David Bronner, Inheritor To His Grandfather’s Legacy and Soapmaking Empire Brings ‘Constructive Capitalism’ To Regenerative Cannabis Farming and Therapeutic Psilocybin Activism
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps remain an iconic and distinctively American staple brand and curiosity, their wordy labels ubiquitous from Northwestern co-operative farming communities to the upscale bodegas of gentrified North Brooklyn. The boldly colored packaging includes Dr. Bronners ‘Moral ABCs’, a religious, political and labor unity manifesto represented by the overall slogan that the company still uses, “All-One!”. The path of the brand, the label, the eponymous Doctor and his descendants leads from Nazi persecution and American struggle to the steps of the White House and the battle over psychedelic mushrooms.
Over 70 years after German immigrant Dr. Emanuel Bronner founded the company out of his California apartment in 1948, his heirs, particularly his grandson David, have carried his crusading spirit into the battles for hemp, cannabis, psychedelics and sustainable living.
Dr. Bronner himself was a fascinating and irrepressible entrepreneur; born into the German Jewish Heilbronner family of soapmakers, he immigrated by himself to Wisconsin from Germany in 1929, dropping the ‘Heil’ from his name due to the word’s association with the Nazis, as Hitler rose to power in the 1930’s.
Emanuel started publicly speaking about his ambitions for uniting humanity under a single utopian religious and governmental system, with mixed reactions. While many connected to him personally and intellectually, his intensity could be a double edged sword. After a dispute over his right to preach at the University of Chicago triggered his legendary sense of righteous indignation, he was involuntarily hospitalized at Elgin State Insane Asylum, from which he escaped in 1945. He fled west, and launched his American soapmaking operations in 1948 from his Los Angeles apartment. Meanwhile back in Germany, the Heilbronner’s factory was nationalized and liquidated by the Nazis, and Emanuel’s parents were deported to concentration camps, where they were murdered in the mid-1940’s.
As he spread his soap and gospel, Emanuel Bronner further honed his marketing and outreach skills. In 1950, he came up with the idea of directly printing “The Moral ABCs” that he had innovated onto the labels of his peppermint castile soaps, after realizing while preaching Pershing Square that many people were taking the free soap samples he offered, without bothering to stay to hear him philosophize. The Moral ABC’s are rooted in Dr. Bronner’s own stream of intentional consciousness, interwoven with references to thinkers and leaders including Einstein, Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, 1972 Olympic swimming legend Mark Spitz (who sued and eventually received a settlement when he found that he had been included on the packaging without permission), as well as Jesus and the ancient Hebrew sage Hillel, who Dr. Bronner referred to as ‘Rabbis’, seeing himself as a continuation of their Rabbinic tradition and philosophies. The label became the most recognizable characteristic of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps as they spread the globe, and has been alternately celebrated and ridiculed. When updating the logo in 2014, a company spokesperson acknowledged that the label – which can’t be changed beyond some design updates since a provision was added to the company’s charter that states that it must remain the same – “might just be one of those things that is ‘so bad, it’s good.'” The advertising industry has been split about whether it falls on the side of “atrocious” or “genius“, but to generations of global fans and customers, the case has been long settled.
Another is its versatility; Dr. Bronner’s soaps work as shampoo, toothpaste, laundry detergent, shaving cream, pest control and more, advertising at least 18 uses on the label. As demand rose for naturally sourced and organic products through the 60’s and 70’s, Dr. Bronner’s soaps, which had been decades ahead of the ‘conscious consumerism’ and holistic wellness product trends, expanded and moved operations to Escondido, California. The non-conformists that became their base market were intrigued and inspired by the universalist exhortations, laughing or shrugging off the more subjective bits, such as his advocacy for Chinese birth control methods.
Dr. Bronner’s commitment to fair and equitable business practices made him a beloved employer, allowing many to appreciate or overlook his pronounced quirks. For example, he had an almost compulsive habit of reporting communist activity he deemed suspicious to the FBI, and made many attempts to meet Dr. Albert Einstein, sometimes claiming him as his uncle. It is also likely, according to the Dr. Bronner’s website, that he simply adopted the ‘Doctor’ honorific and that “with his intensity, scientific knowledge and thick German accent, no one argue(d).”
