|Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] Drug Abuse at the top of Silicon Valley
|Magic Mushrooms. LSD. Ketamine. The Drugs That Power Silicon Valley.
Entrepreneurs including Elon Musk and Sergey Brin are part of a drug
movement that proponents hope will expand minds, enhance lives and
produce business breakthroughs
By Kirsten GrindFollow
and Katherine BindleyFollow
Updated June 27, 2023 11:46 am ET
Explore Audio Center
Elon Musk takes ketamine. Sergey Brin sometimes enjoys magic mushrooms.
Executives at venture-capital firm Founders Fund, known for its
investments in SpaceX and Facebook, have thrown parties that include
Routine drug use has moved from an after-hours activity squarely into
corporate culture, leaving boards and business leaders to wrestle with
their responsibilities for a workforce that frequently uses. At the
vanguard are tech executives and employees who see psychedelics and
similar substances, among them psilocybin, ketamine and LSD, as gateways
to business breakthroughs.
“There are millions of people microdosing psychedelics right now,” said
Karl Goldfield, a former sales and marketing consultant in San Francisco
who informally counsels friends and colleagues across the tech world on
calibrating the right small dose for maximum mindfulness. It is “the
fastest path to opening your mind up and clearly seeing for yourself
what’s going on,” said Goldfield.
Goldfield doesn’t have a medical degree and said he learned to dose
through experience. He said the number of questions he gets about how to
microdose has grown dramatically in recent months.
The account of Musk’s drug use comes from people who witnessed him use
ketamine and others with direct knowledge of his use. Details about
Brin’s drug use and the Founders Fund parties come from people familiar
Musk, his attorney and a top adviser didn’t respond to requests for
comment. A spokeswoman for Brin, the co-founder of Google, didn’t
respond to requests for comment.
In a tweet following online publication of this article, Musk said he
believed ketamine is a better way to deal with depression compared with
more widely prescribed antidepressants that are “zombifying” people.
Elon Musk, the Tesla founder, takes ketamine, a drug that acts like a
psychedelic. PHOTO: TINGSHU WANG/REUTERS
The movement isn’t a medical experiment or a related investment
opportunity, but a practice that has become for many a routine part of
doing business. It comes with risks of dependence and abuse. Most of the
drugs are illegal. Before he was killed in April in San Francisco, Bob
Lee, the founder of CashApp, was part of an underground party scene
known as “the Lifestyle,” where the use of psychedelics was common. Lee
had ingested drugs including ketamine before his death, an autopsy showed.
Silicon Valley has long had a tolerance toward drug use—many companies
don’t test employees regularly—but the phenomenon is worrying some
companies and their boards, who fear they could be held liable for
illegal activity, according to consultants and others close to the
Users rely on drug dealers for ecstasy and most other psychedelics, or
in elite cases, they employ chemists. One prolific drug dealer in San
Francisco who serves a slice of the tech world is known as “Costco”
because users can buy bulk at a discount, according to people familiar
with the business. “Cuddle puddles,” which feature groups of people
embracing and showing platonic affection, have become standard fare.
Some start dabbling with psychedelics in search of mental clarity or to
address health issues and end up using the drugs more frequently at
Silicon Valley parties or raves, where they have taken a role similar to
alcohol at a cocktail party.
Invitations to psychedelic parties are often sent through the encrypted
messaging app Signal, rather than over email or text, so they can’t be
shared easily. At some high-end private parties, users are asked to sign
nondisclosure agreements and sometimes pay hundreds of dollars to
attend, according to people who have attended or received invitations.
San Francisco has long been a place for drug experimentation. PHOTO:
Spencer Shulem, CEO of the startup BuildBetter.ai, said he uses LSD
about every three months because it increases focus and helps him think
more creatively. While working alone after hours, he will sometimes take
a low-enough dose where he said no one would know he was on LSD. Other
times, he’ll take a larger dose alone and connect with nature on a hike.
Shulem, who lives in New York City, said the high expectations of
venture-capital firms and investors in general can lead founders to turn
to psychedelics to provide an edge. “They don’t want a normal person, a
normal company,” he said. “They want something extraordinary. You’re not
He said he is cautious about sharing his LSD experiences at work unless
someone asks. “I am not having a preaching seminar every Friday about
the joys of drugs,” he said.
Fueling the informal use of psychedelics across the tech world is the
formal, clinical work performed by doctors and researchers seeking new
solutions for mental-health problems. Ketamine, which doctors have long
used as an anesthetic, is sometimes prescribed to treat depression or
post-traumatic stress disorder, often as pills or through infusions at
Investors are pouring funds into companies working to develop treatments
with psychedelics. Rick Doblin, the founder of the research and advocacy
nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or
MAPS, saw about 12,000 attendees at his psychedelics science conference
in Denver last week, a record, compared with about 3,000 six years ago.
Using psychedelics was the subject of a bestselling book by Michael
Pollan in 2018 called “How to Change Your Mind.” A Netflix docuseries
based on the book followed in 2022.
