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Arts & Culture

Michael Pollan Talks New Book, 'This Is Your Mind On Plants'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Bestselling author Michael Pollan has made a career of asking big questions about the natural world and our relationship to it. In his latest book, he's turning his attention to three psychoactive plants - opium, caffeine and mescaline. The book is called "This Is Your Mind On Plants." In it, Pollan experiments with each mind altering substance and writes about what their classifications as drugs - legal or not - tell us about ourselves. When we spoke, I began by asking what drew him to these three substances.

MICHAEL POLLAN: I chose these three because they represent three big categories of plants. There's, I mean, to use the colloquial classification, there's an upper, caffeine - a downer, opiates or opium - and what I think of as an outer, a psychedelic, and that was mescaline, which I hadn't dealt with in my last book and was very curious to learn about because it's a very important psychoactive plant in the form of peyote for Native Americans.

MCCAMMON: In the section about mescaline, you talk about the religious and spiritual use of that plant. It's one people may be less familiar with. It is a psychedelic that's found in a certain species of cactus. And it's only legal for that use, right? Why is that?

POLLAN: So there is a church called the Native American Church that was founded early in the last century. And it was very - it is very, very important to Native Americans. There are hundreds of thousands of members. And they secured the right to use peyote, which is the cactus that contains mescaline, as a sacrament in their religious observances.

And I was curious to see how a psychedelic could be used in the context of a religion. And it turns out in the Native American Church, it's used for healing. I mean, this is one of the most traumatized populations on earth. And in fact, they started using peyote at this moment when Indian culture was about to be completely destroyed by U.S. government policy. I mean, we were taking boys, cutting their hair and putting them in boarding schools with the avowed goal of of saving the man and killing the Indian. And just around this time, they rediscovered this drug that proved very helpful. It's a whole different way to think about a psychedelic drug than most of us in the West ever think about.

MCCAMMON: I want to talk about opium. You know, it's possibly the most infamous of the substances you write about. And, of course, it's - you focus on the opium poppy, which is a flower. For people who aren't familiar, what is the relationship between those two?

POLLAN: The opium poppy is a gorgeous flower that you can grow - perfectly legal to grow. You can buy seeds or even transplants at the garden center, as I've done. And it produces a flower that only stays in bloom for a day or two but is absolutely gorgeous and then produces this big fat head and - a seed head. And if you split that with a razor blade or even with your fingernail, this white sap comes out. And that sap is opium. And people don't realize that this is, you know, a narcotic you can grow in your garden. However, as soon as you slit that poppy head, in fact, as soon as you form the idea in your head of consuming it as a drug, you have violated the Controlled Substances Act. So you don't want to go that far.

MCCAMMON: Just the intention?

POLLAN: The intention alone, yes. And the intention could be proved by owning a manual that told you how to make opium. The intention could be proved by, you know, having a copy of my book, conceivably. So be careful.

MCCAMMON: That's probably not a very good sales pitch for your book.

(LAUGHTER)

POLLAN: No, on second thought, it probably isn't.

MCCAMMON: You wrote the bulk of your opium chapter back in the 1990s, at a time when the government was cracking down on poppy growers, and pharmaceutical companies were profiting off of what we now recognise as the opioid epidemic. I wonder how you reflect back on that period now.

POLLAN: Well, I wanted to reprint that essay for a couple of reasons. One is it reads so differently now. I mean, it's a parable of the drug war and some of the absurdities of the drug war. And I was also, when I first published that article, forced to self-censor myself. When I published it, the lawyers for the magazine - it was Harper's Magazine in April 1997 - said, look, if you want to minimize your chance of, you know, getting arrested after you publish this article, you should cut the passage where you describe how to make poppy tea. And you should cut the trip report where you describe how it feels. And I did that.

And I always felt bad about having censored myself like that, although that was legally the wisest course. So I wanted to restore those pages. And I also wanted to recontextualize the piece in light of the opioid crisis that was beginning at the same time. For me, it was a real lesson in, you know, the limitations of journalism and the importance of history, because what I thought was really noteworthy at the time - that the DEA was cracking down on gardeners growing opium poppies - well, but the real story was Purdue Pharma planting the seeds of the opioid crisis. And that was invisible to all of us then.

MCCAMMON: Caffeine is maybe the best-known substance in the book. Your experiment exploring the effects of caffeine was to deprive yourself of it for a little while. And first of all, I want to say I'm very sorry you had to go through that.

POLLAN: (Laughter).

MCCAMMON: But tell us what you first noticed when you stopped consuming caffeine. I mean, what did it teach you about your relationship to the stimulant?

POLLAN: I went cold turkey, which is the hardest way to do it, and I was astonished at how difficult it was. It was one of the hardest things I've done. I felt like I had gotten ADD, attention deficit disorder. Writing was impossible for about a month or two. And I just didn't feel myself. And that's kind of an amazing statement because it told me that myself, my default consciousness is caffeinated.

And it turns out after, you know, really digging into the history that, by and large, all of us in the West, our consciousness is caffeinated. We depend on caffeine. I mean, just look at the institution of the coffee break, right? I mean, if you want to understand the links between modern life and caffeine, look at the fact that your employer gives you a drug for free and then gives you paid time in which to ingest it - the coffee break.

MCCAMMON: You argue that the war on drugs has prevented us from collectively reckoning with the complexities around these questions of what's a drug, what's not, and how to regulate them. What do you think we've missed because of the war on drugs?

POLLAN: Yeah, it's a great question. We're going to find out very soon. As the war on drugs ends - and there's a lot of evidence the voters are suing for peace. You know, we saw ballot initiatives last fall. Some new laws just in the last few weeks have been passed around drug decriminalization or legalization. So I think it is drawing to a close. But that leaves us - that doesn't solve the problem. That begins the problem in a sense, because we have to figure out after the drug war, what does the peace look like?

Look at - I mean, it's interesting to look at cigarettes. Here we have a drug that is a huge social problem. We've created a cultural stigma, and this has succeeded along with high taxes in reducing tobacco consumption. But the culture did a lot of that. And we're going to have to figure out as a culture, in conversation, how we want to deal with these other substances as they become legal or decriminalized.

So I think the hard work is just beginning. But, you know, it's a really important and interesting conversation. And it's just a lot richer and more nuanced than the kind of conversation we had during the drug war.

MCCAMMON: That's journalist and bestselling author Michael Pollan. His latest book, "This Is Your Mind On Plants," is out Tuesday. Michael Pollan, thanks so much for your time.

POLLAN: Thank you, Sarah. Great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.