- The Good: A survey of three drugs and how we view them all differently
- The Bad: Highly personal and anecdotal; rehash of previous publications
- The Literary: Some insight into the writing and publishing of illegal acts
Michael Pollan continues his plant consciousness journey, having released How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence and Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World. Having read and reviewed both of these, This is Your Mind on Plants is a natural extension, focusing more on the cultures that have grown up consuming opium, caffeine, and mescaline.
Each drug has its own distinct separate section of the book, so let’s start with opium. In the 1990’s, avid gardener Pollan decides he wants to grow poppies, make a cup of opium tea, consume it, and write about it. Much of the drama comes from potential government intervention. It’s legal to grow poppies as long as you don’t intend to use them. If intent can be proven, your backyard is evidence of an illegal drug lab. Opiates today are illegal without a prescription, but due to the opiod epidemic, pills containing opiods a thousand times more concentrated than what can be obtained from the plant are easily attainable nearly everywhere.
Caffeine fits in an entirely separate dimension compared to the other two. It’s use is not only accepted for everyday use in modern society, but it’s unusual when it’s not consumed. The normal baseline in our culture is to consume coffee, tea, or some other caffeine-containing beverage every morning. We even give it to our kids. Pollan documents his journey quitting caffeine cold-turkey, as well as providing historical, social, and environmental consequences of such prolific cultivation of these plants worldwide. If you read this, I’d suggest skipping Pollan’s Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World, as this largely the same material, albeit with some additional tea-specific journalism added.
With opium and caffeine Pollan explored a downer and an upper, but the last drug in question is an example of what Pollan likes to describe as an outer, or psychedelic, in this case mescaline. Pollan spends much of his time trying to find some mescaline to ingest, specifically by means of peyote in a religious Native American ceremony. He is largely turned away, both because most Native Americans want to protect their ceremonies from cultural appropriation, but also because peyote is only becoming more endangered and the sacred healing practices of these tribes are ever more at risk.
There is something fundamentally strange and arbitrary about these drugs and when we view them as desirable versus unacceptable. The shifts in consciousness they provide are powerful—they stimulate and energize, heal and soothe, and bridge gaps between us. If you enjoy Michael Pollan’s specific style, perspective, and voice, which mixes his personal accounts that move the narrative, interspersed with science, history, and a little journalism, you’ll enjoy this!