Dec. 6, 2017 -- Paul Austin believes there is a responsible way to take LSD, and he makes his living telling people how.
The founder of a company called The Third Wave isn’t advocating that people take enough of the drug to go on psychedelic “trips” popular in the '60s. Instead, his company promotes a trend that’s gaining popularity among the Silicon Valley set: microdosing.
Microdosing LSD involves taking small doses of the drug -- also known as lysergic acid diethylamide or acid -- on a regular schedule.
Proponents say it boosts creativity, productivity, and overall emotional and psychological well-being without the trip. It’s attracting attention for its use in places like California's Silicon Valley as way to boost work performance.
“I was more in touch with my senses of touch and smell. I went to dinner with friends, and it was a bit easier to connect and talk with them,” says Austin, 27. "I did a little bit of work, and it was easier to eliminate social distractions, stay off social media, and dial into my work.
But some skeptical doctors say there is no published research yet on the effects of microdosing. Law enforcement officials also make clear that possession of LSD -- for any reason -- remains a crime.
The Microdosing Movement
It’s hard to identify the size of the microdosing movement, but more than 23,000 people are part of a Reddit community on the subject. A how-to video posted to YouTube in September 2015 has more than 700,000 views.
Austin, who lives in Brooklyn, NY, offers an online course about microdosing, has done about 60 consulting calls on the subject, and created an online community of about 350 people involved in the movement.
The interest in microdosing comes at a time when researchers are studying hallucinogenic drugs like LSD for a variety of conditions, including anxiety and depression.
But the practice of microdosing has many skeptics -- especially in the medical and scientific community.
"There is absolutely no credible research on microdosing as of today," says David. E. Nichols, an adjunct professor of chemical biology and medicinal chemistry at the University of North Carolina.
LSD was created in a lab in the 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it became widely used as a hallucinogen, when psychologist Timothy Leary encouraged young people to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” The counterculture of the decade spread its use, and it remained popular on college campuses, at raves, and at festivals into the 21st century.
For decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration has classified LSD as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says it’s not considered addictive like cocaine or heroin, but users can develop a tolerance that makes them take larger doses to get the same effect.
LSD use can lead to long-lasting psychoses like schizophrenia or severe depression, and the DEA warns of an overdose risk that can lead to more intense “trip” episodes and possible death.
There are also legal risks, of course, for microdosing.
“Anyone in possession of LSD can expect to be prosecuted -- microdosing or not -- because it is an illegal drug. We are not in a position where we are going to turn our head because it is a microdosage,” a DEA representative told WebMD.
“Obviously our main focus would be going after the source of the LSD, not the end user.”
What Proponents Say
Many proponents follow a way of microdosing created by Bay Area psychologist James Fadiman, PhD. Considered a pioneer of psychedelic science, his research dates back to the '60s; he authored a book, The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys, in 2011; and he began looking into microdosing 7 years ago.
Fadiman is based in Silicon Valley and says people in the tech industry have told him that microdosing helps them be more efficient at work. Apple founder Steve Jobs credited LSD with inspiring at least some of his creative genius.
Since January 2017, he has been collecting information on more than 1,500 microdosers between the ages of 18 and 80 in 59 countries following his way of microdosing.
“I don’t call it research. I call it a search,” Fadiman says. “I am asking people why are you doing this, and they are telling me it seems to be beneficial.”
He says positive, but unscientific, reports include better moods and health habits; improved reflexes, sleep and school and work performance; and less use of other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, and coffee.
None of these positive reports has been scientifically verified, and the study does not follow high standards for research that would require people in the study to take a placebo for comparison.
Fadiman says some of the positive effects might be exaggerated but he believes there are too many common themes to discount.
He has reports of side effects, as well.
Fadiman says several people in his "search" have reported uncomfortable sweating on dose day, and he says people with anxiety generally don’t have a good experience microdosing. “People report either they are more anxious or more aware of their anxiety.”
Austin agrees. “Other downsides are a lot of people who microdose don’t know what they are doing in the beginning, so they will take more than a microdose or not be in a comfortable space for it, like at work.”
Austin says microdosing can cause people’s pupils to dilate in a noticeable way. Fadiman says those who are colorblind don’t seem to react well to it either. He’s seen a handful of people who are colorblind stop the practice, saying it causes tracers, or lines of bright light in their eyes, that are irritating.
So does research back up the positive unscientific reports? It’s hard to say, because so far, there isn’t much published research that follows scientific guidelines. Among those that do:
A 2016 Johns Hopkins University study of 51 cancer patients with life-threatening diagnoses looked at the effects of alternating low and high doses of psilocybin, a hallucinogen researchers compare to LSD, given at 5-week intervals. People taking the higher-dose drug reported having less depression, general anxiety, and death anxiety. It also boosted patients’ quality of life and optimism. Eighty percent of participants still had benefits at a 6-month follow-up.
Up to 80% of the 29 patients taking part in a similar 2016 study out of New York University School of Medicine also had improvements with cancer-related depression and anxiety after one single moderate dose of psilocybin combined with psychotherapy.
Also in 2016, researchers at Imperial College London released what they say is the first modern brain imaging of people taking LSD. Researchers gave 20 people the drug and scanned their brains. They found that during the psychedelic state, volunteers processed information from many parts of their brain, not just the visual cortex as normally happens.
This study came out of a partnership with The Beckley Foundation, a UK-based think tank focusing on psychedelic science. The founder, Amanda Feilding, says there is a lack of scientific information on microdosing that she is working to address.
She hopes to start a new brain imaging study of LSD microdosing in the spring of 2018 and says she is also discussing carrying out microdosing studies at leading U.S. institutions.
“We hope to provide a scientific evidence base for the anecdotal reports of people overcoming depression, improving mood, and increasing productivity,” Feilding says. “If correctly used, I think these nontoxic compounds can be considered a valuable medicine to improve well-being, health, and happiness.”
Feilding says since LSD is illegal, it can be difficult to be sure of the quality of the drug people get or the dose.
Austin doesn’t microdose regularly anymore but says he does do it occasionally, especially before public talks when he wants to express himself with more accuracy and be more animated on stage. He says he believes it is perfectly safe, but also thinks all things should be done in moderation.
“I think people need to have a good relationship with this. Don’t rely on it to facilitate things. Think of it as short-term, but it is important to understand you need to be able to live your life without the addition of external drugs.”
Many others remain unconvinced. "I don’t believe it has any benefit,” Nichols says. “I think it is more of a fad than anything else.”