For three decades, in eight books and untold articles, Michael Pollan has been writing and teaching us about the food we eat and the ways people and plants intersect in the natural (and unnatural) world. In the process, he helped create a new field of journalism centered on the food system and its impact on the economy, the environment, and human relationships – not to mention how we prepare and celebrate our meals.
In recent years, he has turned his attention from our palate to our mind – and our use of natural substances to alter it. He is now documenting the explosion of interest, research and investment into psychedelic plants and substances and the vast potential they may hold for changing consciousness, treating mental illness and alleviating suffering. And once again, he is helping forge a new area of journalistic inquiry.
A sense of the explosion of psychedelic research is on display at clinicaltrials.gov, the US government database of clinical trials, which includes some 70 trials using psilocybin, 60 or so using MDMA, and about 15 using LSD. The FDA has given “breakthrough therapy” status to psilocybin trials for depression, and for MDMA used with psychotherapy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That means the agency will work to speed the approval process because they think a therapy may represent a big step forward over existing treatments.
Another sign of change: Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says the evidence for psychedelics for mental illness is “provocative but preliminary” and that “the NIMH would welcome studies in this area.”
I sat down recently with Pollan in the garden of his Berkeley, California, home to discuss his newest book, This is Your Mind on Plants, his work and his views on the transition from the drug war of Richard Nixon to the new “post-war” era we may now be in. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve written about this shift from a ”war on drugs” to a post-drug war or a “drug peace.” Let’s start by examining the impact and legacy of that drug war. I was struck by the quote from John Ehrlichman – but I know there’s controversy about its accuracy.
It’s one of those too-good-to-be-true quotes.
Yeah, the quote is that the Nixon White House wanted the public “to associate hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin,” and to paint both communities as criminal. Then they could “arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.” Regardless of whether Ehrlichman would have been stupid enough to actually say that, you argue that’s what Nixon actually did.
The drug war was presented to us as a public health campaign, but there were other agendas. That Ehrlichman quote is a bold statement of what may have been Nixon’s real agenda — to go after certain parts of society. What most of us think of as the drug war is this legacy of Nixon from 1970 or 71. He’s responding to the counterculture and the civil rights movement and African Americans. The drug war gave him a powerful political tool to demonize and disrupt those communities. That has been one of the big legacies of the drug war. Look at incarceration rates for drug crimes for African Americans. (Note: From 1991 to 1993, according to FBI reports, Blacks made up 12% of the US population, 36% of arrests for possessing drugs and 49% of arrests for selling them.) Mass incarceration was fueled by nonviolent drug offenses. It was a powerful tool for police. It’s easy to prove a drug crime. You have the stuff. You have the person whose car it was in. Case closed.
You also point out that the number of drug arrests in the US has stayed relatively stable for the past 25 years – about 1.50 million arrests in 1996 and 1.55 million in 2019.
It isn’t over, clearly. It’s a great tool for the police. They wield this power. They can trade it for other things or use it to confiscate property. I-95 on the East Coast is famous – cars get stopped and drugs get found and police department gets the car. Some powerful interests rely on the drug war and will continue to. The other legacy is what it’s done to other countries. In Mexico, the cartels are more powerful than the government. Two Thanksgivings ago, the Mexican government, probably at our behest, attempted to arrest the son of El Chapo. In the course of a day, they had to release him. They lost the battle. It’s clear who’s in charge, and it’s not the government. That would not be the case if drugs weren’t illegal.
Another legacy is the halting of research into the therapeutic use of drugs.
We lost 30 years in the case of psychedelic research, which was a promising field in the 50s and 60s. There were indications that psychedelics – primarily psilocybin and LSD – were useful in treating alcoholism, anxiety, the dying, depression. These weren’t studies done to modern standards in many cases, but a meta-analysis of alcoholism studies showed about a 50% success rate, which is very good. It was a legitimate field of research – 40,000 research subjects, 100 peer-reviewed studies.
How much of the drug war was aimed at psychedelics?