Emanuel Bronner ran the company until his death in 1997, even as his eyesight deteriorated into complete blindness through the 60’s and 70’s, a condition he attributed to the shock treatments he had received at Elgin State. His sons Jim and Ralph took the reins and continued to embrace the ethos of their father’s mission and business structure. Jim was a brilliant chemist in his own right, inventing a foam concentrate in the 80’s that is still used in fighting forest and structure fires. Ralph served as Chief Outreach Officer, his own uniquely accessible personality displayed along with his fathers in the 2006 documentary ‘Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox.’ Not long after his father’s death, Jim received a terminal cancer diagnosis, and spent the last year of his life transitioning management of the company to his son David, who would go on run the company with his mother Trudy and uncle Ralph, soon to be joined by his brother Michael. Ralph Bronner, beloved by staff and customers alike for his warmth and generosity, remained in his position with the company until his passing in 2015. Michael Bronner is an author, philanthropist, and activist, and remains President of Dr. Bronner’s.
When David Bronner joined the family business as the end of a century neared, he was a 24-year-old Harvard-educated mental health counselor and hemp advocate. With an established national and international market, David and Dr. Bronner’s entered the 21st century already well along their path of corporate and communal activism toward a better planet.
Activism For Hemp and Cannabis Leads Brother David to Regenerative Organics
In 1999, the company added hemp seed oil to their soaps, and supported the eventually successful early 2000’s campaign that protected hemp products from a DEA status as a schedule 1 drug. Illogical and restrictive federal policies against hemp and cannabis didn’t end there however, and in 2012 David Bronner was arrested for locking himself in a steel cage in front of the White House while extracting oil from hemp, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince President Obama to rethink some of America’s self destructive plant policies. He had previously been arrested in 2010 for symbolically planting hemp on the front lawn of the DEA museum with 5 other activists. Hemp was finally legalized in the most recent 2018 Farm Bill.
David Bronner, working with his family and team, has since incorporated the company’s guiding principle of ‘conscious capitalism‘ into activism for LGBT+ rights, sustainable agriculture and the “liberation of cannabis.” Since 2003, Dr. Bronner’s has formalized their practice of giving all profits not needed for business to progressive causes and charities, and in July of 2015, Dr. Bronner’s became a state recognized Benefit Corporation (B. Corp) in California, a ‘for-profit corporation that has positive impact on society and the environment according to legally defined goals.’ That act further solidified the commitment to locally and globally beneficial work that Emanuel Bronner incorporated into their foundation, and which his heirs and descendants uphold. Indeed, when browsing some of their innovations it’s almost unbelievable for an American corporation; in 2003 they created the first 100% post-consumer recycled plastic bottles, and they have a detailed commitment to sustainable sourcing and cultivation of their products. They also have some of the most worker friendly business practices, including 100% health coverage, which they instituted in the early 90’s, and a maximum 5-to-1 compensation cap between top salaried employee and lowest-wage warehouse position, meaning that even David, the CEO (Cosmic Engagement Officer) can only make up to five times as much as his lowest paid full time worker. By comparison, the average CEO in the US ‘earned’ about 250 times as much as their typical (not lowest paid) employee in 2018. Dr. Bronner’s is a rare corporation that has put into action the often empty commitments to workers and the earth that other corporate actors fund misleading PR campaigns about.
