This week The Lancet said the time to end the 50-year War on Drugs is long overdue. Author Michael Pollan agrees. He tells Josh Glancy why we need a more enlightened approach.
If you're struggling with the idea of a holiday-free winter, Michael Pollan has an idea. Flights may be grounded and the Mediterranean still frustratingly out of reach, but have you considered dropping mescaline?
Possibly not. But Pollan is here to change your mind. As part of the research for his new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, Pollan had planned to spend part of last summer on the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas at a psychedelic ritual. When that idea ended up on the vast rubbish heap of Covid cancellations, he decided to try mescaline — a naturally occurring psychedelic that grows in the peyote cactus — at home instead.
The result was a rather different kind of holiday. "We were in such a constricted world at the time, our routines had become so narrow," the 66-year-old author recalls. "So psychedelics became a door in the wall, a way to go somewhere without having to go to the airport. It was my pandemic vacation." Pollan's 12-hour mescaline trip was "wonderful almost to the point of being terrifying", as his "inner floodgates of emotion" opened up and he experienced a "torrent of sensory data".
Many of you may well be thinking you'd probably rather just wait and have a nice week in Sicily, but Pollan's drug advocacy is strangely compelling. By the time we'd spent 90 minutes on Zoom together, I was more than a little tempted to duck home from the office early and track down my nearest ayahuasca circle.
After decades of counterproductive and damaging repression, the "war on drugs is waning", Pollan tells me from his book-lined study in Berkeley, California, where he lives with his wife, the artist Judith Belzer. Some 16 states in America, including California and New York, have legalised cannabis, as has Canada. Many more are sure to follow. Washington DC has just decriminalised magic mushrooms. Investors on both sides of the Atlantic are piling into psychedelics.
In Britain, ketamine, the horse tranquilliser beloved of grungy students, is already being offered by the NHS to help with depression. MDMA, the active ingredient in ecstasy, is also being tested on patients with PTSD. Imperial College London has led the world in trialling the use of psychedelics to treat mental illness, showing in a recent study that psilocybin — the active compound in magic mushrooms — is as effective in treating depression as a leading antidepressant. Once lonely pro-psychedelic voices such as the former government adviser David Nutt and Amanda Feilding, the "psychedelic countess", have been joined by a bevy of other scientists and doctors.
Like it or not, we are undergoing a drug revolution, slowly stripping back the prohibitions of the mid-20th century and finding new ways to live with these alluring but volatile substances. This shift comes with clear dangers. The BMJ associates daily use of cannabis with a more than threefold increase in psychosis. As for psychedelics, even careful medical supervision can't eliminate the possibility of bad trips, including terrifying hallucinations and months of flashbacks and mental unease. Nonetheless Pollan, who has been banging the drum on psychedelics for several years now, is excited by the dawning of a new era.
For many, Pollan is best known as a food writer, godfather of the organic, farm-to-table eating movement and author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) and In Defence of Food (2008). But his drug writing is fast becoming just as impactful. His 2018 book, How to Change Your Mind, is perhaps the most influential recent piece of writing on this subject. In it he described becoming a "psychonaut" in his 60s, smoking toad venom, dropping acid and generally tripping his way to a broader form of consciousness. It helped inspire a recent bill — to legalise psychedelics for therapeutic use in Oregon — that is being hailed as a pivotal moment in America's journey towards decriminalisation.
"I do think the drug war is coming to an end, at least in the US," says Pollan. "You're not as far ahead in the UK but things are changing. It's the end of something, but the beginning of a new challenge: how will we relate to these drugs in our lives? We need to think through a saner relation to these substances."
Thankfully Pollan is here to guide us through this putative wonderland. In his latest book, a follow-up to How to Change Your Mind, he draws on ancient Native American rituals, harvests poppies and cacti in his garden and, crucially, explains the science and experience of psychedelics in plain English, espousing a commonsense approach to drugs that stays just the right side of woo-woo evangelism.
Pollan accepts that not everyone will want to walk through the doors of perception. But he also firmly believes that elevating psychedelics from the illicit underground could make a significant contribution to the fight against depression and addiction and the malaise of hyper-modernity. As we barrel into a world that is ever more artificial and ever more digital, Pollan wants to jolt us back to nature and reality. He's convinced that getting spectacularly, mind-meltingly high could be one way to do it.
A bald, bespectacled and genial senior citizen, Pollan makes for an unlikely psychedelic guru. His consuming passion in life is plants: growing, tending and writing about them, which led him in turn to a speciality in food and now drugs, a path he views as entirely natural. "If you think of my body of work as a tree, food is a branch, drugs is another branch," he says. "What they have in common is our relationship to other species, specifically plants."