The value of the psychedelic drug market, which includes companies
engaging in research and trials to legalize the use, is expected to
reach $11.8 billion by 2029, up from $4.9 billion in 2022, according to
research firm BrandEssence. Founders Fund has an ownership stake in
Compass Pathways, a company researching commercial psilocybin
development, and its co-founder Peter Thiel is personally invested in
Atai Life Sciences, which is developing psychedelics for mental health.
A spokeswoman for Founders Fund said, “Research shows that psychedelics
can provide significant mental health benefits, and we support public
and private sector efforts to make these drugs safely and legally
Sergey Brin sometimes consumes psilocybin—the scientific term for magic
mushrooms—which produces hallucinogenic effects. PHOTO: LEE JAE-WON/ZUMA
While some tech players say taking the drugs brings a medical benefit,
most are dosing themselves, and not in a clinical setting. Tech
innovators such as Apple’s Steve Jobs have long talked about using LSD.
Today, the use of psychedelics has become widespread.
“A few years ago, talking about psychedelics in Silicon Valley was a big
no-no,” said Edward Sullivan, the chief executive of Velocity Coaching,
a business that coaches startup founders and corporate executives. “That
has really changed.”
He said about 40% of his clients have expressed an interest in
psychedelics recently, up from a handful five years ago. Some executive
coaches said they are now helping companies and leadership teams
navigate drug use.
Some entrepreneurs microdose to derive benefits, often in hope of
alleviating anxiety or sharpening focus. Others in tech said they take
full doses of a drug—using the term macrodose—as they try to reach a
high that will lead to a new disruptive idea. Goldfield describes this
as “ego death,” an experience when a user gets to the core of their
being and “lets go.”
The former chief executive of the startup Iterable, Justin Zhu, said he
microdosed LSD once in 2019 and was fired by the company’s board of
directors nearly two years later. Zhu’s dismissal was for violations of
“Iterable’s Employee Handbook, policies and values,” the company wrote
in an email to staff at the time.
Zhu said he microdosed on the recommendation of another entrepreneur to
help cope with depression as a result of being a CEO. He found
meditation and fasting weren’t enough. “It did really heal a lot of the
trauma for me,” he said in an interview.
Zhu filed a lawsuit against Iterable and some of its board members
alleging he was terminated for voicing complaints about anti-Asian
discrimination, and that the microdosing issue was a pretext. The dose
affected Zhu’s vision during an investor meeting, but overall the
experience brought a positive change to his work life, Zhu’s lawyers
said in the lawsuit.
A spokeswoman for Iterable declined to comment for the company and the
board. The case is proceeding to private arbitration, Zhu said.
When Musk in 2018 smoked marijuana on “The Joe Rogan Experience”
podcast, he and employees of Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, were
subjected to drug tests for months after, Musk has said, without
offering further details.
The CEO has told people he microdoses ketamine for depression, and he
also takes full doses of ketamine at parties, according to the people
who have witnessed his drug use and others who have direct knowledge of it.
Justin Zhu, the former CEO of Iterable, said he microdosed LSD once on
the recommendation of another entrepreneur to help cope with depression.
PHOTO: PHILIP PACHECO/BLOOMBERG NEWS
The psychedelic parties that attract chief executives such as Musk and
others across the tech industry extend beyond Silicon Valley. Tech and
other industry executives have attended similar parties in Miami and
Mexico, where guest lists are tightly controlled and kept confidential,
according to attendees.
Goldfield, the former sales consultant who helps his friends microdose,
said he counsels users to take a small amount of a psychedelic—say 10
micrograms in a gummy or a pill—and wait an hour to gauge the effect.
Goldfield said that LSD helped him recover from a tough childhood in
Chicago of bullying and feeling suicidal.
Microdosing, he said, isn’t the same as being high. “Think of it as a
smart drug,” he said. “It’s giving you the ability to be more analytical
and be more aware.”
Experts in the field say people who attempt to self-diagnose can slide
into abuse. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to be the one who gets
that positive outcome on your own,” said Alex Penrod, an addiction
specialist in Austin, Texas.
Penrod said he supports the use of psychedelics with the help of a
trained therapist but worries about people who use the potential
therapeutic benefits of the drugs as a justification for recreational
use. “You can get very comfortable with, ‘Well it has positive values,
so I’m not going to pay attention to my use,’ ” he said. “It’s kind of
When using powerful substances without the assistance of trained
professionals, “you’re going to have some people falling into
self-destructive behavior, rather than self-healing behavior,” said
Sullivan, the executive coach.
That is what happened to Tony Hsieh, the former Zappos chief executive
who died in late 2020 following injuries in a house fire, the Journal
has previously reported. Hsieh believed that ketamine could help him
think through business challenges while working at Zappos, which is
owned by Amazon.com. Soon, he was overusing, the friends said. Under
pressure from Amazon to improve his erratic behavior, Hsieh resigned
shortly before his death, the Journal reported.