Besides hemp activism, Dr. Bronner’s has been a longtime supporter of cannabis legalization, accessibility and agriculture, and David’s new project in that space perfectly reflects the holistic agrarian outlook he lives. “Brother David’s Sacred Allies is a not for profit brand platform to promote independent sun & earth farms.” He told us, further elaborating that the primary goal is to establish a recognizable holistic agriculture certifications for farmers, especially cannabis farmers who are growing organically, but can not get Organic certification due to cannabis remaining a federal Schedule 1 drug, a continued and unjust hypocrisy. David clarified that “These are independent farms, we have no ownership whatsoever, we are promoting a certification that means the cannabis was grown purely in sun and soil, with no chemicals, using fair labor practices. We feel like all the best cannabis farmers are already growing regeneratively, so it’s a way of certifying what they do in a way that communicates that transparently to consumers at point of sale. For example, when they see the Sun+Earth certification, they know that their medicine has been produced to the highest standard. Brother David’s is a not for profit intentionally because we want to communicate that we are in cooperation, not competition with the other brands certified as Sun+Earth and Regenerative Organic, we just exist to promote those standards, and help subsidize certification costs to fund allies advocating for better and less burdensome regulations for small family farmers.” The Sun+Earth certification is specific to cannabis, while Regenerative Organic applies to all non-scheduled agricultural products.
Most recently, the Bronner name has been in the media due to their $150,000 donation and David’s public and personal support of Oregon’s Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would allow psilocybin therapy in the state, in controlled therapeutic settings with state licensed therapists. That measure was a rewritten version of the previous mushroom bill, and the announcement of the amended version set off a wave of mostly positive reactions online and in the psychedelic community. David spoke to NUGL on the phone about his support for the therapeutic model of psilocybin, his vision for the future of psilocybin, and some of the dissenting opinions around the current bill from within the psychedelic community.
“I think psychedelic therapy is pretty crucial for humanity to heal itself,” he told me “We need to wake up to, grapple with and solve the huge environmental and social problems that we’re facing, and I think widespread psychedelic experience and healing is going to be a crucial part.” He speaks from personal experience with the fungus, referencing his own struggles with anxiety and depression. “It’s definitely been a big part of my path, and that of many people I know, helping to process really difficult emotions and experiences, learning to reintegrate and love ourselves and each other, to connect with nature and realize we’re one with the miraculous living reality we’re in.”
One reason David supports the therapeutic model is that he recognizes the vast need for more intense and deep reaching therapeutic experiences and medicines than what the American regulatory system currently allows for; “The pharma drugs and therapies out there are pretty inadequate, just scratching the surface of the root problems, and psilocybin assisted therapy can really help people and help solve the underlying issues, or work through them in a much more fundamental way than just medicating the symptoms,” he said. “Speaking as somebody who doesn’t have an acute diagnosis of major depression or end of life anxiety, or an acute addiction, I think for our brothers and sisters that are suffering from any of those, this is really game changing.”
David believes that psilocybin assisted therapy can and will change public perception about the fungi and other natural and plant medicines. “The therapeutic model is based more on the indigenous approach of creating a safe container with a shaman present to really optimize the experience, it’s not like partying at a concert.” Not that partying with psychedelics at a concert is necessarily a bad way to experience psychedelics, in his view. “Certainly though that can also be a deeply meaningful or religious experience, it’s not as reliable as a therapeutic model where you’re really controlling the set and setting and minimizing distracting factors in the environment, and really enabling full release through the experience”
Consensus Building, Dissent, And the Fear of ‘Corporadelics’
As mentioned above, the measure currently up for consideration in Oregon – known as PSI 2020 – was rewritten and amended, with a few crucial changes that not everyone agrees with. Those controversial changes include a measure mandating indoor growing – which may exclude low income people without the means for a costly indoor setup, and could also stand to benefit a donor to the campaign who produces exactly that sort of indoor equipment. Many have criticized the level of influence that Tom and Sheri Eckert, the married therapists sponsoring the original and amended bill have had over the campaign and eventual licensing process. The Portland branch of national plant medicine advocacy group Decriminalize Nature, whose Oakland and Denver affiliates have been a fundamental part of the successful legislation there, publicly stated their objections in a letter they posted online. David Bronner published his own response to the backlash, and defended the measure and Dr. Bronner’s support for it on the company blog. In our conversation as the discussions played out, Bryan Kim director of public outreach for Decriminalize Nature Portland told me; “Our position toward PSI and the changes made is that we are not at a point where we don’t think people should vote for it. Getting a medical model, and a high quality one, in place is really important. The main point of contention is that we are at a point of critical support (for psilocybin), and that I think it’s very important for the average person to understand the distinction in approaches. It’s critical that as we’re moving forward into the future, we’re talking about who’s going to benefit from these legislative changes, and who’s going to be left behind.”
