doses." 

Money. Success. Status. Power. 

And it was this little chapter in Fadiman's book that the world made viral — not the chapters about transcendence.  

It was this little chapter that turned microdosing into a worldwide trend. Fadiman talked about it on the popular Tim Ferriss podcast. He spoke about it to Rolling Stone. 

From there the culture dosed it out. 

Now Fadiman is famous as the godfather of microdosing. In fact, the most common method — taking a tenth or a twentieth of a dose of LSD or psilocybin every third day for a month — is called the Fadiman Protocol. An acolyte calls Fadiman a "legendary microdosing icon." Businesses that count Fadiman as a mentor have popped up around the world, and they're thriving. 

In April, Fadiman published a paper where he and researcher Sophia Korb surveyed more than 1,000 microdosers, and generally found "increased energy, improved work effectiveness, and improved health habits." A smaller number of people "described alleviation of symptoms in migraine headaches, pre-menstrual syndromes, traumatic brain injury, shingles, and other conditions not previously associated with psychedelic use." 

This is close to a medical miracle. 

In the last two or three years, as the drugs reporter for Rooster Magazine, I've written about microdosing so much my fingers hurt. How microdosing helps folks thrive in work and college, how microdosing helps a jiu-jitsu fighter whoop ass and rock climbers flow and an Olympic gold-medalist train. How to get the most out of your microdose and how to microdose without having a connect or breaking the law

Microdosing has changed lives. A college professor told me: "You're still productive, you still do shit, you just feel really good all the time." A Boulder college student told me: "I stopped taking my ADHD medication and started microdosing LSD." 

Who doesn't want a better life? These articles got lots of clicks. 

I wanted to write about microdosing again, but with a new angle. (I like to do well in work, too.)

Two years ago, I asked Fadiman where he learned about microdosing, and he said, "Robert Forte." 

Never heard of the guy. But I expected to call Forte up and write an easy story: "Man behind fashionable, counterintuitive, healthy trend basks in glory of changing world." My article would start Forte down a path of creating the Forte Protocol, giving TED Talks, and taking his rightful place as the Godfather of Microdosing.  

Nuh uh. 

Nope. 

Not how this one went down. 

"Microdosing," Forte says, "is way overblown."

photo - Robert Forte and Tim Leary

[A younger Robert Forte, left, with Timothy Leary, history's greatest and most reviled psychedelic talker. Photo courtesy of Robert Forte.]

WHO FORTE IS

Forte is a friendly, welcoming guy with often-uncombed hair and a love of front porches and long discussions. Forte's reasons for disliking the microdosing trend are varied and idiosyncratic and maybe not as easy-to-boil-down as a reporter would like — but they're interesting. 

Forte lives in Northern California. One of the world's leading authorities on the uses and misuses of psychedelics, he's authored three books, including an appreciation of his old friend Timothy Leary, the ultimate LSD evangelist. 

He is not a striver, not a corporate guy, not the kind of guy who wants a Limitless pill, a micro-boost. 

Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York City, Forte was always looking for something more than wealth. 

In his third year at Columbia University, Forte was studying religion, because he was interested in the origins of meditation, which he'd found helpful in his own life. He heard the theory magic mushrooms spurred meditation from the guy who introduced mushrooms to the West, Gordon Wasson, in a book subtitled "Entheogens and the Origins of Religion."  

Now. Forte had grown up thinking, like many of us, that psychedelics were for losers. But then Forte learned that psychedelics have been used for thousands of years, as Indians, Amazonians and Mexicans thought psychedelics enhanced our access to aspects of reality normally difficult to sense — Something Else. 

Forte's first trips changed the direction of his life  — and he dove in. 

Forte met and collaborated with the biggest names in psychedelics. He was a student and assistant of LSD therapy pioneer Stanislav Grof and was a friend of Sasha Shulgin, who Forte says taught him how to manufacture Shulgin's most famous discovery, MDMA (molly, ecstasy).  

In his most-read work, Forte took the work of Gordon Wasson a step further, and edited a book he called "Entheogens and the Future of Religion." (Emphasis mine.) Psychedelics, he felt, could introduce people to a hidden aspect of reality, a deeper or higher or more fundamental layer of being, and that could lay the basis for a new society.

