THIS IS YOUR MIND ABOUT PLANTS
by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane £20, 288 pp)
I’ve always been terrified of drugs (he writes, sipping his second cup of tea of the morning).
Of course, there is no more effective drug than caffeine, as American author Michael Pollan demonstrates in this fascinating and sometimes terrifying book. We are almost all addicted to it. If you don’t believe me, as you gulp down your 32nd cup of coffee of the day, think about a glass of water.
Pollan has long been interested in the things we put into our bodies, and here he studies three drugs derived from plants that alter human consciousness: opium, caffeine and mescaline.
American author Michael Pollan has published a fascinating new book about his research into three plant-derived drugs (file image)
Each represents one of three broad categories of psychoactive drugs, the downer (opium), the top (caffeine), and what he considers the “outer” (mescaline). Or, more scientifically, a sedative, a stimulant, and a hallucinogen.
His overarching theme is unusual and not entirely uncontroversial: he wants to place these psychoactive plant chemicals in the context of our larger relationship with nature.
After all, he says, “How amazing is it that so many species of plants have found the precise recipes for molecules that fit right into receptors in the human brain?” They can short-circuit our experience of pain, or excite us, or erase the sense of self. That’s great for us, but what’s the use for the plants?
In fact, all three taste very bitter and prevent animals from eating them. In large quantities they are poisonous, and in small quantities they confuse or disorient the minds of animals, or spoil their appetites. Plants, as Pollan points out, are smart.
His opium chapter is fascinating. Pollan is a serious gardener, among other things, and there is nothing serious gardeners like to grow more than things they are not allowed to grow.
It turns out that the poppy is quite easy to grow and legal, unless you turn it into heroin and morphine. In that case, it was so illegal in the mid-1990s that the US government could confiscate your home and all of your belongings, regardless of whether or not you had been convicted of drug offenses or even charged.
The chapter describes Pollan’s quest to figure out how to make opium tea: a relatively harmless activity, you might imagine, but legally delicate enough to be considered by hordes of lawyers before the magazine that employs him publishes it. (They contain most of the piece, but not the description of how to make the tea.)
Michael decides to forgo tea and coffee altogether and soon develops the brain-slowing fug of darkness caused by a lack of caffeine (file image)
Of course, no one has died from making opium tea. And in 1997, when Pollan wrote this chapter, there were about 4,700 deaths from heroin overdose in the US. At the same time, however, a little-known pharmaceutical company had begun marketing a new opiate called OxyContin. That has led to more than 230,000 deaths, more than two million Americans are addicted to some kind of opiates, and many thousands who become addicted to legal painkillers later switch to heroin.
The criminals only stocked their own market. It took a company, acting within the bounds of the law, to get Americans addicted to opium derivatives.
The caffeine chapter is equally entertaining. In the long tradition of scientists experimenting on their own, Pollan decides to stop drinking tea and coffee altogether, and soon finds himself dealing with the brain-slowing haze of darkness that characterizes a caffeine-free life.
Fortunately, he is still alert enough to make interesting discoveries. Caffeine does not occur naturally in Coca-Cola: it is added for its bitter taste (and not for its other properties, not at all).
Caffeine does not promote creativity, but it promotes alertness, focus and mental clarity: Pollan describes it as ‘the rationalistic drug par excellence’. Coffee “gained increased alertness and attention to detail and, as employers soon discovered, significantly improved productivity.” There were no night shifts for caffeine.
THIS IS YOUR MIND ABOUT PLANTS by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane £20,288 pp)
In addition to discussing the drink’s long and fascinating history, Pollan also gives us some chemistry. Coffee, he says, does not give us free energy. It only delays the post-coffee comedown, which will always come, and can only be further delayed by one thing: another cup of coffee.
The mescaline chapter, on the other hand, is less captivating, but that may be because Pollan is fascinated by the role of its parent plant, peyote, in Native American ritual.
I was less captivated by these sections. But when he manages to get hold of mescaline, his writing takes off again.
The crucial difference between mescaline and other hallucinogens is that it does not hallucinate. He simply sees everything in much more magnificent, colorful and powerful detail than ever before, for 14 hours.
It now seems to me that this is a bit like binge-watching Love Island, and probably less harmful to your health.