By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Mescaline, morphine and caffeine: Which of these things is not like the other?
Many people would assume caffeine is the outlier in that psychoactive trio. But in his provocative book “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” journalist and author Michael Pollan (michaelpollan.com) catalogues how the “tiny organic molecule” so widely used we don’t even see it as a drug also produces “an altered state” (and how easy it is to confuse being caffeinated with “baseline consciousness”).
In chronicling how the emergence of caffeine “decisively” shifted history in the West and enabled industrial chains of command (unlike mescaline and morphine, which challenged them), Pollan illuminates a central theme: power.
Proceeding from his 2018 book “How to Change Your Mind,” Pollan focuses less on the power of psychedelics — although he describes his experiences with them, too — and more on how human institutions have historically sought to control and repress them with nebulous claims about public health. The tragic repercussions are delineated in the section about morphine, which includes “Opium, Made Easy,” an essay he wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 1997.
Now expanded, after material lawyers advised him to withhold at the height of the war on drugs, it details how Pollan became ensnared in a logic-confounding nightmare after he planted scarlet poppies in his backyard from legally available seeds. Yet the real story went unreported at the time: how the DEA was “quietly cracking down on gardeners, seed merchants, writers and other small-timers messing around with opium poppies” while Purdue Pharma was influencing federal policy and profitably pushing an opiate alternative that seeded an epidemic still rocking the nation: OxyContin. It’s a gripping, personal account that opens the book with a dramatic jolt.
Pollan has previously confronted corporate power — following the industrial food chain in 2006’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” for example, and addressing Coca-Cola’s “Wonder Bread strategy” of fortifying junk food with vitamins in 2008’s “In Defense of Food.” But his recounting of his legal jeopardy in 1996 resonates in the wake of recent headlines about the Sackler family’s campaign to elude accountability via bankruptcy. He poses stark questions about civil liberties sacrificed to drug laws that will hopefully be engaged when Pollan discusses the book at an online event co-hosted by Vroman’s Bookstore Monday night.
Readers will likely be intrigued by the eye-opening middle section about caffeine (and Pollan’s cold-turkey caffeine withdrawal), particularly its reportage on the alkaloid’s double-edged role in fostering the Enlightenment as well as capitalism and modern standards of living. (It was no coincidence that caffeine and clock minute hands emerge around the same time.)
As Pollan notes, “It’s difficult to imagine an Industrial Revolution without it,” but the introduction of tea and coffee to the West was also “inextricably bound up” with slavery and imperialism. Pollan’s lucid braiding of science, history, anthropology, religion, climate change and culture is particularly instructive here, using historical context to demonstrate the long-term political and global ramifications of everyday choices.
Coffeehouse culture no longer revolves around conversation, but in volatile 17th-century Europe, coffeehouses and the stimulant that spawned them (but not the alcohol they replaced) were considered dangerous fomenters of political thought and rebellion. “Like so many other compounds that change the qualities of consciousness in individuals,” Pollan writes, “caffeine was regarded as a threat to institutional power, which moved to suppress it, in a foreshadowing of the wars against drugs to come.”
“Would people have ever discovered coffee or tea, let alone continued to drink them for hundreds of years, if not for caffeine?” he wonders, pointing out “countless other seeds and leaves that can be steeped in hot water” with tastier results. “The rococo structures of meaning we’ve erected atop those psychoactive molecules are just culture’s way of dressing up our desire to change consciousness in the finery of metaphor and association.”
Pollan observes that in its journey from the East to the West, tea was “transformed … from an instrument of spirituality into a commodity,” and there are profound parallels in the treatment given mescaline in North America. Issues of power and privilege tangle a discussion of who has access to mescaline and the Wachuma (aka San Pedro) cactus from which it is extracted; Pollan is surprised to discover a small specimen growing in his Berkeley backyard.
Cultural appropriation inevitably joins the conversation (especially during a blunt exchange with Steve Benally, president of the Azeé Be Nahagha of Dine Nation), as does environmental appropriation; the plant’s numbers are “crashing,” due to “unsustainable harvesting practices” and rising demand — by the Native American Church as well as white people seeking trips and insights from a plant indigenous communities protect as sacred. The crisscrossed forces of religious freedom, climate change, historic injustice, individual rights and community healing deliver some of the book’s most compelling passages.
“To me, peyote is sentient,” Pollan is told by Shoshone-Bannock tribe member Dawn Davis, who studies the habitat loss of wild peyote, which she worries could land on the endangered species list. “The plant is not a thing but a relative, an elder.” This echoes a point Pollan makes elsewhere, in one of the book’s most valuable takeaways: For all the demonization of morphine, mescaline and even caffeine, “a psychoactive drug is not a thing — without a brain, it is inert — so much as it is a relationship; it takes both a molecule and a mind to make anything happen.”
Michael Pollan discusses “This Is Your Mind on Plants” with Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Executive
Director Rick Doblin, Ph.D.
WHEN: 6 p.m. Monday, July 12
WHERE: Online; Zoom link provided 48 hours beforehand
COST: $28 to $52; includes. Hardcover copy of the book