Pollan is undoubtedly a crunchy, green-fingered sort, but he's not quite what you'd call a hippie and was a little young for the 1960s. The child of a suburban Jewish family, he grew up in Woodbury, Long Island, where his parents had a small plot of land that he turned into a personal farm, growing strawberries, lettuces and hot peppers. He attributes his horticultural tendencies to his maternal grandfather, whose retail empire began when he started selling baked potatoes on the streets of New York, having fled tsarist Russia in 1917 to escape the draft.
As a food and garden writer, Pollan was known for his snappy aphorisms: "Lawns are nature purged of death and sex", "nature abhors a garden", and his famous culinary haiku: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Today he says he eats a mostly vegetarian, borderline vegan diet, leavened with just the odd bit of fish.
"My disgust at the industrial meat economy just gets deeper, especially as we understand more about the impact on the climate," he says. "Beef production, in particular, is just going to have to go. In 70 years' time I think we're going to view [factory farming] as an incredibly benighted activity, akin to slavery or genocide."
Yet while food and its discontents clearly still get Pollan's juices flowing, he felt a "certain restlessness" as he approached 60. Having become a giant of food writing he was tired and bored with himself, looking for the next story. After decades rooting his gaze in Mother Earth, he decided it might be time to look up at the stars.
"I've always felt quite spiritually impoverished," he says. "I have very little patience for the supernatural or theories of universal consciousness and all these things that you hear a lot about in California. But I was jealous of people having these kinds of experiences. I did feel something was missing."
Since then he's tried magic mushrooms, LSD, the now infamous venom of the Sonoran desert toad, mescaline and MDMA. How have they changed him? Did he find God up there in the cosmos? Does he now bestow love and compassion upon all in his path?
"I think it made me more patient — I'm a very impatient person," he says, jumping in before I finish my question. "My wife would say I'm more open than I was, more willing to discuss emotional subjects. It's had a positive effect."
Pollan says he now meditates daily, something he previously lacked the patience to do.
In Pollan's view, drugs will always be with us because they feed the innate human desire for transcendence. Whether through cannabis, opium, tobacco, barley, mushrooms or coca leaves, we have long turned to nature to alleviate pain or boredom. "It's a deep human drive, to change consciousness," Pollan says. "The only culture that doesn't have a plant to help them do this are the Inuit, because nothing good grows where they live."
He believes the role of psychedelics, in particular, has historically been undervalued, arguing (somewhat ambitiously) that they may underpin the very existence of religion itself. "The kinds of powerful mystical experiences people have on psychedelics may be responsible for important ideas in the history of religion," he says. "The idea of a beyond, of a world unseen. These ideas may have been planted by psychedelics."
Take the Eleusinian mysteries, a religious rite held by the ancient Greeks in which they would drink kykeon, a potion thought to contain ergot, a psychoactive fungus. "All the great thinkers at the birth of Western civilisation were participating," Pollan says. So Plato was microdosing LSD? "Macrodosing," he laughs. "Microdosing would not have given us Plato."
Yet in the flower-power 1960s, as the craze for modern psychedelics took off the US government panicked, terrified by people such as Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist whose psilocybin experiments and mantra to "turn on, tune in, drop out" led to him being labelled "the most dangerous man in America".
"The culture became so afraid of psychedelics," Pollan says. "[President] Nixon thought they were a real threat to the war effort in Vietnam, that LSD promoted draft-dodging. Parents were freaking out because their kids were having a right of passage that adults weren't in charge of."
The war on drugs began. But 50 years on, even those who agree with the premise would struggle to call it anything other than a dismal failure. "Its main legacy has been to fill the prisons with non-violent drug offenders - most of them people of colour - and to erode our civil liberties," Pollan says.
As science today searches for better tools to use on our profound mental health crisis, the drug pendulum appears to be swinging once more. "The history of psychedelics got interrupted during the drug war," he says. "It may be that we are picking up the thread of what we were learning. The people who once took psychedelics are now in charge of the world, so we're ready to get back in the water."
But isn't this all a bit, well, far out? After all, Pollan isn't advocating the odd nibble on a magic mushroom (below) with your mates, which he refers to affectionately as a "museum" high, where everything just seems a little more colourful and absorbing? And he's fairly unimpressed by LSD microdosing, which he describes as the "caffeination of psychedelics" and quite possibly a placebo.
What Pollan's talking about is serious mind-alteration. In one Imperial trial, patients with depression were each given 25mg of psilocybin by the scientists who Pollan calls "the white coat shamans". Others have received as much as 40mg. This kind of dosage won't just blow your socks off, it will convince you that your socks are actually a pair of Brazilian iguanas who like to sing Elton John duets.
