Author and educator Michael Pollan delivers a commentary on our love-hate relationship with drugs in his latest book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, which debuted at #2 this week on the New York Times list of best sellers. An examination of just three of the myriad psychoactive chemicals human beings indulge in—caffeine, opium and mescaline—Pollan’s work reveals how tightly these molecules are intertwined in our culture and most of our personal lives.
A central theme of This Is Your Mind on Plants is America’s (and by extension, the international community’s) War on Drugs. The book, the title of which is itself an allusion to the drug war, begins with a magazine article about opium Pollan penned for Harper’s Magazine in 1996. A garden writer at the time, the story was inspired when Pollan’s editor shared an underground book titled Opium for the Masses, where he learned that opium tea could be made by growing plants from readily available seed.
“The book is an effort to launch a conversation, a kind of post-drug war conversation,” Pollan tells me in a telephone interview. “I start out with the drug war, and that’s why the first chapter is all about my adventure growing opium poppies.”
After sowing the seeds, the purveyors of which promised striking blooms in shades of red, orange, lavender and more, Pollan began investigating the legal implications of cultivating the garden plants. He quickly learned that he had already stepped out of bounds in the eyes of the nation’s drug laws. Just by knowingly planting the seeds in his Connecticut garden, the author had committed a federal offense.
Although he was alarmed at the revelation, the discovery that he had already run afoul of federal drug statute eventually emboldened Pollan. When he first sowed the seeds in spring, Pollan was unsure just how far he would take his experiment. But when he learned he was already technically a drug offender, he decided to go ahead and make the tea Opium for the Masses had taught him could be easily prepared from the seed pods that followed the colorful flowers.
A War On Free Expression
But the passage Pollan wrote for his article detailing his preparation of the tea and its effect on him raised even more legal issues. Jim Hogshire, who wrote Opium for the Masses, was facing drug charges in Seattle for manufacturing controlled substances following a police raid on his residence. Additionally, Pollan had learned that the Drug Enforcement Administration had been quietly investigating seed companies and dried flower vendors who offered products derived from opium poppies.
The attention the authorities were affording gardeners and flower arrangers gave Pollan pause. Would publishing the article attract the notice of drug agents or prosecutors? To find out, Harper’s publisher John R. “Rick” MacArthur solicited a legal opinion from a prominent criminal defense attorney. The news wasn’t good. Pollan learned that a zealous prosecutor could see the story as a criminal confession and bring charges against him. And if he were not convicted or even charged, an encounter with the government could lead to the seizure of his family home under civil asset forfeiture laws.
MacArthur, who saw Pollan’s article as work protected by the Constitution, was not satisfied with the legal opinion and sought another from a different lawyer, this time one specializing in the First Amendment. The attorney agreed with MacArthur, saying the article was protected commentary on the government that should be published. The convoluted and arbitrary nature of the nation’s narcotics laws clearly on display, Pollan was faced with a decision that could impact his freedom and the home he shared with his wife and young son. Reluctantly, Pollan decided to excise the pages about opium tea from the final draft of the article, which was published in the April 1997 edition of Harper’s Magazine under the title “Opium Made Easy.”
Almost a quarter-century later, the deleted passage appears for the first time publicly in This Is Your Mind on Plants. The statute of limitations for any potentially alleged crimes long since passed, Pollan is no longer in legal jeopardy for feloniously brewing tea. But the notion that the pages he had written could have landed him in jail almost seems silly in retrospect, particularly in the context of the opioid epidemic instigated by Purdue Pharma, the drug company that began marketing OxyContin at practically the same time Pollan was planting his poppy seeds.
If he were writing “Opium Made Easy” today, Pollan says he would probably publish the piece in its entirety, noting that the War on Drugs seems to be in retreat and “things have changed dramatically since then.” After the fear of reprisal subsided, it didn’t take long for Pollan to regret the self-censorship.
“Given the opioid crisis, it’s really hard to imagine the government coming after somebody for growing some opium poppies and making a cup of poppy tea,” he explains.
A Caffeinated World
After beginning This Is Your Mind on Plants with opium, Pollan next explores “a legal drug, caffeine, to help us think through: how do we feel about addiction?” he says. “What’s wrong with it, and why are some drugs celebrated and others condemned?”
