Michael Pollan has spent much of his career writing about the sometimes surprising relationship between plants and humans. His newest book, “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” focuses on three different plants and how they affect our brains. Opium, coffee, and mescaline could all be considered powerful drugs, or simply beautiful plants, or something much more mystical. We talk to Pollan in front of an audience at the Newmark Theatre in Portland, as part of an event put on by Powell’s Books.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. 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. Pollan’s latest book goes deeper into that territory. It’s called “This Is Your Mind On Plants”. It focuses on three drugs derived from plants: opium, caffeine and mescaline. Societies, Pollan writes, condone the mind changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it. That’s why in society’s choice of psychoactive substances, we can read a great deal about both its fears and its desires. I spoke to Michael Pollan in front of a very engaged audience at the Newmark Theater last night in Portland. The big middle section in the book, which is in three big parts, is about caffeine, and in some ways…
Michael Pollan: It was my favorite drug.
Dave Miller: I think a lot of people’s. Although a lot of people wouldn’t say my favorite drug, they would just say my daily drink, which we can talk about.
Pollan: That’s the point that I wanted to put it in that context, because it is a drug.
Miller: You talked to a number of caffeine researchers who said to you, if you really want to understand what caffeine is, the effects it has on you, you have to stop taking it. And after procrastinating for a while, after not not taking it for a while, you eventually did. What was your experience like?
Pollan: Well it was a real challenge and this was, it came from Roland Griffith actually, who’s a prominent psychedelic researcher and caffeine researcher. I got to interview him twice and he said you’re not gonna understand your relationship to any substance, while you’re still addicted to it. And it’s interesting, it was the same challenge Peter Singer gave to me, the Australian philosopher, when I was writing about animal rights. He said you can’t think about this clearly while you’re still a meat eater, so you have to desist for a while, which I did in that case too, so this was a challenge. I really dreaded it. I tried to put it off as long as I could, but I ended up abstaining for three months from coffee.
Miller: Did you dread it for the right reasons? I mean were you, did you know what was gonna happen and that’s what happened or you just, you didn’t like it for the wrong reason.
Pollan: I think every day we go through withdrawal from caffeine. We wake up and we say, “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee.” And so we know pretty well that a day without it is gonna go downhill really quickly. And so I had some sense of what was in store, but it was also so closely linked to my work. I would have a coffee in the morning, I’d sip it very slowly, all through the morning while I was writing. And it was as, it was so woven into the process that I couldn’t imagine doing it without it. And camomile tea is not the same thing.
Miller: That was, that was the beginning and then, headaches. But what about a month and a half in, what was that, was the shape of a day then?
Pollan: So that was what was surprising, because 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. And that this really struck me that, normal for me, I realized, was this caffeinated consciousness, that was my default. And I had been drinking coffee or tea since I was 10. I got a pretty early start and the entire three months, I didn’t feel quite myself. I just felt off and it made me appreciate how deeply woven this molecule was in the construction of who I was and that 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. I got a lot less done. I was distractible. I was, I didn’t have headaches or anything but I just couldn’t wait to get back on.
Miller: You, we’ll get to when you got back on it because, and I’m gonna have you read a chunk from that. But you quote the sleep researcher, Matt Walker, who says caffeine is basically the longest unsupervised drug study conducted on the human race.
Miller: So are the results in?
Pollan: I think they are. I don’t agree with Matt. Matt Walker is a prominent sleep researcher. He wrote a wonderful book called “Why We Sleep” which will scare the hell out of you. And like a lot of…
Miller: Because everything we do is making it everything we do, that we want to do or choose to do is making it harder for us to sleep?
