This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan — drugs of choice

Every morning during the Covid-19 lockdowns I’ve been measuring my constrained existence in spoonfuls of coffee (Lavazza Black loaded into a DeLonghi espresso machine). I was well aware that TS Eliot’s Prufrock was there before me, but I now discover that so was Michael Pollan, on page 122 of the essay “Caffeine”, which makes up one-third of This Is Your Mind on Plants.

Readers will probably know Pollan for the famous aphorism “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” from his 2008 best-seller In Defense of Food, which together with his earlier The Omnivore’s Dilemma proposed a profound critique of the food chain in modern industrial societies.

In 2018 Pollan turned his attention from food to drugs, with How to Change Your Mind, a book about psychedelic drugs that has become something of a manifesto for the “micro-dosing” community, who advocate taking tiny doses of hallucinogens to improve mental health and creativity. An earlier book, The Botany of Desire, had already touched upon drugs, explaining how four plants — the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato — co-evolved with humans through selective breeding for desired qualities like sweetness or intoxication.

This latest book applies a similar structure to three plant-derived drugs valued solely for intoxication: opium from the poppy, caffeine from tea and coffee, and mescaline from various cacti. Instead of focusing on cultivation, Pollan examines their status within human society from economic, legal, sociological and anthropological angles.

While he does briefly discuss their pharmacology and toxicology, the book is really about the relation between each plant and the humans who consume it, tackled in a non-judgmental and objective way that seeks to dispel the ignorance, prejudice and demonisation they attract.

Each drug is handled differently. The first, “Opium”, is actually a meta-essay in which Pollan recounts how in 1996 he wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine about growing the opium poppy Papaver somniferum in his garden and sampling it as a tea made from the pods. Harper’s lawyers discovered that under Nixon’s 1970 Federally Controlled Substances Act and Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, Pollan’s article counted as a confession that could expose him to being raided by a police special weapons team and landed with a lengthy jail sentence as well as severe financial penalties.

The magazine eventually published it with the most offending section removed, a section that he only now feels safe to publish. Around it he’s built an impassioned account of the massive damage to civil liberties caused by Nixon’s “war on drugs”, a defence of the value of opiates as still the best painkillers, and a denunciation of the plague of addiction to the semi-synthetic opioid OxyContin that made billionaires of some members of the Sackler family.

In “Caffeine”, the most impressive essay, Pollan begins with the fact that some plants evolved this bitter alkaloid to spoil the appetite of caterpillars and similar herbivores for their leaves, then put it into nectar where it addicted the bees and made them come back for more. Caffeine moderates appetites for both food and sleep in humans too, inducing monks to cultivate the tea plant to help them pray all night. Cultivation of tea and coffee plants spread around the world during the age of imperialism, caffeine having proved invaluable as a way to extract more work from workers.

Pollan portrays it as the drug that helped make the Enlightenment and modern capitalism, by dispelling those alcohol-fuddled Middle Ages when people went to bed at sundown. It cried out for artificial lighting to extend the day, and the same steam that drove the engines of the Industrial Revolution issued from tea kettles that kept the night-shift going. His descriptions of London’s coffee house culture and Honoré de Balzac’s barbarous habit of ingesting dry coffee grounds to fuel all-night scribbling sessions are worth the book’s price alone.

For me “Mescaline” was the least interesting section, mostly because having entered journalism via the underground press I’ve had an untypical prior exposure to hallucinogens. Pollan adds little to previous descriptions of the drug’s effect and seems slightly embarrassed (“how saccharine these words must sound!”) by the difficulty of writing about it. Much of the chapter is about his attempts to attend a peyote ceremony, repeatedly thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic and Californian wildfires. The real interest of this section lies its detailed and sympathetic account of the travails of the Native American Church in trying to preserve its right to consume peyote as a sacrament, in the teeth of institutional racism, the war on drugs and the hedonistic over-enthusiasm of the drug’s hippy devotees.

While his previous books may have had their critics, This Is Your Mind on Plants, places Pollan, for this reviewer at least, among those science writers — James Gleick, Marcia Angell, Harold McGee, Jared Diamond and more — who demonstrate through the night of Trumpism, QAnon and the anti-vaxx movement that the flag of scientific literacy still waves in America.

First published by the Financial Times: