The modern meaning of “drugs” is of surprisingly recent origin. Until the twentieth century, the word referred to all medications (as it still does in “drugstore”); it was only around 1900 that it developed a more specialized meaning, uniting what had previously been a disparate group of pharmaceutical products, chemicals used in medical research, and herbal intoxicants. Initially, this new usage of “drugs” referred to toxic and addictive substances that were to be taken only under the direction of a physician. Once the trade in these substances was criminalized in the early twentieth century, the word connoted illegality.
While “drug” is freighted with negative associations, the opposite is true for “psychedelic.” The word was coined in 1956 by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in correspondence with Aldous Huxley, whom Osmond had supplied with the dose of mescaline that inspired Huxley’s best seller The Doors of Perception (1954). Huxley was looking for an alternative to the terms that psychiatrists used to describe mescaline and LSD, labels such as “psychotomimetic” and “hallucinogen” that connected their effects to symptoms of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. Huxley proposed “phanerothyme,” from the ancient Greek roots phanein (to reveal) and thymos (the soul), aligning the experience of taking the substances with mystical revelation; Osmond countered with the catchier “psychedelic,” from alternative roots with similar meanings (psyche, for mind, and deloun, to make manifest). The coinage shifted attention to positive outcomes: mind expansion, personal growth, and spiritual insight. It was resisted until recently by clinical researchers, who were typically focused on the risks to vulnerable subjects of psychotic breaks.
The doublethink created by this language exasperates Carl Hart, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. “In recent years, psychedelic drugs have become chic,” he writes, observing that “the way drugs are categorized is often discretionary” and depends on who is doing the classifying. Drugs considered “psychedelics,” mostly used and enjoyed by “respectable, middle-class white folks,” have escaped the stigma that applies to other controlled substances, particularly those associated with marginalized social groups and nonwhite ethnicities. The dissociative psychedelic ketamine, for example, is now available, to those who can afford private health care, from hundreds of psychotherapy clinics as a treatment for conditions including depression, anxiety, and PTSD, while its close chemical cousin PCP is still perceived as “angel dust,” a street drug believed to make young Black men physically aggressive and commonly cited in cases of police homicide as a cause of “violent rage behavior.”
The toxicology reports that support this view are usually taken at face value by the media, but Hart presents this received assumption as a racist myth, pointing to the high rates of false positives in PCP toxicology screenings; the misinformation surrounding closely studied episodes such as the 1991 beating of Rodney King, whom officers falsely believed to have taken the drug; and peer-reviewed surveys that have failed to show any link between PCP and violence. Ketamine replaced PCP as a surgical anesthetic because its effects, though similar, were more controllable and of shorter duration. It now benefits from its status as a licensed medicine, which means that it can be prescribed off-label as an adjunct to psychotherapy without passing through the FDA trials required for other psychedelics. PCP “has long been established as a psychedelic,” Hart writes, and he wonders why high-profile advocates for psychedelic therapy remain silent in the face of such evident injustice. Could it be that they are “strategically protecting their mission to ensure continued public support for a select few psychedelics”?
As a Black Ivy League neuroscientist, Hart belongs to a vanishingly small cohort of experts who can address the question of drugs authoritatively from both these perspectives. His writing moves fluently from eviscerating the junk science generated by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which funded his research for many years, to intimate portrayals of the reality, and normality, of social and recreational drug use. His lucid and deeply felt book is part how-to guide, part science primer, and part manifesto for policy reform, cast as a personal narrative of confession and conversion.
Hart grew up in the Miami projects, in an area that outsiders characterized as “lawless and particularly unsafe for nonblack people.” He joined the air force, earned an undergraduate degree, and chose to specialize in neuroscience in the belief that this was the best way to rescue neighborhoods like his own: “I reasoned that if I could stop people from taking drugs, especially by fixing their broken brains, I could fix the poverty and crime in my community.”