Psychedelics were a small but noisy part. It got a lot of attention. They’re such unusual chemicals and the claims made for them were so extravagant that when the backlash came, it was a showy thing. The interesting thing is the research was never stopped – it could have continued. But it became so stigmatized; it just wasn’t respectable to study this. The last dosing in Spring Grove was 1976. Then the money dried up. (Note: Spring Grove Hospital in Maryland was the site of the largest studies on psychedelics to date, with its last tests looking at the impact of LSD on people with cancer, alcoholism and schizophrenia.)
There’s a bit of a mystery there: If this was such a promising research avenue, why didn’t more scientists fight? The last person who did was Senator Robert Kennedy, whose wife, Ethel, had benefited from LSD therapy. At hearings in 1966, he hectored the researchers, asking why, if this is such a powerful drug, weren’t they still studying it?
One of the ironies is the way cannabis got caught up in the drug war. It was hard to justify a full-blown war if you just talked about hard drugs, which were not that widely used. To justify a drug war, you had to claim an epidemic of drug use, tens of millions of drug users. If you removed cannabis, you couldn’t. That’s why drug policy people have focused on changing the attitude toward cannabis.
I think very few people know the significant history of research on psychedelics.
It got erased. I interviewed Steve Ross (an addiction specialist at New York University who directs its Psychedelic Research Group). When he started going through his psychiatry residency in the late 90s, he never heard about it. He started excavating this history and he was shocked that a body of knowledge had been disappeared. Later, a new drug development person came in to the FDA and made clear to researchers that psychedelics would be treated like any other drug: “Come with a good proposal and we can talk.” That was a signal.
But it took a while – decades – until this really opened up again, and Roland Griffiths, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins was a big part of that. What happened?
Griffiths had had a mystical experience. He started meditating and had gotten so interested in what he was learning about consciousness. He was thinking of giving up medicine, going off to an ashram in India and giving up his career, when he was approached about doing psilocybin research. He was like, ‘Oh, I can stay in medicine and work on these issues.’
So what’s the landscape now look like? What’s going on in terms of this research?
The stigma is lifting, and with remarkable speed. Psychiatrists are willing to talk about their experiences. There’s a kind of coming out of the closet. Ezra Klein did a New York Times column on psychedelics two months ago, talking about his use of mushrooms. I don’t think that would have happened five years ago.
Drug development is really expensive. Where is the money coming from?
Private philanthropy has driven this. There’s a Psychedelic Science Funding Collaborative, which is mostly tech money and some hedge fund money. It’s diversifying. It used to be all Bay Area money, now there’s New York money as well. A lot of it’s still anonymous — there’s still some sense of ‘this is edgy.’
Where are we headed with psychedelics: prescription pharmaceuticals or grassroots, unsanctioned therapeutic use? Do we want pharma companies to control this?
There’s an upside and a downside to corporate involvement. The upside is that if they can prove to the satisfaction of the FDA that this is a superior treatment, it’ll get covered, presumably by insurance and by national health services. And that will increase access. Right now, access is limited to people who are pretty affluent: it’s very expensive to get psychedelic therapy right now.
There’s a lot of concern about control of intellectual property. I mean, psilocybin is produced by a mushroom; it shouldn’t be patentable, right? But patents are how you raise money and make it as a pharmaceutical company. That’s become very controversial in the field for a couple reasons. The origins of the field are anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, countercultural. And you see that popping up in the objections to Compass Pathways all the time. I’m amazed how radioactive they’ve become. But I think it’s going to be very hard to control.
(Note: Compass Pathways, a publicly traded company, has developed a synthetic form of psilocybin called COMP 360, and is working to develop it as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression. Tom Insel, a donor to MindSite News and chair of its editorial advisory board, is a scientific advisor and consultant to Compass.)
MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) wants to bring MDMA to market as a public benefit corporation, a very different model. But they still need 100 million dollars, and they’re raising it now.
What about off-the grid creation of these substances, and off-the-grid use?
Something like psilocybin – the mushrooms produce it, and they’re not going to stop. People are going to learn how to grow it themselves. It’s not that difficult. I’m less worried about corporate domination because there will still be an underground. As it is, it doesn’t come under a lot of pressure from authorities. They don’t seem interested. Maybe they’ll make an example of somebody if it gets out of control. But these are “white drugs” by and large – and the government has much interest in drugs used by white people. They’ve gone after some chemists over the years, but I don’t see a big crackdown.