Pollan: Yeah. And that there’s a particular, so I spent a lot of time looking at the balance sheet on caffeine. Was it good for you, bad for you? You know we’ve read so many conflicting things. And on balance it’s very good for you. Coffee and tea. This may not be caffeine but coffee and tea are protective against several kinds of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, cardiovascular disease. It’s kind of an impressive list of things that it helps you with. Why? We don’t know. But one fact probably points to the answer, which is that the leading source of antioxidants in the American diet is coffee and tea. Now we should be getting them from other plants like vegetables, but we’re not eating a lot of vegetables. And it’s just, it’s a sign of how screwed up our diet is that we’re getting all our antioxidants from coffee and tea. But the one negative is, according to Matt and other sleep researchers, most of whom don’t use caffeine, by the way, is that it disturbs a particular kind of sleep that’s very important. It’s slow, deep or slow wave sleep. And it’s a time, it’s not when you’re dreaming, it’s after that. And it’s quite a deep sleep and it’s very important to kind of brain hygiene. It’s the time when your brain kind of cleans up the desktop and stores memories in the proper places and kind of cleans the mess of the day. And when you don’t get a lot of that kind of sleep, other health problems can kick in according to Matt. So that’s so, but, you know, I pestered him quite a bit on this point because I did want to go back to coffee. And he finally said, “Well, you gotta live a little, I guess.” And maybe if you knocked off at noon, you’d be okay, but caffeine has a long half life, a quarter life, I mean, so a quarter of the caffeine you consume at noon will still be circulating at midnight.
Miller: Oh, something to think about tonight.
Pollan: That was, that was an unusual audience sound.
Miller: I think of you as a curious person and as a skeptical person, I mean, and this is your journalistic persona, it seems like it’s deeply a part of who you are. You write that you are, you’ve always been skeptical of books that have titles like “How To Change The World” or “How Y Made Us Modern, Who We Are”. And yet you also say, you assert that that coffee and tea, the caffeine has changed human society.
Pollan: In a profound way.
Miller: So, what do you feel comfortable asserting? How, how has it actually changed society?
Pollan: Well, what’s interesting about caffeine, I mean there are many psychoactive drugs that people have been using for thousands of years. Cannabis for example, alcohol, opiates. What’s really curious about caffeine is it shows up at a particular moment in European history, specifically the 1640s, when coffee, tea and chocolate all arrived in England and France. Very good decade. And so we know what things were like before and what things were like before was everybody was drunk. People drank morning, noon and night because alcohol was safer than water, it was sanitized. The alcohol sanitized and the fermentation process sanitized it and even children would be given hard cider, alcoholic cider. And so caffeine shows up, it immediately becomes very popular. 350 coffee houses sprouted in London in the course of that decade. And it doesn’t displace alcohol, but it shrinks its influence. And people wrote at the time, I have quotes in the book about, there’s a new sobriety that has entered English society and people seem different. And so what happens after that is you see real changes in the in the civilization and I think you can make a case, and I try to make a case in the book that the rise of the age of reason and the enlightenment are tied to caffeine and that the the key figures in those movements, those intellectual movements were major caffeine hounds. So you had Diderot, I think had like 71 cups a day. I know, Matt Walker, take that. He got a lot done. And Balzac, drank copious amounts of coffee. He was such an addict and he depended on it to stay up all night and write his, what is it, 54 novels or whatever and that, at a certain point, he built up a tolerance and realized that the water was diluting the effect. So he started eating coffee grounds to really get that punch. And so and then and then I think it goes on to have a very profound impact on the Industrial Revolution, which if you think about it, it’s very hard to have if everybody’s drunk all the time. I mean you’re operating heavy machinery, you’re doing double entry bookkeeping. And also with the Industrial Revolution we start working, these machines are so expensive, there’s so much capital here that we’re working all night long and before caffeine, it was very hard to get off the clock of the sun and it’s caffeine that allowed us to break that bond between human biology and and and the cycles of the sun. And it used to be, people would wake up when the sun came up and start to go to bed when it went down and you can’t have a night shift and an overnight shift without something like caffeine.
Miller: Which as you note, I mean there are double edged swords to a lot of these things, I mean because we’re talking about…
Pollan: I’m not saying it’s all good.
Miller: It’s productivity and more widgets being made, more books being written, but also humans working harder.