To really get the kind of results Pollan is describing, you have to be willing to melt your own consciousness — what he calls "ego dissolution". Pollan recalls one trip, taken with an experienced "underground" guide, in which he completely lost any sense of self. "I saw my ego explode in a cloud of blue Post-it Notes, then fall into the ground in a pool of paint," he says. "And that was me. And I wasn't troubled by this at all. I was regarding this from a new perspective: serene, objective, untroubled."
This can be scary stuff. In the early 1990s Rick Strassman, an American psychiatry professor, injected DMT, a powerful hallucinogen, into 60 volunteers. Nearly half had an adverse reaction, including petrifying visions of aliens in the shape of robots, insects or reptiles.
My conversation with Pollan took me back to the last time I seriously took hallucinogenic drugs, seven years ago at the Burning Man festival in Nevada (yes, I know, sorry). On my first night some nameless fairy slipped me a horse-sized dose of 2C-I, a synthetic psychedelic, and the world exploded. And kept exploding. I felt as though my very sense of self was a balloon, about to float off permanently into the dark desert sky. Just a tiny string tethered me to Earth. Who would I be if I let go of the balloon? What would remain of me? I never found out. I was too scared to let go, fearing I'd never be the same person again.
Pollan is Pollyanna-ish but not naive about these risks. Like all good psychonauts, he is fervent about "set and setting", emphasising that a comfortable, friendly environment and trusted, experienced companions are essential to any good trip. "There are also cases of people turning into complete egomaniacs on psychedelics," he says. "There's this evangelical thing that happens."
It's this caution that makes him an effective advocate. While drug evangelists such as Leary arguably led the psychedelics movement astray in the 1960s, Pollan, a relatable, middle-class New York plant fancier, might be the ideal standard-bearer for today's calmer, more scientific approach to the subject.
His explanation of the science behind psychedelics is intriguing. Brain imaging has shown that the ego dissolution Pollan describes while high is accompanied by a precipitous drop-off in a part of the brain called the default mode network, or DMN. This has been described as the "conductor" of the brain's orchestra, the part focused on thinking about ourselves, worrying about the past or fretting about the future. Our brain expends untold energy focusing on these concerns, while filtering out many of our more aesthetic or philosophical meanderings. This is useful for getting on with our daily lives, but leaves us with what Aldous Huxley called a "measly trickle" of consciousness.
Pollan describes this focused, ego-driven sense of self as "spotlight" consciousness, common among adults. Young children, on the other hand, have something more akin to "lantern" consciousness, which illuminates many things at once, leaving them with an enduring sense of awe and wonder. "Babies and children are basically tripping all the time," as one expert puts it to Pollan.
Caffeine will tend to sharpen our spotlight, helping us work and produce more effectively — one reason why up to 90 per cent of the planet ingests it regularly. But psychedelics such as mescaline cause our DMN to drop off and jolt the rest of our brain into action. As the brain's wiring changes course, our sense of time and self retreats, allowing us to view our own lives from a distance. In such a state, feelings of rage, envy or self-loathing can potentially float away. Dependencies can be overcome. And, remarkably, these changes often prove "sticky"; they stay with us long after the mind disco has faded.
Pollan believes these experiences could offer benefits well beyond tackling mental illness. "There are a lot of people trapped in habits or behaviour that they know are destructive or unhelpful," he says. He's particularly keen for his own generation of would-be silver trippers to get stuck in. "Psychedelics may actually have more value as you get older, when you're more likely to be stuck in a groove. Change is hard to achieve in your 50s and 60s."
Where does all this leave us then? With the science of psychedelics still in its infancy, Pollan believes we should advance cautiously. "We are still building a cultural container where these substances can be used safely," he says. "Until we have this container, it would be a mistake to legalise."
He's troubled by the marketing boom that has accompanied the legalisation of cannabis in America, with weed being spuriously touted as a must-have panacea. "It does scare me," he says. "In a pot shop there's no discussion about potency. The sky hasn't fallen in but I think we have to approach [psychedelics] with a little more care."
This conversation will develop over the coming decades. Pollan's hope is that we can somehow keep two contradictory ideas in our heads simultaneously: that drugs are poisons, but they are also allies.
"That's how we need to think of all drugs," Pollan says. "Are they a useful tool in your life or not? I have a lot of respect for the power of drugs, [so] I'm not ready to put psychedelics in the water supply just yet."
This Is Your Mind on Plants, by Michael Pollan (Allen & Unwin, $40) is available in bookstores on July 16.