This is Your Mind on Plants
May 1, 2022
by Brian Broom-Peltz
As with Pollan’s previous memoirs (Omnivore’s Dilemma, How to Change Your Mind, Botany of Desire), This is Your Mind on Plants follows his successful and entertaining formula of academic gonzo journalism. Pollan invites you to join his journey to understand our deep and complicated relationships with plants — specifically opium, caffeine, and mescaline. His writing has the warmth of a conversation and the sincerity and well-researched diligence of an essayist who cares about his readers.
Speaking to the inconsistent, arbitrary, and circular reasoning of what makes some substances illegal drugs (e.g., psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, cannabis, opium) and other celebrated substances for altering mental states (e.g., coffee, tobacco, alcohol), Pollan writes:
“Nothing about drugs is straightforward. But it’s not quite true that our plant taboos are entirely arbitrary. As these examples suggest, societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it. That is why in a society’s choice of psychoactive substances we can read a great deal about both its fears and desires.” (3)
Now, I must warn you before you read further: after reading this paragraph and Pollan’s chapter on opium, you may know too much. Did you know that it is possible to grow poppies in your yard legally, but if you grow them with the knowledge and intent to collect the seed pods to prepare and consume as an extract of the naturally occurring alkaloids, you could be charged with a felony of manufacturing the controlled substance opium? Even worse, now that you are aware of the narcotic potential of these common and colorful floppy flowers, your ability to claim ignorance of this once well-known recipe for a pain-alleviating gift from nature is jeopardized. I warned you.
Written initially for Harper’s Magazine, this section follows a younger and much more cautious Pollan in 1996 during the height of the Drug War as he tries to answer if he would go to jail for manufacturing narcotics and lose his house through asset forfeiture by growing poppy flowers from seeds he could buy legally through seed catalogs. Similar to the odd contradiction in many states where it is possible to legally purchase psilocybin mushroom spores for “microscopic examination” as long as you don’t inoculate any grain, it is sometimes legal to possess the seed as long as you don’t intend to taste the fruit.
While the chapter is driven forward by Pollan’s journey to cultivate, prepare, and consume opium extract from poppy seed pods, it is framed by the devastating cautionary tale of Jim Hogshire who provoked the ire of the DEA by publishing a treatise titled Opium for the Masses that detailed how anyone could obtain opiates cheaply, safely, and in many locations legally, by growing and harvesting poppies and preparing a tea with a seed pod. Hogshire’s home gardening pamphlet was inconvenient for an agency seeking to obscure this knowledge. It ultimately earned him a house raid and a felony charge of “possession of opium poppy, with intent to manufacture and distribute” after they seized a few bundles of dried flowers he purchased legally from a store, which carries a penalty of ten years in prison. The ensuing lengthy and expensive legal battle left him and his wife homeless.
At the time, the DEA was discouraging seed vendors from selling poppy (papaver somniferum) seeds that could be grown into “opium poppies” while also not explicitly prohibiting their sales. Especially when contrasted to the then-emerging opioid epidemic kicked off by the legal opioid OxyContin, the time and money invested to police America’s gardens are at best yielded an expensive failure of a public health initiative and at worst a systematic erosion of civil liberties and trust in our public institutes sworn to serve and protect. Will Fulton, an outspoken voice in the cut-flower world asked at the time…
“Why is it illegal to plant a seed, a gift from nature, when your only intention is to grow for its physical beauty, yet at the same time it is perfectly legal to purchase an AK-47 when your only intention is gopher control?” True the founding Fathers had provided for a specific right to bear arms, but the only reason they’d had nothing to say “about the right to plant seeds [was]…because it never would have occurred to them that any state might care to abridge that right. After all, they were writing on hemp paper.” (61)
How did we arrive at this bizarre arrangement, so far from the original life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? A quote from John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy adviser and a key architect of the drug war, offers some insight:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (Harper’s Magazine, Legalize It All)
Interesting to note that Pollan’s poppy tea trip report, which is included in the chapter, was omitted when the essay was originally published in 1996 as Harper’s Magazine’s lawyers thought that might be taunting the DEA too much (nice doggy). Also, fun fact: during the temperance movement, “members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union would relax at the end of a day spent crusading against alcohol with their cherished ‘women’s tonics,’ preparations whose active ingredient was laudanum — opium. Such was the order of things less than a century ago.” (81)
Pollan is a considerate writer. This care is highlighted at the start of the chapter on caffeine, where he warns the reader that what lies ahead might be an incoherent jumble as it was researched and written while abstaining from his regular large half-caf. In contrast to Pollan’s other “I’m going to research and consume a thing” writings, caffeine flips the script and follows the brain-fog withdrawals of a regular coffee drinker. While now the most commonly used psychoactive substance used by 80% of adults in western society, The history of the substance is a bit more complicated.
