Better living through chemistry? The CEO of Dr. Bronner’s wants to turn America on to drugs

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[Photo courtesy of Dr Bronner’s]

Civil rights. Feminism. Gay rights. Environmentalism. Meditation. Yoga. Natural childbirth.

Much of the politics and culture of the 1960s has been absorbed into mainstream America.

Not psychedelic drugs — not yet, anyway.

That will soon change if David Bronner, the CEO of family-owned soap-maker Dr. Bronner’s, has his way.

“Psychedelic medicine is the last and arguably the most powerful gift of the counter-culture that hasn’t been integrated,” says Bronner, who has put millions of dollars of his company’s money behind drug policy reform.

Bronner, who is 47— he came of age in the 1990s, not the 1960s — is a pony-tailed vegan and an enthusiastic user of psychedelic drugs who says his life was transformed by a three-month sojourn in Amsterdam after college. Amidst growing evidence that psychedelic medicines can help alleviate an array of mental ailments, he’d like to see them become more widely available. He also believes that the wider use of psychedelics can help heal the world.

To that end, Bronner recently put $1 million of his family-owned company’s money behind a ground-breaking ballot initiative in Oregon, called IP34: It would make therapy accompanied by psilocybin, a.k.a. magic mushrooms, available to people suffering from depression or anxiety.

Dr. Bronner’s has committed another $250,000 to support a second ballot measure in Oregon that would decriminalize possession of all drugs, from marijuana and ecstasy to heroin and LSD. Ending the war on drugs is “a critical piece of fighting against systemic racism,” David Bronner and his brother, Michael, who is president of Dr. Bronner’s, wrote in a company blogpost.

These pledges come on top of Dr. Bronner’s $5-million commitment, spread over five years, to the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, a nonprofit that promotes the benefits of psychedelics and marijuana, when used carefully. MAPS is conducting a final phase of clinical trials to secure FDA approval for MDMA, a synthetic chemical known on the street as ecstasy or molly, to be used with psychotherapy to treat PTSD.

This is not conventional corporate philanthropy. But Dr. Bronner’s has never been a conventional company, and David Bronner is an unconventional CEO. (The title stands for cosmic engagement officer.) Last year, entirely apart from Dr. Bronner’s, he started a nonprofit cannabis company.

I’m a fan of Dr Bronner’s — the soap, the company and its values — and so I recently arranged to interview David Bronner via Zoom. The company is noteworthy not just for its philanthropy but for its pioneering business practices, including a commitment to Fair Trade and organic ingredients and a pay scale that caps the the total compensation of the best-paid executives at five times that of the lowest-paid full-time worker. Recently, working with such allies as Patagonia and the Rodale Institute, David Bronner helped develop a new holistic standard for food, fiber and personal care products that will take into account soil health, animal welfare and fairness to workers.

The company, he says, is “an activist engine to make the world better.”

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[Photo courtesy of Dr Bronner’s]

Doing good is easier, of course, when a company does well, and business is booming these days at Dr. Bronner’s — no surprise, as hand-washing has become a global obsession. (The company website limits orders to $150.) Sales have grown from $4 million in 1998, when David and Michael took over the business, to $129 million in 2019. Last year, Dr. Bronner’s made an impressive $7.4 million in donations. “Without generating profits and healthy margins, we’re nowhere,” David says.

David and Michael are the third-generation to lead the company. Their grandfather, Emanuel Bronner, a German Jewish immigrant and the descendant of a long line of soap-makers, started Dr. Bronner’s in 1948. (He wasn’t a doctor, but no matter.) Emanuel Bronner’s life was steeped in tragedy: The parents he left behind in Germany were killed during the Holocaust and his wife died at a young age. He was committed to a mental hospital in Illinois and given shock treatments before escaping to California. “My granddad was a pretty intense individual,” David says. “He had the ovens of the Holocaust behind him.”

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[Photo courtesy of Dr Bronner’s]

From those experiences emerged a manifesto delivered, at mind-numbing length and in eye-squinting type, on the labels of Dr. Bronner’s soaps. The message: That we must recognize our unity across religious and ethnic divides, or perish. “We’re ALL-ONE OR NONE!” Emanuel Bronner declared, quoting from Jesus, Hillel, Einstein and the Buddha. Dr. Bronner’s was incorporated as a nonprofit religious organization for years until the IRS slapped a hefty tax bill on the company and forced it into bankruptcy.

So obsessed was Emanuel Bronner with his mission to save “Spaceship Earth’ that he farmed out his children to a series of foster homes. His son, Jim Bronner, became the quintessential family man, providing his wife and children the kind of loving home he never had. He coached soccer, volunteered with the scouts and, eschewing his Jewish heritage, raised his children as Christians. He also got the company onto firm footing.

“My dad was just the most moral, amazing man,” David says. “Reaganite, suburban, stable and just beautiful.”

Growing up in Glendale, CA, David was a jock who played football in high school and planned for a while to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point . (“I don’t think I would have worked out there,” he says.) Instead, he enrolled at Harvard, where he was a kicker on the football team before switching to rugby, a club sport that looked like it would be more fun. “Plus, there was no drug testing for cannabis,” he notes.

He awoke to the power of psychedelics in Amsterdam. Living in a squat, he adopted a plant-based diet, rejected western consumerism and experimented with an array of mind-expanding chemicals.

“I ended up having some really massive psychedelic experiences,” Bronner says. “I experienced first-hand the power of cannabis and psychedelic sacraments to open our hearts and minds to the miracle of life — to see that we are not separate from each other or the natural world, but one with it.” To his surprise, he connected deeply with Emanuel Bronner’s beliefs in the goodness and unity of humanity.

By the time David and Michael joined the company, their father Jim, their mother Trudy and their uncle Ralph had built a worker-friendly culture. (Jim died of cancer in 1998.) While growing the business, David and Michael took pains to develop a global supply chain that values workers, the environment, even religious unity — olive oil for Dr. Bronner’s is produced in the Holy Land by Muslims, Christians and Jews. Fair Trade coconut oil from Sri Lanka is grown by 1,200 farmers and meets the new Regenerative Organic Certified standard.

Brother David’s, David’s cannabis startup, likewise will support small-scale family farms practicing regenerative organic agriculture. “Cannabis is our sacred ally, helping us heal, connect and appreciate each other, and elevating our consciousness into the magical living moment,” he says.

Like cannabis, psychedelics can bring people closer together, David tells me: “When we use them intentionally, these allies can collapse distances and barriers.”

“A psychedelically open citizenry is just going to be a way better citizenry,” Bronner says. “We need to wake up, grapple with and solve the huge environmental and social problems that we’re facing. I think widespread psychedelic experience and healing is going to be crucial.”

Graham Boyd, who is the founder and executive director of the New Approach PAC, which funds drug-reform efforts, as well as an advisor to Dr Bronner’s, says by email:

We are in the midst of a sea change in the way Americans view criminal justice and drug policy, and we simply would not be here without the visionary advocacy of David Bronner and the Dr. Bronner’s company. That kind of change in public opinion and perspective doesn’t happen overnight. Even when it seems like it does, it’s actually happening because someone stuck their neck out and did the hard, risky work before the crowds came along.

This November in Oregon, voters will have a chance to move drug-policy reform forward and bring psychedelics closer to the mainstream. David Bronner will be watching.

“It’s not like we’re going to wave the magic psychedelic wand and solve all our problems,” Bronner says. “But it’s a really important tool to have in the tool kit.”


A note on sources: Most of the quotes from David Bronner in this story come from my interview. But a few were drawn from podcasts with David, one by Rich Roll and the other by Paul Austin. Both are well worth a listen.

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

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