Pollan: And you know, I asked Roland Griffiths this question, do you think it’s been a net gain or or deficit for humanity? And he says, well it depends. Probably a game for civilization, but for our biological selves, perhaps a loss, that it was, we might have been better off when we were tied to the cycles of nature, before caffeine allowed us to disconnect. And then you could also argue that caffeine offers more to capital than labor. And all you need to prove that point is the institution of the coffee break. Right? I mean, why is it that your employer gives you free drugs and then time in which to enjoy them during the workday? That’s kind of extraordinary. And the reason is and this was proven by several companies in the 20th century that people produced more and they worked better and the quality of their work was better. And it is true that caffeine improves our endurance, it improves our memory, improves our focus. It makes us better workers.
Miller: I wonder if you could read us a section where after your three months of caffeine abstinence, you, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, had your first cup of coffee.
Pollan: This was the day I couldn’t wait for. I mean it was just great. So, we, my wife and I had a ritual in the morning when I was still drinking coffee and we would go down, walk down to the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley and there’s a cooperative called The Cheeseboard that had really good inexpensive coffee. And there’s a drink there they made called a ‘Special’ which was sort of like a flat white, it was a cappuccino with a little less milk in it and we sat outside in a little pocket park there. “My Special was unbelievably good, a ringing reminder of what a poor counterfeit decaf is. I was drinking some decaf. There were whole dimensions and depths of flavor that I had completely forgotten about. I could almost feel the tiny molecules of caffeine spreading through my body, fanning out along the arterial pathways, sliding effortlessly through the walls of my cells, slipping across the blood brain barrier to take up stations in my adenosine receptors.” I can explain that later. “Well being. Well being was the term that best described the first feeling I registered and this built and spread and coalesced until I decided euphoria was warranted. And yet there was none of the perceptual distortion that I associate with most other psychoactive drugs. My consciousness felt perfectly transparent, almost as if I were intoxicated on sobriety. But this was not the familiar caffeine feeling, the happy and grateful return to baseline, as the first cup disperses the gathering fogs of withdrawal. No, this was something well up from baseline, almost as if my cup had been spiked with something stronger, something like cocaine or speed. Wow, this stuff is legal? I looked around me taking in the mellow sidewalk, seeing the kids in their strollers and the dogs trailing them for crumbs. Everything in my visual field seemed pleasantly italicized, filmic, and I wondered if all these people with their cardboard sleeve swaddled cups had any idea what a powerful drug they were sipping. But how could they, they had long ago become habituated to caffeine and were now using it for another purpose entirely. Baseline maintenance, that is, plus a welcome little lift. I felt lucky that this more powerful experience was available to me, this along with the stellar sleeps that I’ve been having was the wonderful dividend of my investment in abstention. And yet in a few days time I would be them, caffeine tolerant, and addicted all over again. I wondered, was there any way to preserve the power of this drug? Could I devise a new relationship to caffeine, maybe treat it more like a psychedelic, like say something to be taken only on occasion and with a greater degree of ceremony and intention? Maybe drink coffee just on Saturdays. I resolved to try.” Thank you. I failed, however.
Miller: I don’t even need to ask you.
Pollan: I did it for a few weeks. It was really, and it really works. You can just, you don’t have to do three months to get this experience and I strongly recommend it. Just do it for a week, and if you want, if you’re worried about withdrawal, taper, like go to half caf and quarter caf and you won’t have a lot of symptoms. I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to write about the symptoms. And I did it for a while and then things would happen. I’d have a deadline on a Thursday and if I could just move it up a couple of days, it would really get me over that hump and it fell apart.
Miller: I was struck by that line, ‘Is this legal?’ Did the experience of going off coffee and then coming back to it, did it change your understanding of what a drug is?
Pollan: Well, it confused it in some ways. I mean, 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. And then 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, that’s not a food.
Miller: Yeah, that’s not a food.
Pollan: Yeah, exactly.
Miller: This question of what a drug is and what’s legal and when something that is legal becomes illegal is at the center of the first section of your book about growing poppies that make opium or that have opium. And it’s actually an essay you wrote back in the mid to late 90s for Harper’s magazine, except there’s a twist which we can get to in just a bit. Why did you want to grow these poppies in the first place?
