VISTA, Calif. — Dr. Bronner’s, the liquid soap company best known for its teeny-font labels preaching brotherly love and world peace, would like you to consider the benefits of mind-altering drugs.
The sentiment is promoted on limited-edition soap bottles that sing the praises of psychedelic-assisted therapies, and through the trippy pronouncements of David Bronner, grandson of the company’s founder and one of its top executives, who is not shy about sharing details of his many hallucinogenic journeys.
“Let’s face it, the world would be a far better place if more people experienced psychedelic medicines,” said David, whose company in January became among the first in the United States to offer ketamine therapy as part of its employee health care coverage.
Perhaps less well known is Dr. Bronner’s role as one of the country’s biggest financial supporters of efforts to win mainstream acceptance of psychedelics and to loosen government restrictions on all illegal drugs.
Since 2015, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps — yes, that’s its official name — has donated more than $23 million to drug advocacy and research organizations, according to corporate documents. They include scientists researching the healing properties of the club drug Ecstasy, activist groups that helped decriminalize psilocybin “magic mushrooms” in Oregon and Washington, D.C., and a small nonprofit working to preserve habitat for peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus central to some Native American spiritual traditions.
Over the years, the company has also spent millions on efforts toward cannabis legalization, including litigation that in 2018 helped reverse a federal prohibition on the cultivation of industrial hemp.
Although Open Society Foundations, the left-leaning philanthropy founded by George Soros, has quietly spent millions on drug policy changes, it is rare for a company to embrace an issue as contentious as loudly as Dr. Bronner’s has.
“When it comes to corporate philanthropy, you’d be hard-pressed to find another company with the courage to publicly back an end to the war on drugs,” said Rick Doblin, who runs the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a research and advocacy group. It has received nearly $6 million from Dr. Bronner’s, with an additional $1 million pledged for each of the next five years.
The Bronner family’s increasingly high-profile largess comes at a pivotal moment in the decades-long campaign to ease the nation’s just-say-no attitude toward illicit drugs. The changes have been seismic, from bipartisan congressional support for drug-sentencing reforms to the cascading state-by-state embrace of recreational marijuana.
Ketamine therapy for depression has become a billion-dollar industry, and scores of states and municipalities are seeking to join Denver, Seattle and the dozen other cities that have decriminalized psychedelics. Researchers say another watershed moment is on the horizon: the Food and Drug Administration is considering approving MDMA, or Ecstasy, for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The University of Texas, Johns Hopkins and Yale are among the stolid institutions that have created divisions to explore whether psychedelic compounds can advance the treatment of anxiety, depression, addiction and a range of other mental health disorders. “We really are at an inflection point where the whole paradigm about these drugs is shifting,” said Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, who is helping to set up the school’s new Center for the Science of Psychedelics.
Founded in 1948 by Emanuel Bronner, a German-Jewish immigrant and a third-generation soap maker, Dr. Bronner’s tingly peppermint soap became a favorite in the 1960s among counterculture peaceniks who were enamored with its all-natural provenance and Bronner’s “All-One-God-Faith” dedication to ending the tribalism behind so much human suffering. One apocryphal origin story credits Woodstock for expanding its distribution. “The joke is that it left the festival in three times as many VW microbuses as it arrived in,” his grandson, Michael Bronner, said.
Emil, as he was known, was a bracing, free-spirited renegade whose loquacious genius often danced on the edge of madness. (He was not, in any way, an actual doctor.) In 1945, not long after learning his parents had been murdered in Nazi death camps, Emil landed in a Chicago mental asylum, forcibly committed by his sister, where he was administered electric shock therapy, according to his family. After making an audacious escape, he hitchhiked to California, where he began his lifelong, peripatetic crusade to heal mankind.
Bronner would hand out bottles of his product after delivering his idiosyncratic public lectures about humanity’s need to save “Spaceship Earth,” but he soon realized most people were more interested in his free soap than his spiritual ideology. His remedy? He began printing those philosophic ramblings on the labels, which also explained the 18-in-1 uses for his concentrated liquid Castile soap. (Teeth cleaning! Dishwashing! Dog shampoo!)
Though a suggested birth-control use has since been discarded, the Bronners have left much of the label’s 3,000-word verbiage untouched, a decision that reflects the family’s deep reverence for a man whose zany presence is inescapable more than two decades after his death at age 89.