It took him years to realize that the game was rigged. Institutional and federally funded “drug research” consisted of identifying drug-related harms and presenting them as dramatically as possible, through exaggerated press releases and brain imaging that makes tendentious use of differences that are ultimately trivial or inconclusive. Any benefits of illicit drugs were ignored, often unconsciously: career advancement depended on internalizing the belief that drugs were a danger from which the public must be protected. NIDA’s stated mission during this time was to bring “the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction,” blinding researchers to the possibility that abuse and addiction might be “a minority of the many effects produced by drugs.” Hart subscribed reflexively to this belief, despite clear evidence that the drug-using subjects with whom he worked were deriving positive outcomes in managing their moods, their responsibilities, and their lives. “Boy, was I ignorant,” he recalls. “It would take nearly a decade for me to get beyond the baseless and harmful negative stereotypes attributed to drug users.”
“Over my more than twenty-five-year career,” Hart concludes, “I have discovered that most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-use scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning.” In the light of his experience, he recasts the policy debate as a matter of liberty, citing the guarantees in the Constitution and particularly the Declaration of Independence of the pursuit of happiness: “Governments are created ‘to secure these rights,’ not to restrict them.” With liberty comes responsibility, for drug users as for anyone else. Being a “grown-up,” as he characterizes it, “requires a considerable amount of self-inspection and a healthy respect for fellow humans.” It includes eating and sleeping well, looking after our health, behaving appropriately, and taking care of our responsibilities toward our family, society, and work.
Responsible drug users, Hart argues, are unlikely to manifest the detrimental effects highlighted by scientists; those who do are the ones who, for whatever reason, aren’t taking care of themselves in other respects. This truth is obscured by the myopic focus of drug science, in which he finds correlation routinely conflated with causation: harms caused by poverty, trauma, and injustice are attributed to concomitant “drug abuse.” He is skeptical of the “opioid crisis” (his quotation marks): he believes levels of addiction are exaggerated and sensationalized, and mortality rates inflated by compounding deaths caused by opioids alone with the far larger number of deaths in which alcohol or other sedatives are also involved. The problem extends beyond opioids to other drugs, he writes, as well as to more profound social and economic challenges.
Hart doesn’t assess the various regulatory solutions on offer, a task that requires policymaking expertise beyond his scientific range. He has, however, made the decision to advocate against drug laws, and to be open about his own drug use, as part of his grown-up responsibilities: “I am not a child, nor will I be treated as such…. Why should I be required to conceal an activity that I enjoy, especially if it doesn’t negatively impact others?” Over the course of his studies, Hart found that responsible drug use could have positive outcomes, “whether the drug in question was cannabis, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, or psilocybin.” Provocatively, he maintains that “heroin is probably my favorite drug, at least at the moment.” He uses it as rationally as he does alcohol, and about as often, which is rarely: both hold risks of addiction and other health harms but are valuable as “tools that I use to maintain my work-life balance.”
This feels like a riposte to advocates for psychedelics, who tend to distance themselves from other classes of drug by claiming higher motives. He recalls a “middle-aged white military veteran” accosting him at a Columbia gym to discuss his own use of psychedelics, which he referred to as “plant medicines”: “It was particularly important to him that I know he ‘didn’t get high’ and only used the plants to facilitate his ‘spiritual journey.’” Hart stumped the man with his deadpan response: “What’s wrong with getting high?” “Pleasure is a good thing, something that should be embraced,” Hart writes, adding: “It feels weird that I am compelled to write the preceding sentence because the idea seems so obvious.” He sees the psychedelic culture’s circumlocutions—referring to their preferred drugs as “medicines,” “entheogens,” and “sacraments”—as an evasion not just of the stigmatized term “drugs” but of pleasure itself. Users of all types of drug, according to his research, “expressed feeling more altruistic, empathetic, euphoric, focused, grateful, and tranquil.”
Psychedelics are Michael Pollan’s starting point in This Is Your Mind on Plants. His previous book, How to Change Your Mind (2018), has become the bible of those operating in what is now a vast, and for some vastly lucrative, “psychedelic space” at the confluence of venture capital, Big Pharma, and Silicon Valley. Just as his earlier best seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) changed public discussions about healthy and sustainable food, among psychedelic circles “the Pollan effect” is a common shorthand for the explosion of interest that has brought new groups—intellectual property brokers, health care companies, new-media outfits—swarming into what was until recently the domain of a few committed researchers working at the margins of neuroscience and psychopharmacology. The corporate gold rush has led to rapacious initiatives such as the attempt in February by Compass Pathways, a psychedelic mental health care company that counts Peter Thiel among its investors, to patent the use of soft furnishings, muted colors, hand-holding, and a bed or couch in psychedelic therapy sessions.
