Michael Pollan Explores the Mind-Altering Plants in His Garden

By Michael Pollan

In his new book, “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” Michael Pollan wagers “that the decline of the drug war, with its brutally simplistic narratives … has opened a space in which we can tell some other, much more interesting stories about our ancient relationship with the mind-altering plants and fungi with which nature has blessed us.” Taking this as his cue, Pollan then turns to his own narratives of gardening and self-experimentation. As he does, he also masterfully elevates a series of big questions about drugs, plants and humans that are likely to leave readers thinking in new ways.

The book begins with the essay “Opium Made Easy” that Pollan wrote 24 years ago for Harper’s Magazine. In the essay, Pollan chronicles his own attempts to grow and partake in the opium flowing inside the bulbous pods of the poppy flowers planted in his Connecticut garden. He asks and partially answers what should be a simple question: when and whether this activity is illegal. The essay is a window into a heightened moment in the American “war on drugs,” but its real power comes not from its main text but instead from the artful addition of a new “insertion” and an epilogue.

Pollan reveals that when the essay was first published he self-censored its content. He left out what amounts to a recipe for making tea from poppies. He omitted the material because, after consultation with a lawyer, he became convinced that if it were included, he risked being arrested and possibly having his house confiscated by the D.E.A. After explaining this omission, Pollan now tantalizingly shares the censored bits. This is a turn that reflects shifting federal and societal views about drugs, but also perhaps a change in Pollan’s tolerance of risk.
The bigger and more powerful turn comes in the epilogue, where Pollan ruminates on the American war on drugs and concludes that both he and the government “had missed the real story about opium.” While the crackdown criminalized some kinds of uses of poppies and their opium, arresting more than a million Americans every year, opium was simultaneously “legally making its way into the bodies of millions of Americans, as Purdue Pharma pursued its marketing campaign, seeding the culture with seductive disinformation about the safety of OxyContin.”

In discussing OxyContin, Pollan underlines the arbitrariness of what he describes as a sort of taxonomy of the illicit and announces the first of the book’s big themes: The fact that plants, parts of plants and derivatives of plants are taboo or even illegal is a complex function of culture, power, legislation, law enforcement and botany. Poppy seeds are legal (whether to put on hamburger buns or into your garden). But whether poppy flowers are legal depends upon the intent of the grower. If the grower intends only to admire the poppy, the flower is legal. If the grower intends to harvest opium from the poppy, the very same flower is illegal. Opioids that are produced by poppies, as well as synthetic compounds that mimic them, are illegal, unless they are prescribed by a doctor.

The second section of Pollan’s book was previously published as the audiobook “Caffeine.” Pollan begins “Caffeine” with another self-experiment. He stopped drinking coffee in order to test whether, without coffee, he would have the intellectual energy necessary to finish the essay (he almost does).

Most of the background in “Caffeine” can also be found in stand-alone books on coffee or tea. What Pollan contributes is expert storytelling and a second big idea in the form of a question: Do coffee and tea have a mutualistic relationship with human society? It is a question that echoes, but also extends, ideas in Pollan’s now classic book, “The Botany of Desire.”

In considering caffeine, Pollan also introduces the possibility that the effects of drug plants are relative. This relativism can be economic. Cultures and countries differ greatly regarding the benefits they reap from coffee and tea. But, more intriguingly, this relativism can extend to the effects of the drug on the body. Pollan argues that in the wake of the Western industrial revolution, caffeine came to serve primarily as an aid to work, a way to compensate for the body’s weaknesses, one that could help us accommodate our industry-inspired workdays and sleep patterns. Conversely, during Japanese tea ceremonies caffeine has a very different effect, one of encouraging tranquil “concentration and attention to the present moment.” One plant and its chemical can be used to vastly different effect depending on the context.

Pollan returns to the idea of relativism in the last third of the book, “Mescaline.” This is the only section that has not been previously published. It is organized around the Odyssey of Pollan — ever the lotus-eater — to sample and understand peyote, one of the two types of cactuses in which mescaline is found, during the pandemic.

Peyote has been used for its mind-bending effects primarily in what is now Mexico for no fewer than 6,000 years. Initially, that use seems to have been mostly confined to the small geographic area in which the plant grows in the wild (arid Mexico and the borderlands of Texas). But in the late 1800s, a new and more widespread peyote culture developed with the emergence of the Native American Church, a fascinating story in and of itself that many readers will no doubt learn about here for the first time.

Pollan planned to take peyote with a “group of Native Americans from several tribes on their annual pilgrimage” to Texas to gather the plant. That trip was foiled by Covid. Pollan ultimately found a Japanese American woman (here called Taloma) who was willing to lead him and his wife through a ceremony employing not peyote, but instead San Pedro, a relatively easy to grow and harvest Andean cactus that also contains mescaline. The book concludes with the story of that experience.

Invariably, the challenge of personal stories about self-experimentation is that the experiences the writer is relaying are ones the reader does not share. By the end of the book, Pollan convinced me so fully of the relativistic effects of mescaline that I was left wondering what sort of general truth his own story represents. Can we generalize from his own drama? Surely his experience does not tell us much about the Native American use of peyote, a culturally contextualized practice that he was told by Native American interviewees “had done more to heal the wounds of genocide, colonialism and alcoholism than anything else they had tried.”

Pollan seems to bet, and he is probably right, that readers will relate to his dabbling with drug plants because of one aspect of their usage that does happen to be nearly universal. To varying extents, we are all trying to negotiate the challenging interplay between our own brain’s chemistries and a number of converging factors: the struggles of having consciousness and being a part of a culture, anxiety, fear, trauma and figuring out life’s meaning. And, as Pollan notes, “there is scarcely a culture on Earth that hasn’t discovered in its environment at least one such plant or fungus, and in most cases a whole suite of them, that alters consciousness.” As the worst of the pandemic recedes, it seems likely that the number of readers interested in reading about, altering and exploring their anxiety-riddled, quarantine-addled and, in many cases, traumatized minds will be immense.

Ultimately, Pollan does not answer whether individual readers should partake in the plant drugs he discusses; this is not part of his project. But he does skillfully achieve what he set out to do. He has left the reader with some “more interesting stories about our ancient relationship with the mind-altering plants,” stories likely to trigger new debates and discussions as well as, no doubt, a fair amount of illicit gardening.