Book Review:  This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan

A few years ago, Michael Pollan published a fascinating major work called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In it, the author takes a close look at research being done in the use of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes, traces the history of psychedelic use and study, and shares stories about his own experimentations with consuming LSD and other hallucinogens. This Is Your Mind on Plants is a sort of appendix, addition, or addendum to that larger, more comprehensive book. It consists of separate and unconnected sections about Pollan’s research and experiences with three mind-altering substances: opium, caffeine, and mescaline. It is a much slimmer volume. It is well-written and entertaining; however, if you have read How to Change Your Mind, do not expect another major treatise of that caliber.

The first section mainly consists of a reprint of an article for Harper’s Magazine that Pollan wrote in the 1990s called “Opium, Made Easy,” as well as a prologue and afterword to the article. The original article was commissioned by the editor of Harper’s, Paul Tough, after Tough had come across an obscure book from a small press called Opium for the Masses. The book explains how opium can easily be obtained even in the United States by growing poppies whose seeds are available in general plant catalogs and then making tea from the resultant seed pods. Pollan decides to grow some opium poppies in his own backyard garden. He contacts the author of the book and other experts on opium, orders his seeds, and scatters them in the soil. However, this takes place during the height of the DEA’s War on Drugs, and as Pollan proceeds, he becomes more and more aware of the possible legal consequences of what he is doing. It is legal to purchase and grow the poppies, yes, but only if he has no awareness of what they are and has no intention of harvesting them for recreational use. Any misstep on his part can result in his imprisonment and the confiscation of his house and other property. This section reads like a thriller, and it is also an expose of the slapstick insanity of how the War on Drugs was handled. It was one bungling misstep after another as the enforcers focused on all the wrong priorities.

After the intense excitement of the section on opium, Pollan’s study of caffeine slows down considerably. He goes into the history of coffee and tea production and distribution, and he makes a compelling argument of the importance of the stimulant caffeine to the advancement of civilization. His personal experiment concerning caffeine is to go off coffee for several weeks. He has intense withdrawal symptoms, suffers from mental torpor, but finds he sleeps better at night. The first cup of coffee after his experiment is like an elixir of the gods. This testimony made me recall how I once stopped drinking coffee too for a few months. The first few days I suffered from exhaustion and an intense headache, but afterwards I managed to function more or less normally. I ultimately decided that I liked coffee too much to stop on a permanent basis. I was living in Greece at the time, so my first coffee when I jumped off the wagon was a frappe, a cold coffee with a head of whipped foam. I cannot do justice to the sublimity of the feeling as I downed that drink.

In the section of the book on mescaline, Pollan recounts how he was planning to participate in a Native American mescaline ceremony but then COVID hit and all such plans were cancelled. He shares his research into the history of the Native American Church and its ceremonial use of mescaline, and also of his efforts to somehow experiment with it. A friend sends him a couple of capsules of synthetic mescaline, and Pollan describes his experience downing those. Later, he manages to take part in a version of a ceremony with mescaline extracted from Peruvian cactus.

Pollan is a good writer, and This Is Your Mind on Plants, as I said, is entertaining. However, it does not have the depth and scope of How to Change Your Mind. I would recommend reading the earlier book first, and then reading this book as a sort of sequel or supplement.

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