Pollan himself has cofounded a new Center for the Science of Psychedelics at UC Berkeley, launched last September with $1.25 million in funding, and he writes his latest dispatch from the vantage point of “what we can hope are the waning days of the drug war.” Substances until recently outlawed and demonized, such as the psilocybin in magic mushrooms, are now being studied for their therapeutic benefits, while their natural plant and fungal sources have been decriminalized in several jurisdictions, including the state of Oregon and Denver, Colorado.
It’s not obvious, however, that the wider drug war shows many signs of waning. The illicit trade in psychedelics has never represented more than a tiny fraction of the global criminal market, and the remorseless legal apparatus described by Hart—conveyor-belt drug courts, marijuana users having their children taken into custody for parental neglect, mandatory drug testing in federal workplaces—grinds on. As Pollan notes, the number of drug arrests in the US in 2019 was virtually the same as at the height of the drug war in 1997, around 1.24 million per year. His publishers are certainly taking no chances, stressing in a long paragraph of small type on the copyright page that “the author’s investigative reporting on, and experimentation with,” the drugs under discussion “is a criminal offense…punishable by imprisonment and/or fines,” and that the book “is not intended to encourage you to break the law.”
Pollan’s title simultaneously evokes and evades the category of “drugs,” and neatly sets up a slim collection of three discursive and delightful essays, each concerning a single substance: one narcotic (opium), one stimulant (caffeine), and one psychedelic (on this occasion, mescaline). The selection aims to collapse the distinctions between legal and illegal, medical and recreational, exotic and everyday, by appealing to the principle that unites the three: the affinities between plant biochemistry and the human mind. “How amazing is it,” he asks, “that so many kinds of plants have hit upon the precise recipes for molecules that fit snugly into receptors in human brains?”
These compounds evolved long before humans did, but our relationship with them is ancient, complex, intimate, and reciprocal. We exploit them, but they prosper as a result: coffee, for example, has been transformed from a shrub native to the Ethiopian highlands into one of the most ubiquitous commodities on the planet. In the process, it has shaped our tastes and our culture to the point of dependency. Have we been “duped by caffeinated plants not only to do their bidding but to act against our own interests in the process?” Pollan asks. “Who’s getting the best of our relationship?”
Most of the first essay, on opium, originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Harper’s, an assignment that “began as something of a lark and ended in anxiety, paranoia, and self-censorship.” His editor set him on the trail of a publication by a small anarchist press entitled Opium for the Masses, a manifesto and manual for growing your own, and Pollan began cultivating opium poppies in his garden. As he was working on the essay, the manifesto’s author was raided by a SWAT team and his computer seized, and Pollan came to the icy realization that the e-mails on its hard drive might implicate him in a drug manufacturing ring. The gulf between upmarket magazine journalism and the world of drug war victims described by Hart narrowed to a crack, through which he was in danger of falling.
“I have a kid and a mortgage and a Keogh [pension plan],” Pollan wrote at the time. “There is simply no place in my grown-up, middle-class lifestyle for an arrest on federal narcotics charges.” Worrying that the helicopters buzzing over his garden were conducting surveillance, he anxiously sought legal advice. He discovered that his article could be taken as a confession of manufacturing a Schedule II controlled substance, risking up to twenty years in prison and a $1 million fine—indeed, under 1984 federal asset forfeiture laws, the government could seize his house and property without even charging him with a crime. He ended up deleting the incriminating section of the article, in which he harvested and sampled his poppy crop—a passage he includes this time around. It is striking, he notes, that this was the precise moment when Purdue Pharma began marketing OxyContin to doctors with an aggressive campaign assuring them that pain was undermedicated and their new product was safer and less addictive than other opiates.
