Author Michael Pollan discussed his new book This is Your Mind on Plants on Monday in a virtual event co-sponsored by Vroman’s Bookstore, the Elliott Bay Book Company, Changing Hands Bookstores and Boulder Bookstore. Pollan was joined in conversation by Dr. Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
“It’s very hard to define what a drug is,” Pollan said. “Is sugar a drug? Anything we ingest that changes us in some way? That covers a lot of food.”
The book takes a deep dive into three plant drugs: opium, caffeine and mescaline. Pollan “examines and experiences these plants from several angles and shines new light on a subject that is often treated reductively—as a drug, whether licit or illicit,” according to a statement from the book’s publisher. “But that is one of the least interesting things you can say about these plants, Pollan shows, for when we take them into our bodies and let them change our minds, we are engaging with nature in one of the most profound ways we can.”
The book is “a radical challenge to how we think about drugs, and an exploration into the powerful human attraction to psychoactive plants—and the equally powerful taboos.”
Pollan experimented with all three drugs, wrote about his experiences and looked at them through historical, scientific, philosophical, literary and personal lenses. Ultimately, This is Your Mind on Plants asks its readers to reconsider the whole notion of what a drug even is.
Pollan is a New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including How to Change Your Mind, Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He teaches writing at Harvard University and serves as the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
In examining opium for the book, Pollan planted poppies in his garden to make opium tea, an experience he originally wrote about for Harper’s Magazine in 1996. Lawyers at the time advised him not to publish such descriptions, but years later he “tracked down those missing pages” and included them in his new book for the first time in a reflection of changing attitudes toward certain drugs.
In examining caffeine for the book, Pollan said he quit cold turkey. He found that the world felt duller, that his “normal waking consciousness” was the result of caffeine and that much of society relies on a caffeinated consciousness.
In examining mescaline for the book—a precious sacrament in the Native American Church, the pan-tribal religion that emerged in the 1880s at a time “when Indigenous civilization in North America stood on the verge of annihilation”—Pollan interviewed Native Americans who claimed that peyotism and peyote ceremonies have “done more to help heal the wounds of genocide, colonialism and alcoholism than any other efforts.”
During Monday’s event, he pointed out that American society’s combative relationship to psychoactive plants is “arbitrary and has not worked. Drugs have won the War on Drugs. We’ve invested huge amounts of resources, incarcerated huge numbers of people and created horrible amounts of pain with the drug war. There’s lots of evidence that the drug war is running out of gas. The voters have spoken in many places. They’ve had it. Where do we go now? We now have to look beyond the drug war and figure out if it’s not gonna be a matter of the law, how do we deal with these substances in our society?”
Pollan also recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about the looming end of the War on Drugs and what the subsequent drug peace should look like.
“How will we fold these powerful substances into our society and our lives so as to minimize their risks and use them most constructively?” he wrote. “The blunt binaries of ‘Just say no’ that have held sway for so long have kept us from having this conversation and from appreciating how different one illicit drug is from another. That conversation begins with the recognition that humans like to change consciousness and that cultures have been using psychoactive plants and fungi to do so for as long as there have been cultures. Something about us is just not satisfied with ordinary consciousness and seeks to transcend it in various ways.”
Different types of drugs have been on different tracks in American society over the past several years. Cannabis has been largely legalized or decriminalized in most states, and in fact it is only fully illegal in just five states—and, of course, at the federal level. New science suggests that psychedelics such as MDMA, LSD and psilocybin have therapeutic benefits in treating conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pollan said MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly) and psilocybin (commonly known as magic mushrooms) are on track to be approved for use in psychotherapy within a few years, clearing the way for doctors to be able to prescribe these compounds.
“What about the so-called hard drugs, like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine—drugs that people ostensibly take for pleasure?” Pollan wrote. “Is there a safe way to fold these more addictive molecules into our lives? This is uncomfortable territory, partly because few Americans regard pleasure as a legitimate reason to take drugs and partly because the drug war (with its supporters in academia and the media) has produced such a dense fog of misinformation, especially about addiction.”
He argued that many people are surprised to learn that “the overwhelming majority of people who take hard drugs do so without becoming addicted. Addiction may be less a disease than a symptom—of trauma, social disconnection, depression or economic distress.”
He pointed out that in Switzerland, addicts can get prescription heroin so they know exactly what they’re getting.
“They don’t try to get you off it right away, but then they go to work on your life,” Pollan said at Monday’s event. “They make sure you have a good job, housing and therapeutic support, because the cause of your addiction has to do with your circumstances and difficulty in life. Addiction is not a disease, it’s a symptom of problems. Are we anywhere near that in this country? No, we still moralize these questions.”
Learn more at michaelpollan.com.