In The Botany of Desire, Pollan highlights how certain plants have become prolific by satiating human desires, such as apples with sweetness and tulips with beauty. Coffee and tea, through caffeine, fulfill the human desire for wakefulness and earned their global cultivation by being reliable sources of this stimulating alkaloid. Tea was popular among monks for staying awake during long meditations. In the Arab world, coffee was a suitable alternative to the prohibited alcohol and “seemed tailor-made for a culture that forbade alcohol consumption and gave birth to modern mathematics.” In Europe, caffeine spawned the coffeehouse culture which was the forming ground of professional and intellectual societies including the London Stock Exchange, the Royal Society, and Lloyd’s of London. Coffeehouses “provided an entirely new environment for social, intellectual, commercial, and political exchange…crucibles of the scientific and financial revolutions that shaped the modern world.” (108)
And despite the many achievements of caffeine, it too earned its detractors. (Can’t make everyone happy.) In London 1675, Charles II moved to “close down the coffeehouses, on the grounds that the ‘false, malicious and scandalous Reports’ emanating therefrom were a “Disturbance of of the Quiet and Peace of the Realm.” Like so many other compounds that change the qualities of consciousness in individuals, caffeine was regarded as a threat to institutional power, which moved to suppress it, in a foreshadowing of the wars against drugs to come.’ The French coffeehouse scene was also pivotal in their revolution - “the mob that ultimately stormed the Bastille assembled in the Cafe de Foy, roused to action by the eloquences of political journalist Camille Desmoulins and intoxicated not by alcohol but by caffeine.” (111)
As a regular coffee addict, I concluded this chapter by starting with my own coffee fast. In the past few months, my coffee drinking had grown to finishing a french press by myself - and some days two! It was the first thing to start my day and would keep me going throughout. To quote the drug researcher Roland Griffiths who was inspired to study caffeine after chugging a cup of frozen coffee grounds thawed in hot tap water, “I recognize drug seeking-behavior when I see it!” As expected, the first couple of days of the fast were blah, but I substituted with running, cold showers, and actually going to bed at a reasonable hour. After two weeks, I drank a cup of iced coffee before beginning a road trip and the alertness-producing qualities hit me like never before. I’ve settled back to a cup of tea every few days and find my new relationship with this powerful psychoactive much more balanced.
Written in 2020 with the backdrop of COVID, Pollan’s final chapter explores the relatively obscure psychedelic mescaline. Federally protected as a sacrament of the Native American Church, peyote cactus Lophophora williamsii has (as with all of these substances) a complicated history.
While an integral practice for thousands of years, the American Indian peyote ceremony seems to have been rediscovered after being suppressed by the Mexican Inquisition in 1620 when peyote was declared a “heretical perversity…opposed to the purity and integrity of our Holy Catholic faith,” making it the first drug ever to be outlawed in the Americas (189).
At the turn of the 19th century, Native American culture was under attack. “Native religious practices deemed contrary to Christianity were outlawed…Indian boys were forcibly removed from families given haircuts and sent off to government boarding schools.” Why? In the words of the founders of one of those boarding schools, “to kill the Indian and save the man.” (191)
Around that time two new pan-tribal religious movements emerged: The Ghost Dance and the peyote religion. The Ghost Dance envisioned a world from which the white man had been erased and its ceremony resembled a revivalist ceremony with participants speaking in tongues and falling into a trance state. (191) In contrast, the peyote ceremony sought to foster a greater sense of “Indian identity” in the face of its systematic oppression. And fortunately for the PR of peyote, it was a private “sedate affair, conducted inside a tepee, and featuring a certain Christian ambiance”…out of view of white people.”
Despite reports of peyote ceremonies serving to promote religious and moral inspiration as well as sobriety, prohibitionists were still bent on stamping out this heathen cactus and pursued laws banning peyote. 1918 saw the incorporation of the Native American Church, which explicitly referenced the “peyote sacrament,” but did little to protect peyote meetings from being raided. In the 1990 Supreme court case Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the Native American Church lost its right to free exercise of religion when Antonin Scalia held that the criminal law and police power must take precedence over the free exercise of religion; attorneys commenting at the time said the decision effectively “rewrote the First Amendment to read, ‘Congress shall make no laws except criminal laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion.’” (198) Enraged, the Native American Church launched and passed a series of legislative efforts including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 and the American Indian Religious Free Act Amendments in 1994 which secured the legal “use possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion.” (199)
While protected, peyote is still under threat, but now from its popularity. Peyote is a slow growing cactus in the high desert of southern Texas and northern Mexico. Due to its popularity both within (and now outside) the church, it is being over-harvested and some are concerned about its survival. Dawn Davis is a member of the Native American Church and is finishing a Ph.D. in natural resources at the University of Idaho. She and many others are reluctant to talk about native peyote ceremonies to outsiders and do not endorse the decriminalization efforts of peyote after seeing how its recent surge in popularity is resulting in unsustainable harvests. At psychedelic conferences her message: “Leave peyote alone. This is not what they want to hear. But I don’t believe this medicine is for everyone, or that it is all about love and peace. They can synthesize all the mescaline they want, but please leave the wild populations alone.”
So what’s a psychonaut to do if they are interested in sampling this psychedelic but also mindful of the impact their consumption may have on access for indigenous populations? Try another mescaline-containing cactus such as San Pedro cactus or synthetic mescaline salt. In this chapter, Pollan tries both.
I am grateful Pollan risked his reputation to extend his botanical explorations beyond the familiar into the psychoactive. Due to his previous works, his writings carry a relatableness and credibility that wouldn’t be available if he had started with How to Change Your Mind. The effect of Pollan and his advocates (I once heard the term "Pollanators") has been significant and has contributed significantly to shifting the dialogue about psychedelics. After the publication of How to Change Your Mind, the number of people searching google for psychedelics has risen steadily (Google Trends) and the average age of first-time psychedelic users also seems to be increasing - as shown in a 2021 MAPS survey.
Pollan is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and leads the public education program at the Center for the Science of Psychedelics.