Pollan’s second essay, on caffeine (which was published separately as an audiobook earlier this year), is hung around an ingenious twist: he abstains from taking the drug. On the first day of withdrawal, he noticed “a certain muzziness, as if a veil had descended in the space between me and reality.” This lifted after a few days but was replaced by a persistent mental dullness and inability to concentrate. “I feel like an unsharpened pencil,” he wrote in his notebook. “Is this what it’s like to have ADD?” He continued to research the essay—digging into the history of coffee and tea, visiting a coffee finca in Colombia—but was unable to shake a growing sense of pointlessness. As he watched coffee drinkers humming around him, using the drug to navigate their working day, “I began to think of caffeine as an essential ingredient for the construction of an ego.” “To be caffeinated,” he realized, is “an altered state. It just happens to be a state that virtually all of us share, rendering it invisible.”
This thought leads him to consider the arrival of caffeine in Europe in the early modern era, and its coincidence with the birth of mercantile capitalism, the transformation of public space, and the ideas of the Enlightenment. “Sharpening minds that had been fogged by alcohol,” he suggests, coffee and coffeehouses made possible “whole new kinds of work, and arguably, new kinds of thought, too.” The argument has been elegantly made by others—Pollan cites Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s classic discussion of “coffee and the Protestant ethic” in his book Tastes of Paradise (1992)—but it was recently upended by the British historian Phil Withington, who established that seventeenth-century coffeehouses sold many other beverages, including beer and spirits, and that the diaries of famous coffeehouse habitués such as Samuel Pepys and Robert Hooke show that they rarely drank coffee in them. (They were more likely to encounter it in the traditionally female domestic space of the parlor.)
Historical sources also make clear that the conversation in coffeehouses was primarily known not for business deals or high-minded philosophizing but for “quidnuncs”—purveyors of trivia and gossip. As Hart notes, correlation and causation are hard to disentangle in studying drugs: it now seems more plausible that the coffeehouse emerged in response to a preexisting need for a new kind of public space and, as Withington’s evidence suggests, coffee found a place within this space gradually, establishing itself only in the eighteenth century, when the import of coffee beans to Europe became more dependable.*
Pollan’s final and most expansive essay, on mescaline, is a continuation of and in part a corrective to his initial foray into psychedelics. The experts with whom he embedded himself for How to Change Your Mind were mostly neuroscientists and clinicians who stressed the novelty of their scientific and medical research while minimizing the historical and ethnographic backstory. Psychedelics, Pollan wrote in that book’s opening pages, had “exploded upon the West” in the mid-twentieth century; in fact, mescaline had been studied extensively by Western science since the 1890s, and its natural sources, the peyote cactus in Texas and Mexico and the San Pedro cactus in the Andes, have been woven into Indigenous traditions for millennia. In This Is Your Mind on Plants, Pollan delves deeper into this history (he draws on my recent book Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic) and explores what psychedelic plants might mean to non-Western minds.
He was excitedly planning a trip to the peyote fields on the Texas-Mexico border, and hoping to participate in a Native American Church (NAC) peyote ceremony, when the pandemic struck. “The whole idea of travel,” he realized with dismay, “of expanding one’s knowledge—one’s mind!—with new sights and experiences, had suddenly become unthinkable.” His research was conducted over video calls, distancing him doubly from a world that was at best indifferent and at worst hostile to white investigators. Steven Benally, of the Azeé Bee Nahaghá of Diné Nation (formerly known as the Native American Church of Navajo Land), made clear that he saw no benefit in sharing his knowledge of peyote with Pollan, who he knew “had written a book about psychedelic science, two words he had no use for.”
This was, Pollan quickly discovered, a world where “drug” and “psychedelic” strike the same false note. The legal prohibition of peyote and the brutal treatment of its religious celebrants—along with the wider program of forced assimilation—are raw and living memories for the NAC community, and the sudden adoption of psychedelics by white America as a medical panacea is for many an irony too far. Benally had no illusions about where this would lead, however benign Pollan’s intentions: “If there’s money to be made from peyote, nothing will stand in the way.” Conservation pressures on the cactus are intense. The NAC is thriving, with as many as half a million members in the US and Canada, but their legal supply of the sacrament must be harvested from the dwindling stocks in the scrub desert around Laredo, Texas, where the new interest in psychedelics has already led to a surge in illegal harvesting. “We must protect it,” Benally insists, “for the sake of our children and grandchildren.”