Then you’re going to have this religious path — churches dedicated to the use of various entheogens, as they call psychedelics, as their sacraments. Three of them, Ayahuasca and Native American peoples, have the legal right to use psychedelics.
MDMA – what ravers use to call Ecstasy – is being tested as an adjunct to psychotherapy.
MDMA, in therapeutic sessions, has very interesting potential in not really high doses. It’s a great story: A guy named Sasha Shulgin from Berkeley resynthesizes it in the 70s. His wife, a therapist, starts using it in her therapy and it spreads all over the Bay Area therapeutic community. They were giving people a dose of MDMA before their sessions and finding it engendered trust and connection with the therapist — they found it incredibly helpful.
The therapists that guide psychedelic trips, how do they find clients and how do consumers vet the therapists? How big is this unregulated marketplace?
I would have guessed it was in the hundreds nationally, but I’ve since been told it’s in the thousands. It’s loosely organized. There is an official Code of Conduct on the website of something called the Council on Spiritual Practice. Some do psychedelic therapy, some are trained as licensed therapists or chaplains. There’s tremendous demand right now. How do you know you’re getting a good one? It’s all based on personal referrals. I advise people who are shopping to do what I did – interview several people. Some I had no confidence in. They weren’t right for me. It’s like picking any therapist: you have to have a sense of a bond and trust. You rely on recommendations and your instincts.
How have public perceptions of drugs changed from the Nixon era to now?
Psychedelics in the 60s contributed to what we call the generation gap. The older generation was frightened of them but young people were having a rite of passage, the acid trip, unlike any other rite of passage in history. Usually, rites of passage are organized by the adults to bring the adolescents over and knit the society together. This was a rite of passage that was pulling the society apart. That’s no longer the case. The people in charge now in our world are familiar with psychedelics. I hear from old people now who want to get psychedelics for their kids, and kids who want to give it to their parents. There’s an intergenerational conversation that did not happen before. And that’s encouraging.
Let’s talk about the different uses – therapeutic uses – for psychedelics.
One of the most powerful applications is when people get a life-changing diagnosis like cancer. Interviewing these patients is what got me interested in this subject. Their stories – of transformation, of people losing their fear of death – were really powerful. I hope that application isn’t forgotten because so many resources have moved to depression treatment. Ironically, the reason the FDA saw that this could be helpful in depression was based on studies of psilocybin in people who had cancer.
“She found this black mass under her rib cage. It wasn’t her cancer, but she recognized what it was: her fear”
What did that look like?
I interviewed a woman who’d been successfully treated for ovarian cancer, but she felt like the other shoe was going to fall at any time. Recurrence was the shadow that hung over her and kept her from doing anything. She went into the NYU trial with psilocybin and had a very powerful experience. She and a lot of the patients described taking a journey into their bodies and confronting their cancer. She found this black mass under her rib cage. It wasn’t her cancer, but she recognized what it was: her fear. She confronted her fear. She screamed at it. This is a very timid woman in her 60s: Imagine the guide, sitting there with her, who has no idea what’s going on in her head. And she’s screaming, ‘Get the f-ck out of my body!’ And with that, the black mass just kind of exploded into the air and was gone. And she lost her fear. There were a bunch of stories like that – transformative, sudden right-angle changes.
And what about treating addiction?
There’s interest in testing psilocybin for opiate addiction. Ibogaine (a naturally occurring psychoactive substance in certain plants) seems to have promise, because in addition to helping you break habits, it takes away the craving.
Psychedelics appear to break down or suspend habits of thought and behavior, giving you a chance to rewrite those narratives of who you are and what you need. I asked a psychiatrist once, ‘Isn’t it a little weird that this drug works for depression, anxiety, suicide, addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder? It’s a little too much.’ And he said something very interesting: ‘How do you know, they’re different? How do you know they’re not just symptoms of a brain that’s locked in, with habits of thought and behavior getting stuck in loops.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a different way to look at it.’ We may be looking at something more fundamental here that psychedelics address.
