In the mid-1990s, as Purdue Pharma was sowing the seeds of the opioid crisis through deceptive advertising of OxyContin, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) targeted a very different source of opioids: the poppies in the gardens of ordinary Americans. On taxpayer dollars, the DEA investigated flower shops. Poppy plants were seized from growers. And, on the advice of a lawyer, one prominent journalist shelved an account of making “opium tea” from his garden poppies that he had written for Harper’s Magazine, lest a description of his tisane be judged a criminal confession.
That journalist was Michael Pollan, and this story of the federal government’s absurd drug war skirmishes with garden poppies is one of the fascinating and infuriating tales in his latest book, “This Is Your Mind on Plants.” Through a discussion of three psychoactive substances derived from plants — opium, caffeine, and mescaline — Pollan makes a compelling case that the designation of certain drugs as legal and others as illegal reflects “historical accident, cultural prejudice, and institutional imperative,” not the actual risks of these drugs.
Pollan recounts positive recreational experiences with opium tea and mescaline and offers a mixed report on the effect of caffeine on individuals and society. But Pollan is not particularly interested in recommending that readers scale back on coffee or experiment with opium tea. Instead, he wants readers to unlearn biases about drugs to make space for new cultural conversations about these psychoactive substances.
Following on the heels of “How to Change Your Mind,” a brilliant tour of the history and science of psychedelics published in 2016, “This Is Your Mind on Plants” builds on that book’s argument: that the moral panic in response to psychedelics reflected the fact that these substances were viewed as threats to “society’s various structures of authority” in religion, government, and business. This latest book looks beyond psychedelics to a wider variety of plant-based drugs, in order to chart how the societal reaction to these substances was determined by their perceived utility or danger to those systems of power.
In the chapter on caffeine, Pollan tells a riveting story about how caffeine was allowed to pervade mainstream society because it benefited the capitalist economy. Coffee and tea were crucial ingredients to the Industrial Revolution, enabling workers to endure grueling schedules in cacophonous, unsanitary factories, often late into the night.
Moving fluidly between vivid character sketches and sweeping cultural commentary, Pollan charts how this early capitalist exploitation of workers with the aid of caffeine drove the expansion of colonialism and slavery. As colonists grew caffeinated tea in India to fuel capitalism in British industrial centers, demand grew for sugar as a sweetener for tea. This in turn led to the growth of Caribbean sugar plantations and a vicious spike in slavery.
The destructive relationship between the colonialist West and psychoactive plants continues in the present day in new guises. In the chapter on mescaline, Pollan focuses on the mescaline-rich peyote cactus, which some Native Americans use in religious ceremonies. In a disturbing passage, Pollan describes how the cactus has become scarce for Native Americans because the Texas Senate controls who harvests the cactus, granting a small number of licenses only to individuals “who are not American Indians” and who “work quickly … often yanking [the cactus] from the ground, as if pulling carrots,” which destroys the plant.
In describing his own experiences of researching the peyote cactus, Pollan adeptly handles issues of cultural insensitivity. He is aware that, in writing about the cactus, he risks encouraging not simply cultural appropriation but material appropriation: The fear in writing about the peyote cactus is that white Americans will be inspired to consume it, which, given its scarcity, would effectively rob it from Native Americans.
For every sober-minded discussion of such a difficult cultural issue, there are multiple passages in “This Is Your Mind on Plants” of sparkling charm, as when Pollan notes that one reason for Union victory in the Civil War was that each Union soldier was issued 36 pounds of coffee, while a blockade on the South left Confederate soldiers without caffeine. Throughout the book, Pollan’s voice is breezy, witty, and approachable as he gently interweaves such historical vignettes, science, and first-person stories of experimentation with plant-based drugs.
The book has little to say, however, about the major choices for governments and individuals that might flow from a more informed view of opium, caffeine, and mescaline. At one point, Pollan notes that, given how the same drugs can be both beneficial or harmful to individuals, depending on use, “it’s up to us to devise a healthy relationship with them.” It’s unclear, though, exactly what Pollan means by this: Does he mean that all drugs should be legalized and we as individuals should be free to attempt to build “a healthy relationship” with any drug that we desire? Or, quite differently, do we need a reimagined health care profession, working in a new legal environment, to prescribe these drugs to us? Frustratingly, Pollan’s book leaves these questions unexplored.
Still, “This Is Your Mind on Plants” has much to offer its readers, whether they are curious about the plant-based adventures of others or the science of substances at work on their own minds. With historical depth, political punch, and narrative exuberance, Pollan’s book sounds a call to reimagine society’s relationship with psychoactive plants.
THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, 288 pp., $28
Alec Gewirtz (@alecgewirtz) is a writer and researcher based in New York City.