The patriarch’s writings and his image are scattered throughout the company’s headquarters in Vista, Calif., about 40 miles north of San Diego. A frighteningly large blowup of his grinning face greets visitors in the lobby. Nearby a papier-mâché figure wearing a leopard-print Speedo is a goofy homage to his predilection for conducting business in skimpy swimming trunks. (Fun fact: For decades, the phone number printed on soap bottles rang through to a collection of red rotary phones that Emil Bronner answered at all hours from his living room recliner.)
The company remains a family affair. Michael, the self-described “buttoned-up brother,” is president; his sister, Lisa, helps promote the brand’s work on environmental sustainability and fair-trade issues; and their mother, Trudy, is the chief financial officer. David, the eldest child, is C.E.O. — Cosmic Engagement Officer.
Last year Dr. Bronner’s earned nearly $170 million in revenues, according to company documents, up from $4 million in 1998, several years after the company emerged from bankruptcy with an assist from Emil’s two sons, Jim and Ralph.
That near brush with corporate death was tied to Emil’s decision to register his company, “All One God Faith, Inc.” as a religious nonprofit. The Internal Revenue Service was not pleased, and levied a crushing fine.
But the founder’s unconventional approach to business lives on. Top salaries at the company cannot exceed five times that of the lowest-paid worker with five years on the job, which means Michael and David each earn roughly $300,000 a year. Their 300 employees receive an array of benefits, including up to $7,500 in child-care assistance and annual bonuses of up to 10 percent of their annual pay. The cafeteria’s vegan meals are free, as are the Zumba classes, back massages and solar-powered electric-vehicle charging stations.
The company regularly spurns the kind of buyout offers that have claimed other independent brands like Burt’s Bees (now part of Clorox), Tom’s of Maine (Colgate-Palmolive) and Kiehl’s (L’Oréal). The offers, the brothers say, go right into the trash. In a good year, the company gives away 45 percent of its profits, or about $8 million, according to the company’s annual report. “If we cashed out, we’d be less effective as a charitable engine,” David said.
His own love affair with psychedelics began shortly after college, at a dance club in Amsterdam, where he was introduced to candy flipping — the combination of LSD and Ecstasy. The journey included visions of Jesus, his grandfather and “a dialogue with deep self,” all of which helped him work through what he described as a crippling toxic masculinity and a troubled relationship. “I died five times but it got me out of my dark hole and set me on my path,” said David, 49, a vegan who favors hemp clothing and is especially fond of the adjective “rad.”
He also has a showman’s eye for attention-grabbing gestures, which got him arrested twice; once for sowing hemp seeds on the front lawn of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the other for milling hemp oil while locked in a cage in front of the White House.
The company’s move to tether a large chunk of its corporate identity to psychedelics and the politics of drug reform have not always gone down well, especially with Trudy, 79, a former junior high school math teacher and regular Methodist churchgoer who winces when recalling the excesses of the 1960s. “I had friends who did the trippy stuff and it wasn’t always good,” she said. “On the other hand this country has a lot of mental health issues that need to be addressed.”
Her lingering skepticism was dispelled by Michael’s recent turn to psychedelics. The shift came last year, when the medications he had long relied on to treat his anxiety and depression stopped working. It was then that he decided to try talk therapy paired with ketamine, a legal anesthetic and party drug that has been gaining increasing acceptance among mental health professionals.
He compared the experience to a massage for the brain that helped cleared away much of his angst and despair. “I don’t want to oversell ketamine therapy as a miracle cure but it just stripped the rust away, gave me a reset and got me to a really good space,” he said.
So far 21 employees or their dependents have signed up for the treatments, which can cost several thousand dollars.
A battlefield anesthetic that is also used in veterinarian medicine, ketamine has only recently gained popularity as a therapy for hard-to-treat depression and suicidal ideation. Though the drug does not have F.D.A clearance for mental health conditions, doctors are allowed to prescribe it for so-called off-label use when they think it will provide benefits to a patient.
Enthea, the health plan benefit administrator for the treatments, said 10 other companies were already following in Dr. Bronner’s footsteps. Many are driven by the prospect of reduced spending on mental health coverage and also with increasing employee productivity, Lia Mix, Enthea’s founder and chief executive, said.
Emil Bronner didn’t do drugs, and he was distrustful of Western medicine, refusing to see a doctor even as he began losing his eyesight in his 60s. But his grandsons are sure he would have approved of their decision to make psychedelics a central component of the family business.
“Our grandpa was all about shifting consciousness and opening hearts and minds,” David said, pausing for comic effect and flashing a mischievous grin: “He probably would have put LSD in his soaps.”