Almost like a unified theory on mental illness.
That’s one side of the spectrum. Another side is where brains are not too rigid, they’re too anarchic. That’s why some people don’t think psychedelics are useful for schizophrenia and personality disorder. The schizophrenic brain does not need any more entropy or anarchy.
But is it a good idea to take one drug to counteract another?
It’s important to remember that psychedelics are not habit-forming themselves. And it’s well-established that people don’t get into those patterns of use. So you could be looking at a one or two dose treatment to prevent something and that’s what they’re doing. But ibogaine is hard on the heart and a very long trip, so I don’t know. The hope is the tools that we have, such as psilocybin, could perhaps help address opiate addiction.
Tell me more about the Center for the Science of Psychedelics at UC Berkeley. What’s the vision?
We don’t have a medical school at Berkeley, so we don’t do clinical research. What we want to do – and I say we advisedly, since I’m not a scientist – is basic research about the mechanisms, what psychedelics have to teach us about how we construct perceptions, predictive coding, animal work on plasticity. We’re going to do sophisticated imaging. All of this is going to teach us interesting things about the brain. The other thing we’re doing is public education. There’s a lot more curiosity than there is good information, so we’re going to do a MOOC, a massive online class, Psychedelic Science 101, to introduce people to it.
It will be publicly available?
It’ll cost something, but it won’t be significant. We’re going to do a newsletter and eventually a podcast. We got funding for a journalism fellowship. Journalistically, I see psychedelics as where food coverage was in the early 2000s, before Eric Schlosser published Fast Food Nation and I published The Omnivore’s Dilemma. At that moment, if you wanted to learn about agriculture, you had to read trade magazines like Progressive Grocer. Food journalism was recipes and chefs. But thanks to Eric and me, Marion Nestle, and a whole generation of writers, people learned that the farming and food side were combined. We saw it as a system. It became a journalistic beat. I want to do the same for psychedelic journalism. It’s also very interdisciplinary. You have to know science, you have to know culture, you have to know policy and know mental health.
Let’s turn to the policy. Where are we heading? I’m interested in the successful campaign for psilocybin in Oregon – who led the charge?
A couple of therapists, Tom Eckert and his wife, Sherry, wanted to start a ballot initiative and started engaging with people like Graham Boyd, a drug policy reform lawyer. They came up with a very interesting approach – not simply to decriminalize or legalize psilocybin, but to obligate the Oregon State Health Department to train and certify guides and license growers of psilocybin. They have two years to get this whole thing together. In effect, they’re usurping the FDA and its authority to approve a drug. I don’t know how that’s gonna go down. It’s a wild idea. Who knows whether it will work, but it’s being approached with great seriousness.
People on the committee selected by the governor to implement this include a botanist, psychiatrists, and scientists of various kinds, and they’re having public meetings, you can see them online. They feel under the gun because this all has to happen by 2023. They got some money to do advertising from David Bronner, the grandson of the guy who created Dr. Bronner’s soaps. The funny thing is it’s because of the pandemic. People are washing their hands a lot and they sold so much soap, he had enough money to fund an advertising campaign that told the stories of cancer patients. Support went from 46 to 56%. These stories are powerful. This is the state that started assisted suicide and has this interest in the dying and improving their situation. It’s going to be fascinating to watch. We always say that the states are the laboratories of democracy. Well, here’s a very interesting experiment.
In California, SB 519, which would decriminalize psychedelics has been put on hold. But meanwhile this group, Decriminalize Nature is doing interesting work in cities.
Yes, that’s a group started in Oakland that has about 150 chapters around the country, and they’re going into cities with an initiative to take to the city council – or a ballot initiative in the case of Washington, DC –which basically orders the police to make a prosecution of psychedelic crimes, their lowest priority. They’ve reframed the debate. They don’t use the word drug – it’s entheogens and plant medicines. Their basic idea is that something that grows in nature can’t be a crime, so they’re decriminalizing plants. The language is brilliant. It’s been very persuasive, and it has happened in Oakland and five or six cities.