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5 Questions for David Bronner
According to Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, a bottle of the company’s soap was, on average, sold every 1.51 seconds in 2020: that amounts to over 20 million bottles and nearly $190 million in revenue. The company donated about 40 percent of their profits to charity or activism.
Ever since David Bronner took the helm as CEO in the late 90s, the company has been outspoken about the family’s values, and that’s been great for business; in the first 15 years of his leadership, the company’s annual sales grew 1,300 percent. Bronner isn’t the Dr. Bronner — that was his grandpa, who actually wasn’t a doctor, either — and while Bronner takes on the duties of your typical CEO, his official title actually stands for Cosmic Engagement Officer, a nod to his grandfather’s beliefs about the “All-One,” famously included right on the soap’s label. And Bronner, who spent a few years after college immersed in Amsterdam’s underground drug scene, has been especially passionate about combating America’s war on drugs. The company estimates it’s spent around $15 million on drug policy efforts since 2000. In the 2000s, Bronner was devoted to the issue of hemp legalization; in 2012, he was arrested when he locked himself in a cage just outside the White House, along with the materials to make hemp oil.
Now, Bronner and the company have become major supporters — and funders — of psychedelics efforts. They donated $2 million to support Oregon’s Measure 109, which laid the groundwork for the legal manufacture and sale of psilocybin, and another $1 million on Oregon’s Measure 110, which decriminalized all scheduled drugs in the state. They’ve also funded other organizations like Decriminalize DC, the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, and Heroic Hearts, a non-profit connecting veterans with psychedelic therapy. In 2020, Dr. Bronner’s announced a donation of $10 million to psychedelics non-profit MAPS over the next decade. The Microdose spoke with Bronner about his work supporting efforts to decriminalize psychedelics and to make them available for therapeutic use, and why the Dr. Bronner brand has thrown its soap dollars behind psychedelic activism.
How do you see the company’s current activism around psychedelics tying in with its history?
My grandfather was Dr. Bronner, and his grandfather began making soap in 1858. He came up in a German Jewish Orthodox household, and he would clash with his dad a lot around politics — there was just generational conflict. So he came over to the States in 1929, at the age of 21, to forge his own path in life. As Hitler came to power, he was increasingly desperate to get his family out; he got his sisters out in 1936 and 1938, but his parents, like a lot of bourgeois Jews, didn’t think to leave until it was too late.
As my grandfather was navigating a lot of tragedy, he felt that if we don’t all realize our transcendent unity across religious and ethnic divides — if we don’t realize that we’re all children of the same divine source, and pray to God or Goddess in his or her own language, if we don’t get down on that level and understand that, then in the next Holocaust, we’re going to all perish. He ended up selling soaps on the side, and as the company got bigger, he started putting his message on the label.
Growing up, I didn’t understand it. But then I had my first real psychedelic experience at a gay trance club in Amsterdam — I had started to question lots of things about authority and the drug war, and realized that in the midst of suffering, in the absurdity of the world, all the religions and faith traditions, at their best, are pointing out our one-ness. That’s when I realized what my grandpa was talking about in the first place, and how psychedelics and plant medicines can help us get there.
You’re a fifth-generation soap-maker. Was it always the plan for you to go into the family business?
No. After my first psychedelic experience, I was on my spiritual path — I was going to go to a monastery. But I met this unassuming guy in Amsterdam who was kind of a spiritual figure in the community — he gave me a lot of good advice, like the fact that the world really needs adults to grapple with problems. He told me, “You can do the monastery thing, but it’s really hard to reintegrate.” So I moved back to the States, to the Boston area as my girlfriend finished up school, and we had our daughter — I started getting more into meditation, and learning about conscious business and Western agriculture’s impact on the planet. So I thought, if a company like Dr. Bronner offered me a position, I’d go for it in a second. And now, I’m engaging with things like policy, which by my judgment years ago, would’ve seemed really boring and unspiritual.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
Dr. Bronner’s is known for its signature label, which gets into your grandfather’s beliefs around spirituality and existence. In 2020, the company released a special label about psychedelics — how did that come about, and how was it received?
Over the last five years, we’ve been doing special labels on different issue areas that we really believe in. My granddad was a big fan of Thomas Paine, the famous pamphleteer — so following in his footsteps, we would change our label to build awareness about specific issues, like minimum wage. So the goal with the psychedelics label was to communicate in a way that my mom’s church group would receive it; that’s the way my brother, the company’s president, put it. We kept it focused on the therapeutic side of psychedelics, rather than spiritual or mystical experiences — those can be challenging messages for people, especially if they don’t already have experience with psychedelics. But we thought that we were toeing the line by including this messaging — we figured, we’ll be in Walmart for like a week before they get complaints, and we’ll have to apologize. But surprisingly, we didn’t get a single retailer complaint. In fact, one retailer specifically requested more inventory of the psychedelics label — and that’s just one buyer, but I think it shows how far the culture has moved around psychedelics.
Speaking of cultural shifts, you and the company have supported popular psychedelics legislation like Oregon’s Measures 109 and 110. What other efforts are you supporting at the moment?
Yes, we were the primary financial backer of 109 and the second largest backer for 110. We’ve supported the Decriminalize Nature campaign in Washington DC. We support MAPS, veterans’ efforts; I’m on the board of the Psychedelic Science Funders Collaborative, which is helping coordinate philanthropic dollars, and we’re supporting an effort called the Alma Institute, which is a BIPOC training program in Oregon for facilitators of psychedelic-assisted therapy.
There’s not really anything we don’t support. Our dream is to see all these policies come together — they’re all providing access, and addressing different problems in society and opening access. The therapeutic model is really key; the majority of people may not be comfortable in a “decrim” context. Like, my mom is not going to go to a mushroom tea ceremony, but that should exist, and people should be able to grow their own medicine.
What do you see as the next big thing for psychedelics? I imagine if I had asked you this in 2020, you might’ve pointed to Oregon’s Measure 109 — what’s the equivalent of that at the moment?
I see a lot of promise in what’s happening in Colorado. The measure that Natural Medicine Colorado put forward accomplishes both the community healing model — decriminalizing medicines for personal use and cultivation — and creates a regulated access model, like Oregon’s 109; for the majority of the population, you need that. There’s a lot of strong community leadership there, but it can be a little tense at times. [Editor’s note: Earlier this month, The Microdose reported on the state’s two competing ballot initiatives about psychedelics and how much power these proposals would give to regulators versus citizens.] I think part of the tension is that a prior version had numerical limits on personal possession — very high ones, but for political purposes, having some limit is in some ways more reassuring and viable with voters. But that’s kind of a red line with the base of psychedelic supporters; people associate that with problems we ran into in California’s Senate Bill 519, though we had no choice but to implement limits, because we weren’t able to get it out of the Public Health and Safety Committee without those details. That caused consternation, but we had no choice. [Editor’s note: Progress on passing California SB519 was paused last year, but bill sponsor Scott Wiener told Marijuana Moment last month that there’s a “50/50 chance” the bill advances this year.]
With the ballot measure in Colorado, I think there’s concern about what’s on the actual ballot measure that will go forward — whether it will include those numerical limits. All I can say is that it’s a local campaign, and we’re supporting the local and state coalitions there. There are many steps ahead, and I’m hopeful they’ll smooth things out in the community and get everybody rowing in the same direction.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.