Writer set out to explore what's truly a natural high
Brewing a cup of coffee is legal but making opium tea is not — yet both are derived from mind-altering plants. So one writer set out to explore what’s truly a natural high
- Michael Pollan studies three drugs derived from plants in a fascinating new book
- American writer gives detail about his quest to find out how to make opium tea
- Also shares his brain-slowing fug of dimness after forgoing tea and coffee
THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS
by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane £20, 288 pp)
I have always been terrified of drugs (he writes, sipping his second cup of tea of the morning).
Of course, there’s no drug more effective than caffeine, as the American writer Michael Pollan shows in this fascinating and occasionally terrifying book. We are pretty much all addicted to it. If you don’t believe me, as you slurp down your 32nd cup of coffee of the day, think about having a glass of water instead.
Pollan has long been interested in the things we put in our bodies, and here he studies three drugs derived from plants that alter human consciousness: opium, caffeine and mescaline.
American writer Michael Pollan has published a fascinating new book about his studies of three drugs derived from plants (file image)
Each represents one of the three broad categories of psychoactive drugs, the downer (opium), the upper (caffeine), and what he thinks of as the ‘outer’ (mescaline). Or, more scientifically, a sedative, a stimulant and a hallucinogen.
His overarching theme is unusual and not entirely uncontroversial: he aims to place these psychoactive plant chemicals into the context of our larger relationship with nature.
After all, he says: ‘How amazing is it that so many kinds of plants have hit upon the precise recipes for molecules that fit snugly into receptors in human brains?’ They can short-circuit our experience of pain, or rouse us, or obliterate the sense of self. That’s great for us, but what is in it for the plants?
In fact, all three taste very bitter and deter animals from eating them. In large proportions they are poisonous, and in small proportions they confuse or disorientate animals’ minds, or ruin their appetite. Plants, as Pollan observes, are clever.
His opium chapter is mesmerising. Pollan, among other things, is a serious gardener, and there’s nothing that serious gardeners like growing more than things they are not allowed to grow.
It turns out that the opium poppy is quite easy to grow, and legal, unless you make heroin and morphine out of it. In which case it was, in the mid-1990s, illegal to the point that the U.S. government could confiscate your house and all your belongings whether or not you had been convicted of drug offences or even charged.
The chapter details Pollan’s quest to find out how to make some opium tea: a relatively harmless activity, you would imagine, but legally delicate enough to have to be considered by hordes of lawyers before the magazine employing him would publish it. (They included most of the piece, but not the description of how to make the tea.)
Michael decides to forgo tea and coffee altogether, and soon suffers the brain-slowing fug of dimness caused by a lack of caffeine (file image)
No one, of course, has died from making opium tea. And, in 1997, when Pollan wrote this chapter, there were about 4,700 deaths from heroin overdoses in the U.S. At the same time, though, a little-known pharmaceutical company had started marketing a new opiate called OxyContin. That has caused more than 230,000 deaths, more than two million Americans are addicted to opiates of one kind or another, and many thousands who become addicted to legal painkillers later move onto heroin.
The criminals merely kept their own little market supplied. It took a corporation, acting within the parameters of the law, to get Americans hooked on opium derivatives.
The caffeine chapter is equally entertaining. In the long tradition of scientists who experiment on themselves, Pollan decides to forgo tea and coffee altogether, and soon suffers the brain-slowing fug of dimness that characterises caffeine-free life.
He is still alert enough to make some interesting discoveries, fortunately. Caffeine does not naturally occur in Coca-Cola: it’s added because of its bitter taste (and not for its other qualities, not at all).
Caffeine does not aid creativity, but it does help alertness, focus and mental clarity: Pollan describes it as ‘the rationalist drug par excellence’. Coffee ‘fostered a heightened alertness and attention to detail, and, as employers soon discovered, dramatically improved productivity’. There were no night shifts before caffeine.
THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane £20, 288 pp)
As well as discussing the drink’s long and fascinating history, Pollan 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, by contrast, is less enthralling, but that may be because Pollan is fascinated by the role of its parent plant, peyote, in native American ritual.
I was less gripped by these sections. But when he manages to get hold of some mescaline, his writing once again takes flight.
The crucial difference between mescaline and other hallucinogens is that he doesn’t hallucinate. He just sees everything in much more magnificent, colourful and powerful detail than ever before, for 14 hours.
It occurs to me now that this is a bit like binge-watching Love Island, and probably less injurious to your health.
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