Once initiated into this Something Else, Forte hoped people would drop their dreams for material success and work toward a better world, one that recognizes All is One, war is suicide, money is illusion and connection to Nature and people is what's valuable. 

Psychedelics as keys to utopia. As cure alls. As heaven. 

PSYCHEDELICS FOR WORK 

As the same time Forte and his hippie brothers and sisters were trying to use psychedelics to usher in the Age of Aquarius, another faction of psychedelic explorers believed they could be tools to help you in the regular, straight-laced world of work. 

This is not a new idea. Amazonians pray, while on ayahuasca, for good fortune or health. Mazatec Indians in Mexico take mushrooms and ask the fungus to help them find lost items. 

In the West, the idea that psychedelics could help you in your career was most thoroughly investigated in the 1960s by Forte's friend and eventual microdosing fire-carrier … Fadiman. 

Fadiman ran an experiment in the 1960s where engineers and designers took moderate doses of mescaline (100 mcg) to work on intractable problems in their field. The results were nothing short of incredible. They said they were able to think about problems at a more basic level, be more open to novel solutions, feel heightened motivation and be less judgmental of their own bad ideas. They walked away with new designs for mechanical devices, space probes and business letterheads. 

But the government halted the research in 1966. 

Despite his success with moderate doses, Fadiman says it never occurred to him to try small doses. "We missed it entirely," Fadiman told me for a story I did about microdosing two years ago.

photo - Robert Forte with Gordon Wasson

[A younger Robert Forte with Gordon Wasson, who, in 1957, introduced magic mushrooms to the west. Photo courtesy of Robert Forte.]

A MOMENTOUS LUNCH

A lot of people had seen microdosing, though. Indigenous users of psychedelics have, apparently, always known about microdoses. Ayahuasca shamans and peyote roadmen often pinched a gram of brew to leven spirits. 

Robert Forte had known about, and experimented with, microdosing, for decades. He learned about microdosing from the father of LSD himself, its discoverer, Albert Hofmann. 

Hofmann had told interviewers he only did LSD a dozen or so times in his life. But when Forte ran Hofmann's foundation decades ago, Hofmann confided to Forte that he took LSD in small doses to help him write and to focus throughout his life. Hofmann kept it secret. 

"Albert was discrete about it," Forte says. 

Hofmann told Forte he thought microdosing was one of the most valuable and unexplored uses of LSD. 

So why didn't Hofmann tell the world about microdosing? Hofmann thought psychedelics don't fare well in the general public. 

Forte still agrees. The public is likely to misuse the drugs — get spun, as the kids say. 

Forte believes psychedelics are best used discretely, in secret, sort of like sex. Sex in public, Forte says, is "sort of gross." Same with psychedelics. 

Microdosing might have stayed a secret, known only to the psychedelic underground. But, about a decade ago, Forte was having lunch Fadiman, in their shared hometown of Santa Cruz, California, when Fadiman was writing "The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide." The two would lunch often, telling psychedelic stories. 

"Jim said he was having a little trouble writing," Forte says. "And I said you should try some microdosing. And he said, Microdosing, what's that? And I was surprised. I thought everybody (in the psychedelic world) knew about microdosing. You do a very tiny amount of LSD every day. Below the threshold of what you can feel. It has a kind of brightening effect on your consciousness.

"I showed him how to do it, how to take a 100 microgram hit of LSD, and turn it into 10 microdoses — he thought that this was pretty cool." 

Fadiman was always trying to find ways to make psychedelics accessible. From Forte, he'd found the best way yet. 

Forte ended up being astonished by how that convo quickly became an international trend. 

NOT THE LIMITLESS PILL 

But to Forte, work productivity is not what psychedelics are supposed to be about. 

That's what adderall is about, or coffee, or ativan. 

"Microdosing," Forte says, "is reframing psychedelics to serve the mainstream values of consumers." 

Microdosing is too often about putting covers on your TPS reports, Forte says. Microdosing flattens psychedelics, de-fangs them. It turns psychedelics — agents of revolution — into Prozac. 

