Four years ago, Michael Pollan published “How to Change Your Mind.” Like so many of Pollan’s books, it was a mixture of reporting, history, botany and experiential journalism. It focused on promising new research into the therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin. Pollen’s latest book goes deeper into that territory. It’s called “This is Your Mind On Plants,” and it focuses on three drugs derived from plants: opium, caffeine and mescaline.
“Societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it,” Pollan writes, “that’s why in the society’s choice of psychoactive substances, we can read a great deal about both its fears and its desires.”
OPB’s Dave Miller spoke to Michael Pollan in front of an audience at the Newmark Theatre Wednesday night in Portland in an event put on by Powell’s Books. Excerpts from the conversation are below.
On quitting coffee for research
“After a few days it’s out of your system and you’re not experiencing withdrawal and supposedly you’re back to normal. But I wasn’t back to normal. This really struck me: that normal for me was this caffeinated consciousness that was my default … It made me appreciate how deeply woven this molecule was in the construction of who I was. It was part of my ego. It was something I used to kind of reassemble my ego every morning, as a lot of people do. We get a certain kind of power and strength from it that allows us to get work done. And so I sorely missed it. My work really suffered.”
On whether caffeine is a drug
“It’s very hard to come up with a really strong, rigid definition of a drug. It is something we take into our bodies that changes us in some ways. Yet you can say that about food too. Where do you put something like a placebo? Is that a drug? Or chicken soup? And so it’s very messy and the FDA doesn’t really offer much help. I mean, they regulate food and drugs, and I think their definition of drugs is ‘anything we say it is,’ basically.”
On why he wrote about mescaline after focusing on psychedelics in his previous book
“I hadn’t written about mescaline because it wasn’t being used in the research context, and that really was the focus of “How to Change Your Mind.” The image of psychedelics in 2018 was still kind of a 60s image: destroyers of young minds and something that made you jump off of buildings. And I was trying to make people see that they had this value as a medicine, as the researchers were discovering. So I focused narrowly on what is the most authoritative source in our culture — which is science — and left aside the fact that there was this ancient history of indigenous use of psychedelics that I hadn’t paid attention to going back, in the case of peyote, 6,000 years. So I was interested in exploring the whole indigenous use of psychedelics in the hopes that we could learn something useful in our own approaches. The state of Oregon is trying to figure out right now what’s the proper container for a psychedelic experience. I think indigenous people have a lot to teach us about that. So that was one reason. The other reason was kind of a funnier one, which was that whenever I asked people when I was doing my reporting for “How to Change Your Mind” ‘what was your favorite psychedelic?’ these are people with tons of experience, and over and over again, I would hear: mescaline, mescaline.”
On Oregon’s approach to legalizing the supervised use of psilocybin
“I think these substances — and I’m thinking here specifically of psilocybin but it would apply to mescaline or or LSD — are best used in a guided way if you’re using a high dose… . And that does mean there’s a lot of time on the part of the therapist or the guide. It’s six hours of the journey, two hours of preparation at least, two hours of integration. So it’s going to be expensive … I think what’s going on in Oregon is a very important experiment for the country. This is exactly how we are going to figure out the best ways to use these substances through these kind of experiments. It isn’t clear how the business model for for psychedelic therapy [will work]. It’s very much up in the air ... But if it [costs] $500, it’s not gonna be available to everyone. That’s why the medicalization is important. I don’t think it should be the only way that they’re available, but going through the FDA approval process — as psilocybin is doing right now for depression, and MDMA Is doing right now for PTSD — will give you a drug that insurance may pay for. And that’s how you get real access to it, if indeed this is a better treatment for depression or anxiety or OCD than what we currently have. There will be a lot of pressure on these health care companies to pay for it. So that I think is one way we’re going to address the access issue.”