Decriminalize Nature, a network of psychedelic advocates that, like the NAC, now has chapters throughout the US and Canada, recently lobbied successfully in Oakland, Santa Cruz, and elsewhere to end criminal penalties for the possession of natural psychedelics (“entheogens” or “plant medicines,” as they refer to them). The NAC, in a rare public statement, asked Decriminalize Nature to remove peyote from its website; the movement responded that it considers the cactus to be “Mother Nature’s Gift to all of humanity.” Pollan decides that the NAC’s complaint is not simply about cultural appropriation but the literal appropriation of an endangered resource, one more entry in the “long line of nonmetaphorical takings from Native Americans.” As with caffeine, a lesson was to be learned from abstention: “To respect the practice of peyotism, as a white person, meant leaving peyote alone.”
Pollan found Native American subjects to interview about peyote, but the effect of the plant on their minds remained inscrutable. “There aren’t a whole lot of us interested in talking about our experiences,” one told him. In contrast to the Western engagement with psychedelics, which is unimaginable without first-person reportage, experience guides, post-trip analysis, and “integration sessions,” in Indigenous cultures these experiences are typically seen as private and in no need of interpretation. Pollan had, however, been gifted a dose of pure mescaline sulphate, the compound that launched Aldous Huxley on his first trip, to which he now turned to free his mind from the oppressive constraints of the pandemic lockdown. Taking the capsules on a summer day along the California coast, he was overwhelmed, as Huxley had been, by the sense that he was seeing the world fully for the first time. The deep blue water, the sky, the pelicans, the sunlight: “I was captivated by it all, and could not imagine ever wanting to do anything but devour with my eyes all that there was to see.”
“More eager than ever to participate in a ceremony,” he tracked down a “medicine carrier” of the other cactus that contains mescaline, the San Pedro. The carrier was a Californian woman who had trained with a traditional healer in Peru and was convening a medicine circle within driving distance of Pollan’s home in Berkeley. But this time another disaster intervened: the California wildfires. As the sun dimmed and the yellow smoke spread, outdoor gatherings became as impossible as indoor ones, and the ceremony was called off. Eventually, a socially distanced session was held in a large indoor room, with the communal bowl of liquid derived from the cactus replaced by individual paper cups. The smoke-wreathed and perfumed space, filled with ritual objects and “spiritual tchotchkes,” became the theater for “a long, strange night of many elements and episodes” that climaxed in a powerful and emotionally wrenching healing ceremony.
As morning approached, gratitude for his life broke over Pollan unexpectedly “in a warm wave of tears.” The experience had been “a kind of faith healing,” he writes, that “helped me understand the power of doing this sort of work in a group.” The scene is far removed from those he described in his previous book, in which he was treated as a private patient by clinical psychotherapists who laid him on couches with eye masks and headphones, fastidiously isolating him from extraneous stimuli. Yet it achieved an equally powerful result, especially for his wife, Judith, who “put something supposedly core and unshakable about herself up for grabs” among intoxicated strangers in a way that was quite out of character. The ceremony left her feeling “emptied out and cleansed. Something had shifted in her; whether it would last remained to be seen.”
“‘Trauma’ is a word in heavy rotation these days,” Pollan recognizes, but “in the midst of the pandemic, the fires, and the darkening political season,” it seemed an apt description of “the sense of helplessness we feel when we’re assailed by unpredictable forces beyond our control.” Professionalized psychedelic therapy claims the authority conferred by clinical trials and pharmaceutical licensing, but “now it seemed like everyone suffered from some trauma”; faith healing, self-medication, or indeed what scientists dismiss as “recreational use” might all have parts to play in its relief. (As in Hart’s case, the regulatory framework that may one day legitimize and underpin these uses is beyond Pollan’s scope.)
“All who try to construct a sturdy definition of drugs eventually run aground,” Pollan concludes. We might include sugar, camomile tea, or indeed placebos; others might insist that their substance of choice is not a drug but a healing herb, a natural high, or a religious sacrament. Coming from opposite directions, Hart and Pollan both seek to transcend the biases implicit in categories such as “drug” and “psychedelic” by invoking a higher order of classification. Hart appeals to common sense and constitutional rights, discussing the use of drugs along with other grown-up liberties such as driving cars, owning guns, and drinking alcohol; Pollan enlists nature and the still mysterious symbiosis between intoxicating plants and the human mind.