Questions like these further illustrate the capriciousness of the War on Drugs and what substances policymakers choose to prohibit. For example, although caffeine is a highly addictive psychoactive drug, its use is not just tolerated but celebrated in a society that increasingly demands our attention at all hours of the day and night. The use of caffeine is so pervasive, with approximately 90% of the world’s population regularly ingesting it, that Pollan’s self-experimentation with the drug for This Is Your Life on Plants involved abstaining rather than partaking.
But caffeine hasn’t always enjoyed such wide acceptance. At various times in Europe and the Arabic world, Pollan notes, coffee has been banned because of its association with establishments that foment politically threatening ideas. Other psychoactive substances have also seen their favor ebb and flow with the whims of popular opinion. After a hard day crusading against the perils of alcohol in the years leading up to Prohibition, members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union would unwind with “women’s tonics” containing laudanum, a form of morphine that was perfectly legal at the time. Cannabis, another drug regaining acceptance today, was a popular and commonly available analgesic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Psychedelics Viewed In A New Light
Psychedelic drugs, too, have seen their fate impacted by the arbitrary whims of the War on Drugs. Hailed as a potential psychiatric breakthrough in early studies during the 1950s and 60s, hallucinogenic drugs became a victim of the drug war launched by the Nixon administration to contain the dual threats of the anti-war and civil rights movements. And now, it seems, the pendulum is swinging the other way again, with researchers studying the potential of psychedelics to treat mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and addiction. When the New York Times ran a recent cover story on the current psychedelic revolution, the Gray Lady credited Pollan’s 2018 best-selling book How to Change Your Mind with playing a pivotal role in helping to “destigmatize the drugs in the three years since it was published.”
For the last chapter of This Is Your Mind on Plants, Pollan turns to mescaline, a psychedelic drug found in the peyote and San Pedro cacti that can also be created synthetically. The author says that he is looking ahead to a time when psychedelics are decriminalized, noting that “we are going to have to figure out what to do with them.”
Currently, mescaline is a schedule 1 controlled substance under federal drug laws, making it illegal for everyone besides specially licensed researchers. The only exception is for members of the Native American Church. They have used peyote sacramentally since the denomination’s inception in the late 1880s, when the United States’ indigenous people and their culture were threatened by annihilation. Spiritual use of peyote likely began thousands of years before that. In 1620, the Mexican Inquisition declared peyote a “heretical perversity,” making it the first drug to be banned in the New World.
This varied approach to mescaline serves as another example of how drugs are viewed and controlled. While the Spanish Conquest saw peyote as a threat to the Catholic Church and the U.S. government feared psychedelics were a danger to society, members of the Native American Church use peyote to bring the community together and address the challenges it faces in the forms of illness, domestic strife and addiction, as well as individual and generational trauma.
Despite the current renaissance in psychedelic therapy, many Native Americans would not like to see peyote legalized. Endangered in the wild, the cactus is native only to a narrow band of land alongside the Rio Grande in Mexico and Texas. Poaching and unsustainable legal harvesting in its natural habit worry many Native Americans that supplies of the sacred plant will be threatened.
“So, it becomes important to look for models of sane and sustainable use of psychedelics,” Pollan maintains. “And that’s why I focused on traditional cultures, indigenous cultures, who I think have a lot to teach us on how to fold these substances into our lives.”
A World Without A Drug War
As we navigate the path to the end of the War on Drugs, Pollan believes that new regulatory regimes will have to be created, noting that he doesn’t “think the future of psilocybin lies with the cannabis dispensary. I think it’s a very different kind of experience and needs a very different kind of container to be used safely.”
“We’re hopefully bringing the drug war to a close. The next question is, what does the drug peace look like? And it’s not simple of legalization or decriminalization,” he continues. “Society is still going to have to figure out how to handle these powerful substances in such a way that people who want them have access to them, and that the harms are minimized, and that their full benefit as tools for health or spiritual development can be realized.”
Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind on Plants from Penguin Press is available now at your favorite bookseller and from the usual cadre of online retailers.