Why you should care
Because there’s more to acid than tripping.
When I connect with Paul Austin via Skype, there’s nothing to suggest he’d taken a dose of psychedelic mushrooms that morning. “You dry them up, weigh them out and put them in a gelatin capsule to consume,” he says, as if we were talking about spreading cream cheese on a bagel. Austin takes a microdose of psychedelics once a week or so, he says, as a way to boost focus and creativity while steering clear of the risks associated with a full dose. And he’s convinced we’re on the cusp of a new era in psychedelic use, one that’s measured for specific purposes and free of outdated stigmas.
Austin, 27, is the founder of The Third Wave, an advocacy group and educational resource on psychedelics, which he funds through a variety of sources including sales of his book on microdosing, contributions from followers and fees from his workshops, seminars and speaking engagements. Brad Burge, director of strategic communications for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, says Austin is able to connect with a demographic that’s key to the psychedelics movement: millennials. “He’s trying to make something to help the broader psychedelics research movement and not just promote his own website,” Burge adds.
The last psychedelics movement, in the 1960s and ’70s, died out once substances like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) were made illegal. But there’s been a revival of interest in recent years, thanks in part to research into the therapeutic benefit of psychedelics. According to Dr. George Greer of the Heffter Institute, which specializes in psychedelics research, MDMA and psilocybin are in the final phases of investigation to determine how they can be used for medicinal purposes and will most likely be approved for medical use within the next five years. Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, in particular, have embraced the new thinking around psychedelics — which has moved beyond the experience itself to focus on the potential for improving concentration, energy, mental health, relationships and more.
Austin predicts that, in eight to 10 years, microdosing will be what cannabis is today: a lucrative business opportunity.
Born in a conservative community in West Michigan, Austin was raised on traditional messaging about the evils of sex and drugs. But he was never fully convinced. At 16 he tried cannabis, and in college he experimented with LSD, which, he says, “totally changed my perspective.” It was not the negative experience he’d been warned about; instead, he calls it profound and insightful.
The discovery made him curious about microdosing to see if it might help him work more effectively and become more social. So, at a friend’s wedding, Austin took about 15 micrograms of LSD (a normal dose ranges between 100 and 120 micrograms) and felt instantly more at ease — he was comfortable interacting with other guests and was more empathic and less inhibited. “Microdosing gave me the sense of being content and OK with who I am,” he explains. Austin also credits microdosing with helping him launch TOEFL Speaking Teacher, an online teaching business, in 2014. “It helped me achieve flow states,” he says, referring to the productivity boost that accompanies being “in the zone,” freed of distraction.
The success and confidence he enjoyed with the help of psychedelics got him thinking about how to leverage them more broadly. While in Hungary, he was chatting with friends at a third-wave artisanal coffee shop when it hit him: The 21st century is the third wave of psychedelics, following on indigenous use thousands of years ago and the countercultural movement of the 1960s. In late 2015, Austin founded The Third Wave with the goal of destigmatizing psychedelics and educating others about their uses and benefits.
Knowing that research would be essential to changing people’s attitudes, he designed The Third Wave to make the latest information accessible to a mainstream audience — by offering online courses on microdosing, discussing psychedelics with leading proponents in a weekly podcast and helping activists incubate “psychedelic societies” where people could come together to trade information and discuss their experiences.
Speaking at the Next Web Tech conference in Amsterdam this May, Austin began by telling the audience he’d taken a microdose of LSD that morning. Publicly admitting you’ve taken an illicit substance might seem ill-advised, but to his mind, it’s a calculated risk — a way to confront the stigma that psychedelics are dangerous or reckless by demonstrating that you can microdose and deliver a coherent, effective presentation. But Dr. Greer takes issue with Austin’s strategy and is quick to point out the risks: “It can be seen as advocating for people to use psychedelics by themselves outside of any medical or legal supervision,” he says, cautioning that there can be serious health consequences if things go wrong.
Besides dismantling the stigma attached to psychedelics, Austin says the other challenge has to do with reintegration — how to thoughtfully integrate psychedelics back into the mainstream. “We need something like a driver’s license for taking psychedelics,” he offers, suggesting the need for a system built on education and screening, so people taking psychedelics can do so responsibly.
Days before our interview, Austin tells OZY, he put out a call to investors on Twitter for a “microdosing psychedelic startup.” “I’m interested in what technical products we can build to accelerate the movement toward the reintegration of psychedelic substances,” he says. He knows a number of venture capitalists who are already microdosing and predicts that, in eight to 10 years, microdosing will be what cannabis is today: a lucrative business opportunity.
Using social media to solicit venture funding for a microdosing startup is a far cry from Timothy Leary’s call to followers to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” But Austin seems quite content to be his generation’s evangelist for psychedelic drugs and tapping their unexplored potential.