Doblin, the founder of MAPS, and other researchers, said they believe
there is a way to incorporate drugs into the workplace. At MAPS, which
has about 35 employees, Doblin added to his employee manual a section
called smokable tasks—things you can do at work when you’re high on
drugs, such as brainstorming in a meeting or using Excel.
A for-profit subsidiary of MAPS, which is working to develop a therapy
that works in conjunction with MDMA, also known as ecstasy, and has
about 130 employees, declined to implement the policy. Doblin called
that position “timid and risk-averse.”
Karl Goldfield, a former sales and marketing consultant, informally
counsels friends and colleagues on how to ingest the right dosage for
what he calls maximum mindfulness.
Psilocybin mushrooms at Goldfield’s home. ‘There are millions of people
microdosing psychedelics right now,’ he said. PHOTO: CLARA MOKRI FOR THE
WALL STREET JOURNAL (2)
Amy Emerson, the chief executive of MAPS Public Benefit Corp., MAPS’s
for-profit arm, said in a written statement, “We support MAPS having
policies that work for their teams and the work they are doing and
maintain separate policies for our employees and the work we do at MAPS
Tim Sae Koo was the founder of a digital marketing startup in San
Francisco when he discovered psychedelics at the Coachella music
festival in 2014.
He said they helped him realize he had started his business to make his
mother proud, and that it was time to sell. “A lot of that kind of
exploration in my psychedelic experience helped give me a clarity that I
had started the company from a place of a wound,” he said.
For the past five years, he has hosted ayahuasca retreats in Costa Rica
geared toward tech entrepreneurs and CEOs. Over 500 people have attended
the ceremonies, including a handful of founders of startups worth more
than $1 billion, he said.
The retreats last days where people drink a hallucinogenic brew that
often induces vomiting but can also open the mind, said Sae Koo,
incorporating elements of a practice used by some indigenous cultures.
Dustin Robinson, a former attorney at the law firm Holland & Knight,
based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said he began researching psychedelics
and their healing properties before trying psilocybin in the presence of
his life coach. Suddenly, Robinson said, he could see a much broader
He started a psychedelic-focused venture-capital fund. “It helped me
step away and think, ‘Wow, I can have so much of a larger impact,’ ” he
In the past couple of years, the fund has invested nearly $20 million in
18 different companies involved with psychedelics. He is on track to
launch a second fund. The companies are all legal, he said, because they
are researching and dispensing the drugs for pharmaceutical purposes.
Robinson said he has received ketamine therapy—full-dose injections by a
doctor at a private clinic. He recently attended a five-day psilocybin
retreat in Jamaica organized by Beckley Retreats, where he is a lead
investor. Users don eye masks in a spiritual ceremony and, under the
guidance of trained facilitators, receive a high dose of the drug to “go
inward,” he said.
Costa Rica location for ayahuasca retreats, where people drink a
hallucinogenic brew that often induces vomiting but can also open the
mind, says host Tim Sae Koo. PHOTO: MAURICIO CORTES/REUNION COSTA RICA
If he still worked at Holland & Knight, “I certainly wouldn’t be posting
information about my psychedelic experience,” he said.
Sylvia Benito, a board member and spokeswoman for Beckley, said there is
a waiting list for most of the roughly 30 retreats each year. The
retreats are popular because “we’re in a time when people are looking
for ways to feel like their lives matter.”
At Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., S.O. Swanson, a former line
worker, said that while Tesla had a policy against drugs, it had a high
tolerance for cannabis and psychedelic use outside of the workday, and
employees weren’t routinely tested.
Often Tesla workers were bussed in an hour or more from nearby cities,
and it was common to ingest cannabis or psychedelics and arrive at work
“California sober,” Swanson said.
Swanson took small doses of LSD, or chocolate laced with magic
mushrooms, sometimes after work or on weekends. “Every single day felt a
little bit more shiny,” he said.
He said he felt encouraged by Tesla’s chief executive, who occasionally
makes drug-related jokes on Twitter.
Swanson was put on leave in 2022 and never brought back to work after
offering to sell cannabis brownies to an employee who turned out to be a
security guard, he said. After unsuccessfully trying to reach his
supervisors to appeal, Swanson said, he emailed Musk through a private
email available to employees but didn’t hear back.
Representatives for Tesla and Musk didn’t respond to requests for
comment on Swanson.
‘Every single day felt a little bit more shiny,’ said the former Tesla
worker of his experience with LSD or chocolate laced with magic
mushrooms. PHOTO: MICHAEL HO WAI LEE/SOPA IMAGES/ZUMA PRESS
Emily Glazer and Shalini Ramachandran contributed to this article.
Write to Kirsten Grind at kirsten.grind-at-wsj.com and Katherine Bindley at
Corrections & Amplifications
The former chief executive of the startup Iterable, Justin Zhu, said he
microdosed LSD once in 2019. An earlier version of this article
incorrectly stated Zhu said he microdosed two years ago. (Corrected on
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