When it comes to our societal relationship with drugs, the times, they are a-changin’. Not long ago, for example, I would have never discussed my drug use with my mother. Now when I visit, we take turns puffing from the vape pen I gave her for Christmas, which was purchased legally from a shop that looks no more illicit than a RadioShack. Recently, after my first ayahuasca experience, I called her the following day to tell her all the details, from my embarrassment at having forgotten a puke bucket to the snarling baboon face that emerged—teeth gnashing, fur kaleidoscopic—from the emptiness of space as I was propelled through the cosmos somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn.
A-changin’ times indeed.
This is a surprising shift in circumstance. My generation grew up at the tail end of the “Just Say No” era, which was spouted at us by the Reaganites with a zealous sound and fury. It was a slogan thought up by an idiot, signifying nothing, but the consequences of their brutish flapdoodle were all too real: ostracization at best and jail or even death at worst. So drug use—at least of those drugs deemed socially unacceptable by the squares—occurred in secrecy.
But now attitudes and laws are evolving. Everyone’s mom eats edibles. Psychedelic therapy clinics are sprouting all over the place, even in Texas. Texas. People are opening up about how drugs—war upon them be damned—have positively affected their lives, and Michael Pollan is among them.
As Pollan’s latest book This Is Your Mind on Plants explains, virtually every American has benefited from the integration of drugs into our culture. Most of them have never thought of it that way, yet every morning they start their day with a fix.
In his previous work, Pollan has repeatedly delved into various aspects of the things humans put into their bodies, so in a way his latest read is familiar territory. This time he looks at how our society has interacted with three very distinct, plant-derived substances: opium, caffeine, and mescaline. Oh my.
In discussing the first of these—the much-maligned opium—Pollan borrows heavily from a never-released segment that was cut from an article on growing opium he wrote back in 1997, at the height of the drug war. At the time, said section was excised from the article because it was “a topsy-turvy moment when the government was paying more attention to a bunch of gardeners growing poppies in order to brew a mild narcotic tea than it did to a pharmaceutical company that was knowingly addicting millions of Americans to its FDA-approved opiate, OxyContin.” In other words, Pollan had feared that by including the segment—in which he details his own experience growing opium poppies, then sampling the soothing substance within—he would have placed himself in the crosshairs of the Man. And as he explains, there was good reason to worry.
While all of This Is Your Mind on Plants is fascinating, I found the opium chapter to be particularly interesting due to the firsthand, rabbit-hole glimpse into the absurdity of the drug war Pollan got while he went through the process of growing a mere flower. That he—or anyone, for that matter—would have to fear imprisonment, the loss of his home, and essentially the devastation of his life for something so trivial is crazy.
As Pollan noted back in ’97, “After two decades of the war against drugs, the power of the government to move against its citizens has grown even greater than many of us realize.” Today while just about everyone agrees that the war has failed and attitudes toward drugs are evolving, that frightening power is still all too real.
From there Pollan moves onto “coffee and tea, which have amply demonstrated their value to capitalism in many ways.” Here he relates the history of caffeine and how it has become so integral to our society, indeed becoming the most popular drug in the world. “We don’t usually think of caffeine as a drug, or our daily use of it as an addiction,” Pollan explains, “but that is only because coffee and tea are legal and our dependence on them is socially acceptable.”
And this is at the crux of Pollan’s argument—that “an illicit drug is whatever a government decides it is” and that “the war on drugs is in truth a war on some drugs.” For coffee is indeed a drug, it’s simply a drug that our culture embraced thanks to the many benefits it afforded.
Those benefits are very real, as are the benefits bestowed by opium and mescaline. The main difference between these and caffeine, however, is that the latter helped to literally fuel the capitalistic and scientific booms of the Enlightenment, while the positives proffered by opioids and psychedelics are somewhat less tangible. Pollan is suggesting that we get to know these and other drugs better—from the socially acceptable to the socially profane—so that we can better acknowledge what goodness there is to be gained from them.