Pollan: Well, at the time I was writing columns about what was going on in my garden for Harper’s, for the New York Times magazine, and like all the columnists, you’re hungry for ideas, you run out. And a friend had, and I had found the garden, this wonderful laboratory to look at all different kinds of issues, including agriculture and aesthetics. I mean there’s so many things going on in the garden, it was just very rich territory for writing. My first book was a collection of essays about that called “Second Nature”, and an editor at Harper’s friend sent me this underground press book called “Opium for the Masses”, by a man named Jim Hogshire. And in it he claimed that you could, you could buy legally available seeds and grow opium poppies without a problem, and that you could take the heads and crush them in water and make a tea that would be a narcotic, mild, but would have narcotic effects, and I don’t know, part of the spirit of a gardener is just, hey, I want to see if I can do this. And I had already tried with some little success to grow cannabis. And so I was interested to see if I could do it. I thought I’d get a column out of it.
Miller: Can you describe the really confusing legal terrain then of what was legal and what wasn’t and how your knowledge of what you were doing was connected to the law.
Pollan: Yeah. So it turns out if you are growing opium poppies, in a state of ignorance…
Miller: That, you could buy, by sending away, from a mail order catalog.
Pollan: You can get them from mail order catalogs. It’s the same poppies on a poppy seed bagel or in a jar of poppy seeds for cooking, although I think they radiate those. So I don’t think they would germinate. If you don’t know that you’re growing a Schedule 1 substance, you’re fine. So I’m sorry, none of you are fine any longer. If you’re growing it and they can prove that you are doing it in knowledge and intent of making this Schedule 1 substance, actually is not Schedule 1, but this federally illegal substance, you’re screwed. And I didn’t know that. But for most people, it’s like, how do they prove you know this? I’m just growing them in my garden. Well one way would be, if you slit the heads, that would be a sure sign of what you were doing. The other way, you could prove it though, if you owned a book called “Opium For The Masses’' and poor Jim Hogshire publishes this book. I started communicating with him by email, getting horticultural tips. And then I learned he was busted, that the Seattle police department sent in a squad to throw him up against the wall and take away his computer. And all he had done was he owned a box of dried poppy heads he’d gotten in a flora shop and he had a copy of his book and they just about ruined his life. He got off eventually, some judge was skeptical of the whole thing, but suddenly I was in this compromised position. The police were interested in people growing opium. I was on his hard drive with my email and I kept growing it and along the way I started investigating what was going on. This is 1996. The DEA is actively involved in trying to suppress opium growing by gardeners. They’re also, I learned, calling flora shops that are selling dried poppy heads. They’re calling seed companies, telling them not to sell these seeds, and I’ve become more and more paranoid. It was the summer of complete fear and paranoia. I learned along the way that the crime that I’m committing is very serious, that it has a five year sentence, I think and a big fine if convicted, but not only that, under the asset forfeiture laws, this was my education about the drug war, which, let me backup was reaching its peak in the late nineties under the Clinton Administration, with his crime bill. And arrests were very high, I think there were a million arrests a year. And we had asset forfeiture laws that were really tough and that if any property was involved in the commission of a drug crime and literal property, your land, your house, your car, even if you were not convicted, the property was guilty and could be seized by the government and go right to the police department’s budget. So there was a lot at stake. And so I write this article which has now gradually turned into a parable about the drug war. And I submitted it to Harper’s who had assigned it. I was a freelance writer at the time, I had worked at Harper’s, but I had left to write full time and they wanted to publish it, and I said, “Well we have to get a lawyer.” So they hire a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Bridgeport, I was living in Connecticut at the time, and I’ll never forget the day that he and his young associate drive up, sit my wife and I down in our living room while our four year old is napping upstairs and say, “Well you can’t publish this. This is a confession to a federal crime. It’s a usable confession because you can date when what season this is happening. And obviously the jurisdiction is clearly here.” And that was it. I thought I can’t publish this article and I was counting on the payday, I was a freelancer and when Rick MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s got wind of this, the lawyer had said I can’t publish it, he had a classic response, which was: we need a new lawyer.