Forte isn't alone in these criticisms. When you mention microdosing to old-school acid trippers and dead heads, they tend to groan and roll their eyes. 

"I'm not into it," says one old-school LSD enthusiast and dealer I know. "You're just treating LSD as an antidepressant. I don't like LSD because it helps me do my taxes, I like it because it shows you that reality is not what you think it is. … I've never read a single one of those scientific studies. … I just like to get fucking twisted."

“They have taken something like microdosing and kind of made it into a product,” Michael Pollan, author of a bestselling book on psychedelics told Recode. “You take a moment of inspiration and adapt it to capitalism.” 

At Breaking Convention, a psychedelic gathering in the U.K,, a religious scholar named Erik Davis said he wanted to resist the "instrumentalization and medicalization of psychedelics." 

These folks think microdosing, and the whole scientification of them, is a perversion of psychedelics, as if you were using consecrated communion wine to make Chicken marsala, or using a spaceship capable of rocketing to Jupiter to roll over to Philly to get a cheesesteak. Microdosing, critics say, is too Wall Street hustlers day trading on pension funds, and local Realtors selling out small towns to make their 2.8 percent. And the message of microdosers, critics say, is to just roll with all that, chew another microdose and fake some cheer. 

Old school trippers find a lot of the so-called Psychedelic Renaissance … icky. 

"BIG RESULTS IN JUST 1 WEEK" scream the headlines on a marketing pamphlet for an ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica. It goes on: "88 percent of Inaugural Journey members received a life transforming experience." That's followed by testimonials from Spencer the tech entrepreneur and Megan the "acclaimed" director of television commercials, followed by footage of them on the ropes courses. (You feel bad for the 12 percent of Inaugural Journey members who did not receive a "life transforming experience." Poor souls.) 

"LSD was once used to destabilize the Empire, and now it's used in Silicon Valley to just build apps in cooler and faster ways," said independent psychedelic researcher Sophia Rokhlin on a podcast.

"LSD is more popular than it's been in half a century, and it's being used in a way that's totally aligned with our current system," Joanna Kempner, an associate professor at Rutgers and expert on the history of LSD, told me. "It seems so contrary to the counterculture that originally embraced LSD." 

There are now a number of businesses and nonprofits coaching people through microdosing. Forte calls them "cheap attempts to exploit a trend." 

"You pay them $100 to tell you for an hour what I told Fadiman over lunch in five minutes," Forte says. Forte spends time trolling these sites, calling them dishonest attempts to "commodify the sacred."

photo - Robert Forte and Nick Sand

[Forte, right, with Nick Sand, one of the most productive underground psychedelic chemists in history. Photo courtesy of Robert Forte.]

COUNTERARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF MICRODOSING

There are lots of counterarguments to these anti-microdosing critiques. 

Not everyone has a job that turns them into drones, or pilots drones. Yes, you can microdose while you're a guard at a detention camp, but you can also microdose to fundraise for a new youth rec center or engineer better batteries for solar panels. 

"I like LSD because it has no agenda," James Fadiman told me once. LSD is a tool, like fire or metal. Humans still matter. And humans can use microdosing however they like — to build guns or to build water heaters. Don't expect drugs to do the work for you. 

What's more, I've never heard a microdosing proponent tell people they shouldn't do bigger, heroic doses. Most say: there's room for both micro and macro. Micro more often, macro when you have time and space. 

FORTE'S FEARS ABOUT PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY

Forte's gripes, however, go well beyond microdosing.

In case you haven't noticed, underground drugs like ketamine, MDMA and psilocybin are on the brink of becoming legal. You can now, or will soon, take them with a doctor's prescription, usually in the presence of a therapist or guide. 

A wonderful feel-good story of the Psychedelic Renaissance is the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Stories are everywhere about soldiers returning from our wars terribly damaged by the war. With MDMA and a good therapist, service members get their lives back. 

Forte says it misses the point. 

"Imagine that there's a nightclub where every third person comes back with PTSD and wants to kill themselves," Forte says. "You'd treat those people, but you'd also shut down that nightclub. If you're interested in stopping this nightmare of soldiers getting PTSD, you do that by stopping the fucking wars. 