Kevin Matthews, the Denver activist best known for spearheading the psilocybin campaign there cautioned in a September 12 webinar about a potential monopolistic takeover by ‘corporadelic’ interest Compass Pathways, who have raised eyebrows and concerns that many of their tactics are aimed toward cornering the market on psilocybin research and market access. Matthews cautioned that “Compass intend to dominate the market in clinical research for the foreseeable future, and if the Oregon measure passes, it’s my intuition that they are going to have as much of a proprietary space in terms of supplying psilocybin to those service centers when they open up.”
David Bronner describes the conflicts over the bill as tactical, rather than fundamental.“I think there’s a large scale agreement on the end goal, the end goal is for psychedelics to be widely available for everybody that doesn’t have a contra-indication.” He notes that another bill being considered by the Drug Policy Alliance and aimed at broad scale drug decriminalization across Oregon, includes the decriminalization language removed from PSI 2020, and would include psilocybin and all other psychedelics. “On the one hand , you’ve got the Decriminalize Nature movement, which we 100% support. We do believe in cognitive liberty, and that you have a right to alter your consciousness as you see fit, whether that’s in your own home or in a forest or wherever. Conversely, we also understand the researcher concerns, they are concerned that (while they are) going the FDA regulatory approval route, if we go too far with what Oregon is proposing, that maybe there would be some (federal) backlash.”
A spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance clarified regarding the full drug decriminalization measure referred to by David, that they will not technically be introducing that bill, rather following and supporting the local lead; “The chief petitioners for the ballot initiative you are referring to are Janie Gullickson, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, Haven Wheelock of OutsideIn, where she leads one of the oldest and largest harm reduction programs in the US, and Anthony Johnson, executive director of the successful Oregon campaign to regulate, tax and legalize marijuana. To be clear, this is an Oregon-led initiative…It is much too soon to determine whether or not we will move forward with this measure.”
Bryan Kim and others are sure to express that concern over potential bad actors does not extend to David and Dr. Bronner’s. “I want to be very clear; I live with several other Decriminalize Nature PDX people and our household is very big fans of his products. They as a company do a lot of great work, and I really appreciate that as a B Corp they have structured a for-profit business in a way that gives them a legal and structural focus on attempting to give back and make improvements within the system.” A spokesperson for Decriminalize California similarly criticized elements of the bill, while reiterating their respect for Bronner. “David Bronner has alway been fighting the good fight for drug policy reform. I believe his motives are righteous, and if more people in his position stepped up to support these kinds of initiatives, this war would end. Granted, I like the Decriminalize California model better than the (PSI 2020) Oregon model, but it’s up to the voters in Oregon to decide their own fate, and with time their policy will evolve to fit the needs of the people.”
The Holistic, Agrarian, Sustainable, Psychedelic Future
Holistic cannabis culture and psilocybin therapy are not disconnected goals to David. “There is similarity in that cannabis is also a plant medicine that’s very helpful in helping us relax and appreciate the present moment, each other, music and all the magic in our lives, and to get out of the ‘go go’ mode of consciousness that’s really interfering with connecting with each other and nature.” Coming from a less accomplished idealist, statements like that might sound myopic, but the legacy that David Bronner steadfastly maintains has withstood skepticism, mockery and even incarceration in the past, and among the wealthy and influential individuals eagerly affiliating themselves and their money with psychedelics, it is unlikely that any of the others are following as directly in the footsteps of their grandfather. David and Dr. Bronner’s current success and future goals are the outcome of exactly the sort of irrepressible faith in big ideas, good work, and being of benefit to people and the earth that he and his grandfather Emanuel have dedicated their life’s energy to. As for what David hopes to see in the near future of cannabis, psychedelics, and plant medicines? “I’m hoping for a day soon that in the same sentence where you’re asking someone about their meditation practice, you also ask about their medicine practice. Maybe it’s every five years, or yearly, maybe it’s once a quarter, but some kind of check in to the deeper levels of self, spirit world, getting the deep lessons and wisdom that come with intentional medicine practice.”