Miller: A First Amendment lawyer.
Pollan: A First Amendment lawyer. Yes, enough with the criminal defense lawyer.
Miller: Let’s not worry about crime, this is a free press issue.
Pollan: So he hires Victor Kovner, who is a great First Amendment lawyer who represented The Nation and The Progressives in all these magazines and Victor reads the article and says, “You must publish this article for the good of the Republic.” Classic First Amendment.
Miller: With one section excised.
Pollan: Well yes, so I said “If I am going to publish it, is there any way to make myself safer?” And he pointed to two sections, actually, one was the recipe for how to make poppy tea which is nothing that fancy. And then the other is the trip report. How does it feel to drink this tea? And so I felt there was a lot at stake. It wasn’t just about me, it was about my family too. And so I cut those sections and never felt good about that act of self censorship. And I also got the magazine to indemnify me before I subjected myself to these risks. And I got an amazing contract from the publisher. No writer has ever gotten such a good contract. He agreed not only to defend me, but if I had to go to jail, pay my wife a salary the whole time I was in jail and if they seized our house, he would buy me a new one. So I felt…
Miller: You had nothing to lose.
Pollan: Well, I had my freedom to lose. So nothing happened.
Miller: Can you describe for people who haven’t read the book yet, the experience of drinking this opium tea from the poppies you had grown yourself?
Pollan: Well, it’s been a very long time. I don’t really remember it and I haven’t made any since, but it was very pleasant. It was not intense in any way. I’ve had, after dental work, I’ve had opiates or after surgery, I’ve had opiates and I know what they feel like. And it was a pretty pale version of that. There was a kind of warmth that spread out over your body if you had any pains. I remember I had some back trouble at the time, you didn’t care. I think I described it as there was a slight dissociation. I felt like I was sitting out on the front porch of my consciousness. I wrote this in my notes, I don’t know what that means. So it was this interesting separation from your body, but it wasn’t strong and this tea is drunk all over the Arab world, especially at funerals. I don’t think people get in a lot of trouble on this drug. We are at the other end of the spectrum from something like fentanyl. But it is a narcotic and it’s easy to make it home.
Miller: You write in the afterword to the Harper’s essay, with the un-excised sections that form the sections which you would include in the book, and then you have an afterword where you look back now and essentially say that at the same time you were doing this and you were very scared for very good reasons of a federal crackdown, you and the feds and a lot of the media were missing the real story, which is that Purdue Pharma and then other pharmaceutical companies were intensely marketing very powerful opioids and telling doctors, even though by this point they really should have known better, and I think did know better that that they weren’t addictive, this was different, these were time released, or these were different, starting what is arguably the worst addiction crisis our country has ever known and this was starting at that time.
Pollan: This was legal.
Miller: Yeah, that’s what I’m curious about looking back now, what does this tell you about the way our country treats pharmaceutically made chemicals that act in our bodies and plants that act on our bodies?
Pollan: So this is the biggest public health crisis related to drugs that we have had since we began the drug war in 1970. And it didn’t begin with an illicit drug, it began with illicit drugs and I think it gives the lie to the fact that the drug war was ever about public health. And I think we have reason to believe it wasn’t when Nixon started it. It was a political act. And in fact, the curtain was peeled back on that. There’s a quote in the book that John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy adviser gave to a journalist in the nineties, after Nixon himself was dead, and he said the drug war, the reason we wanted a drug war is our enemies, the administration’s enemies were blacks and hippies. And we knew if we made LSD and cannabis illegal, we could disrupt their communities, demonize them and have a very powerful tool to go after them. And indeed, that’s exactly what the drug war was; a powerful tool to go after communities of color and counterculture figures. Nixon really believed that LSD was contributing to the anti-war movement and he may well have been right. So they pretended it was all about public health, but it was really about power.
Miller: That’s the writer Michael Pollan at the Newmark Theater. Coming up after a break, we’ll turn to mescaline and to Oregon’s first in the nation experiment with the legalization of psilocybin.
Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. If you’re just tuning in, we are listening today to the conversation I had last night at the Newmark Theater with Michael Pollan. He’s the author of eight books including “The Botany of Desire”, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “How To Change Your Mind”. His latest book is called “This Is Your Mind On Plants”. One of the sections is about mescaline. Given that his previous book was all about the science of psychedelics, I asked what interested him in mescaline.
Pollan: So 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”. In that book, we have to remember that the image of psychedelics in 2018, which was still a kind of 60′s 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, 6000 years. We have evidence that it was being used as a drug or a sacrament, 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. We figure out and as in 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.
Miller: Psychonauts you call them.
Pollan: Psychonauts, yeah. And over and over again, I would hear mescaline, mescaline.
Miller: And then what would they say after that?
Pollan: They would say it’s the king of materials, that was a term, materials, and they would just say that it was gentle, that it doesn’t really have a lot of imagery, a lot of visuals, but it just kind of took them far and deep and indeed I found that was the case. It’s not easy to come by and that, which is a bit of a mystery, it doesn’t seem to be in the market place very much, or sometimes there’s LSD sold as mescaline, but, and I think the reason for that is you need more material literally, you need like 400 mg, whereas with LSD, 100 micrograms is enough. That’s millionths of a gram. So, and if you’re in the drug trade, less weight and volume is key. Because penalties are based on weight and quantity. So I think it’s kind of fallen out of the marketplace. I thought it was a very interesting substance, very different than other psychedelics and it is a different class of molecule. It’s a phenylethylamine rather than a tryptamine. It doesn’t take you, do you want me to describe what it’s like?
Miller: Yes, I want a lot of things right now. But let’s go there and then I have some other questions.
Pollan: Okay, so it was the middle of the pandemic and I thought it was, that seemed like a really good time to have one of these experiences. We were all trapped.
Miller: So I mean that’s both a laugh line and a crying line, right? Because it’s not and which gets to the heart of so much of what you’ve been writing about it was, this was, the summer of 2020 was a horrifying, terrible, scary, solitary time. I mean, we can laugh now, but there was almost nothing funny about that summer.
Pollan: No, there wasn’t. We had the fires, we had the pandemic. We were trapped in our houses.
Miller: Tear gas.
Pollan: Yes, tear gas. That’s right. It was a really hard summer and we couldn’t travel. But I thought, well, you can trip, you can metaphorically travel and I thought that’s what this was. That it would be what Aldous Huxley actually called it, the door in the wall, to open onto something different at a time when escape really seemed like a good idea. But it wasn’t like that, it didn’t take me somewhere else. It took me deeper into here and now than I had ever been. I was so chained to the present moment by this substance. I could not, even if I tried, I couldn’t think of the past, I couldn’t think of the future. I tried to worry about something and I couldn’t. I did a test.
Miller: You tried.
Pollan: I failed to worry which for me is pretty good.
Miller: You also, you tried to do something that Aldous Huxley had famously done. He got happily obsessed with, I don’t know if it was corduroy, the folds of his pants. You looked at your pants, but it didn’t work?
Pollan: I had shorts on. The whole thing didn’t work.
Miller: But the experience, the way you describe it and the way many others that you write about described it was being fully in the moment and fully focused on the is-ness of things, the substance of whatever you were taking in.
Pollan: It was, Huxley says, and I think he’s right about that, that everyday normal consciousness is blocking out as much as it’s admitting to our awareness, that if it let everything in, we would be so overwhelmed by sensory information and plus the internal information, memories, and body sensations, that consciousness is a great editor and what happens on mescaline is that the editor kind of falls asleep. And he said, the reducing valve, he called it, the reducing valve of consciousness opens up, the aperture opens up and it and it does and you see more dimensions to things than you’ve ever seen before, such that you can spend an hour staring at a bowl of apricots. I remember doing this and it was fascinating and I don’t just mean in the way that happens with cannabis sometimes that, it was just, reality was so, what I had in front of me was so sufficient. I didn’t need anything else.