"Of course I think we should help people with PTSD," Forte continues. "I just don't want the government to be the one that does it. … To put these drugs into the sole possession of people who are pro-war — that's insanity."  

Forte's idea is that we should use psychedelics not to treat post-traumatic stress, but pre-traumatic stress. "If you decide to sign up for the Army, we declare, 'You're crazy, maybe you should take MDMA to reverse that,'" Forte says. 

He's only half joking. 

And here is the most illustrative nugget from the new era of microdosing: 

Forte was appalled when he saw, in the February 2019 edition of Marine Corp Gazette, a Major argue that LSD or mushroom microdoses could help Marines wage better wars. "Microdosed psychedelics enhance cognitive function and flexibility," the Major wrote. Microdosing "would leverage an untapped resource to create an insurmountable gap over every other competitor." 

The author references Fadiman's book, and suggests Marines follow the Fadiman Protocol.

photo - Robert Forte with a mushroom

[Robert Forte with a non-psychedelic mushroom. Photo courtesy of Robert Forte.]

FORTE'S DREAMS OF PSYCHEDELICS 

One of the most important things Forte ever heard about psychedelics came from Huston Smith, one of the world's greatest religious scholars, who used psychedelics in the 60s, although he never fully advocated them. In interviewing Smith in his book about Timothy Leary, Forte repeatedly referred to psychedelics as "entheogens" and "sacred drugs." 

Smith bristled. 

"I want to take exception to your calling them 'sacred drugs,'" Smith told Forte. "Psychedelics are so ambiguous … They have sacred possibilities, I'm not going to back down on that. But Aldous Huxley was wise in calling them 'heaven and hell drugs,' and hell connotes what is demonic rather than sacred." 

Forte now understands that psychedelics can be misused, can lead you down dark alleys as well as show you the light. Forte sometimes calls them "suggestio-gens" — people who are on psychedelics are suggestible. It is a known fact that if you take psychedelics with a religious cult, you're likely to end up believing the cult's bullshit. Take them with Silicon Valley techies, you might believe the universe is a giant computer simulation. Take them in a government-approved therapist's office, who knows what'll happen. 

And if you take psychedelics in microdoses, you might get the feeling that everything's gonna be alright, even if it isn't. You might accept the suggestion that your desk job is actually fulfilling, and there's no need to go to your town council meeting and demand that teachers are paid well, pollution is taxed, nonviolent people are let out of prison — and all the other obvious things. 

Just take a microdose, put your head down, and humor the children. 

For Forte, psychedelics are supposed to be disruptive. 

Forte is not alone in believing this. The backlash against microdosing has begun. 

A buddy of mine is printing up t-shirts in bright red: "Make Macrodosing Great Again." 

LET'S SAVE DEMOCRACY 

As a kid, Forte thought LSD stood for "Let's Save Democracy." As more drugs become more legal in more settings, as the government allows psychedelics to be used by doctors and researchers, as the FDA tries to control these drugs in new ways, Forte thinks it's important to keep psychedelics in the hands of the stoners, hippies, mystics who have always controlled them, and who actually know how to use them. 

He thinks Denver's recent vote to free the mushrooms is the right way to free the drugs. By the people, for the people. 

Jules Evans, a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London and an expert in psychedelics, wrote that it isn't time for psychedelics to enter the mainstream, to be integrated into the regular world, given out by doctors and therapists in quiet rooms. "They're a guerilla movement not ready to come out of the jungle," Evans wrote. 

Forte urges more civil disobedience. Folks should continue to do whatever drugs they want in whatever settings they want, Forte says, as long as they're doing it responsibly, without hurting anyone. 

Keep taking ketamine in clubs, keep taking MDMA on dates, keep dosing psilocybin on camping trips, Forte says. Don't let the Official World tell you how to do your drugs. Use the drugs wisely. Don't let the microdosing crowd water them down. 

"I don't recommend microdosing," Forte says now. "I think it is better, if you want more energy or focus, to spend more time in nature, or beat a drum. Eat well. Love with all your heart." 

Maybe that's the Forte Protocol.