As he explains, “My wager in writing This Is Your Mind on Plants is that the decline of the drug war, with its brutally simplistic narratives about ‘your brain on drugs,’ has opened a space in which we can tell some other, much more interesting stories about our ancient relationship with the mind-altering plants and fungi with which nature has blessed us.”
While just about everyone has embraced caffeine, and most understand at least the painkilling benefits derived from opium, in the final section of the book Pollan looks at a drug that few appreciate or perhaps don’t know about at all: mescaline.
Pollan began researching this section early in 2020, narrating how he had lined up visits to the borderland regions of Mexico and Texas where mescaline-rich cacti grow wild and various indigenous peoples engage in mescaline-infused religious practices. His (and everyone else’s) travel plans were interrupted, however, with the emergence of COVID-19.
Luckily, Pollan was able to bring his research home, extracting the mystical molecule from a cactus growing in his very own garden.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the value, to people trapped in monotonous lives, of a substance that can relieve boredom and entertain by sponsoring novel sensations and thoughts in the mind. Some drugs can expand the contours of a world constrained by circumstance, as I discovered during the pandemic.”
He was, of course, referring to mescaline.
But Pollan wasn’t focused on the psychedelic’s potential for entertainment. Throughout the chapter he explains the spiritual function played by the peyote cactus in Native American traditions, and the hard-won fight they waged to secure the right to the plant and the religion it facilitates. For followers of this religion assert that the power mescaline has to soothe individual and collective traumas, heal physical distresses like addiction, and provide deep spiritual insights is integral to the health of their culture and community. “That such a model exists,” writes Pollan, “requires us to reconsider the whole concept of ‘drugs’ and the moral failings we associate with them.”
As Pollan and his wife soon discover through their participation in a carefully orchestrated, COVID-friendly mescaline ceremony, the rest of us are missing out on something that could be profoundly beneficial to each of us as individuals and society as a whole.
Pollan’s writing always has a personal aspect to it, but in his latest work he takes an even more central role in the narrative, and his book is the better for it. In his last book on psychedelics, for example, Pollan sprinkled in his own experiences, but it was largely an objective, science-based read. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, his experiences and the subjective impact they had on him are pushed front and center. It makes for highly engaging reading.
That this respected journalist and generally responsible person could find such value in these drugs—these plants—should prompt the skeptical to reexamine their prejudices.
“The drug war’s simplistic account of what drugs do and are,” Pollan writes, “as well as its insistence on lumping them all together under a single meaningless rubric, has for too long prevented us from thinking clearly about the meaning and potential of these very different substances.”
If the integration of caffeine into our society reaped such substantial rewards, what benefits could be derived from wisely doing the same with other drugs like opium and mescaline? In the case of opium we’ve had our fair share of problems, to be certain, but that’s largely due to a misapprehension of its potential on the part of both our government and wider society. As others have pointed out, like Columbia professor Dr. Carl Hart in his latest book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, our biggest mistake regarding drugs involves our ignorance toward them.
Caffeine, opium, mescaline—these all come from plants like coffee, tea, poppies, and cacti. They aren’t good or bad, they’re just plants, and what we do with them will be determined by how well we understand them.
As Pollan points out, “How amazing is it that so many kinds of plants have hit upon the precise recipes for molecules that fit snugly into receptors in human brains?”
How fortunate we are.
Opinions are evolving in relation to these drugs—these plants. Times, they are a-changin’. So the question is, who among us will change with them, and who will be left behind?
“Through what was surely a long and perilous trial and error,” Pollan writes, “humans have identified plants that lift the burden of physical pain; render us more alert or capable or uncommon feats; make us more sociable; elicit feelings of awe or ecstasy; nourish our imagination; transcend space and time; occasion dreams and visions and mystical experiences; and bring us into the presence of our ancestors or gods.”
These plants are our birthright, and we would be wise to learn what they have to offer.