Miller: If you now have tried yourself and done a lot of reporting and writing about a number of different psychedelic chemicals or plants or compounds, what do you, so if you think of them as tools..
Pollan: Which I think is the proper way to think about them.
Miller: What’s the best use of mescaline as a tool as opposed to the others?
Pollan: Well, I don’t think we know yet. There hasn’t been, hopefully there will be some, there are companies who want to do some work with mescaline. What we do know is it is used in traditional cultures and it is a healing agent, but it’s also a very social healing agent. It’s usually used among Native Americans in a group setting. The Native American church, which has the legal right to use peyote, which contains mescaline.
Miller: Under federal law.
Pollan: Under federal law, uses it in a very carefully prescribed ceremony, that is not Dyonisian at all. It’s like you’re sitting staring at a fire the whole time, there’s drumming going on, songs, they’re passing a basket of these buttons and people are kind of getting on the same emotional and mental page.
Miller: Not Dyonisian means it’s not a party.
Pollan: It’s not a party, it’s very much a religious ceremony and you’re not supposed to look away from the fire, you’re not supposed to get up, but it seems to be enormously helpful in knitting the community together, and healing members of the community who are struggling with alcoholism or abuse or any number of different things. So I think we have to figure that out, I mean, that’s not the right context for us, I don’t think, but there are elements from that use, that we have, we can learn from. It’s also used in South America, in Peru and Bolivia in another form. There’s another cactus which is legal to grow by the way called Huachuma or San Pedro and you could grow it here very easily, and for some reason, it has escaped the government’s attention, although in that case, as soon as you chop it up to make a tea, you are violating the law, just like slicing the poppy.
Miller: Yeah, I want to turn in the time we have left to Oregon’s 2020 voter passed law, which is right now, folks are in the process of rulemaking for this. It will allow for the supervised use of psilocybin. A couple months ago on Think Out Loud, I talked to one of the people, an expert on the law and psychedelics who was on the Rulemaking Advisory Board. And he said that it’s possible because of the well meaning regulations that are being set up that it could cost $500 or even $1000 total for one of these supervised trips. That would include the introductory session, the actual session itself and then a kind of post session into the integration after. If that’s the case, if it’s that much, it seems like we’re looking at a kind of a luxury experience for a very small number of people who will be able to pay for that. I know that you’re a supporter, in your last book and it’s in this book as well, that you said these are powerful plants or medicines or drugs or tools that shouldn’t just be used willy-nilly, there should be some structure, societally set structure, to have them be beneficial and not be destructive. How do you balance the structure that you’re talking about and also have them be accessible, so a good number of people can actually use them for a great number of issues?
Pollan: Yeah, so I think that’s an issue. I mean 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. Micro-dosing is safe and not a problem and might not actually work but it’s not, it’s not risky. 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, it’s two hours of preparation, at least, it’s two hours of integration. So there you’re at 10 hours. So it’s going to be expensive.
Miller: Not to mention the training for somebody who you’d want to actually be good at their job.
Pollan: Yeah, but before I answer that question, 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 psychedelic therapy, it’s very much up in the air. So I think we’re gonna learn a lot from Oregon. I think it’s one of the reasons the feds so far have been tolerant, is that they’re hoping to glean information too. But if it’s $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 at the other end of that, give you a drug that insurance may pay for…
Miller: And Medicaid and Medicare?
Pollan: And Medicaid and Medicare and yeah and the ACA. And that’s how you get real access to it. If it appears that 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 healthcare companies to pay for it. So that I think is one way we’re going to address the access issue. Another way though, going back to what I said earlier is really exploring group experience. That would be one way to basically, amortize the time of the guide over several different people at once. And this of course is what happens in Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca circles are a lot less expensive because they’re 12 or 15 people and one guide. So that’s another way, but it’s definitely something we have to address because we don’t want this to just be an elite activity, which it is right now, by and large. We’re learning. I mean we are in this is a really interesting cultural moment. We are designing, you here in Oregon especially, are designing the proper safe cultural container for a very powerful experience. The advantage of doing it above ground, as opposed to the underground, is when a therapist or a guide acts unscrupulously, takes advantage of a client, sexually abuses a client. They can be, there can be accountability, they can lose their license, their state license to do this. So I think it’s a very encouraging development. Colorado is about to follow suit. I think this fall with something very similar, but this is how it’s supposed to work. The laboratories of democracy are the States and as in other issues, you here in Oregon are leading the way.
Miller: The last time we talked about your book “How To Change Your Mind”, we talked about, at the end of the book, your arguments that the more widespread use of these drugs could actually change society and could give us a better handle on some of the most vexing issues we’re facing, in particular, climate change. The idea is that because these drugs have a kind of almost magical ability to increase empathy and to increase our understanding that we’re all in this together, maybe it could help us actually come together to solve things like climate change. Was that, is that a fair encapsulation?
Pollan: Yeah, I mean, I put forward the idea. It’s a very tentative idea and it’s based on some interesting research that people who have taken a psychedelic like psilocybin score higher on nature connectedness, which is a metric that psychologists use and they score lower on tolerance for authoritarian behavior. They often, more recent research suggests that people who have had a psychedelic experience are much more likely to attribute consciousness to other beings, even inanimate ones. The most interesting fact in that study though was people were more inclined to attribute consciousness to themselves. Think about that for a minute. It went from 80%, only 80% of people attribute consciousness to themselves. Maybe you know some of those people, but I don’t, and that went up to 97. But it must be said though, so there is some reason to hope that psychedelics might push us as a society in a positive direction with regard to our attitudes toward the natural world, that we feel a lot more connected to the natural world. It’s a very common response. People feel more interconnected to other people too. But we have to keep in mind that the subjects of these studies are people who take psychedelics.
Miller: Or who were willing to.
Pollan: Or willing to, Yes, volunteer. And so we haven’t yet tested this idea of positive belief change, greater openness to, is another, has been observed too, in trials, which is a domain of personality that seldom changes in adults.
Miller: In other words, the people who say yes, I will take part in the study, they show a greater openness to new experiences?
Pollan: No, I just mean that’s one of the results of being in the study, is you will be a more open person, open to other people’s ideas, you’re just less rigid in your thinking. So, no, but what I’m suggesting is that until we have tested a population that is culturally diverse enough, politically diverse enough, we should not put it in the water supply.
Miller: Well, so this gets to…
Pollan: Because it may be that it’s just accentuating attitudes that are already kind of latent.
Miller: Well, so that’s what I was, that’s an angle, I guess, of what I was wondering about, because in the last four years, since we last spoke, we’ve only seen it in even more terrifying and urgent ways, the fact that a break from reality in in a big chunk of of our political world, is having catastrophic effects in terms of people believing things that are not true and and being willing to die for, believing that pedophile rings are being run out of pizza shops or the insurrection and on and on. And I guess I’m wondering if you think that drugs that change our understanding of reality can bring people back to reality?
Pollan: I’m not willing to go there yet. The QAnon shaman was a big psychedelic guy. Right? Remember the guy with the horns at the insurrection. Okay, so they’re very unusual substances. They are, Stan Grof, who was one of the pioneering psychiatrists in the sixties working with psychedelics, he called them unspecific mental amplifiers, and it may be that they push you in directions you’re already heading. And so until that nature connectedness thing, until we give it to the Koch brothers and people like that and see whether they are willing to divorce themselves from coal, I think we have to keep an open mind. It’s actually, though it is one of the things, so, something I’m very involved in right now is a new psychedelic research center that I co-founded at Berkeley. And one of the things we wanna look at is belief change and we have social psychologists who want to study this, so maybe we’ll get some answers to that question.
Miller: Michael Pollan, It was a pleasure as always, to talk to you. Thank you.
Pollan: Thank you and thank you!
Miller: Michael Pollan is the author of eight books, including his latest, which just came out in paperback. It’s called “This Is Your Mind On Plants”. We spoke last night at the Newmark Theater in Portland. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow.
Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliva, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust, Ray and Marilyn Johnson and the Susan Hammer Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
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