Michael Pollan is one of America’s great thinkers. He’s also just spent three years getting high. He explains why to Etan Smallman
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It is difficult to reconcile the man in front of me with his recent exploits.
Michael Pollan is a bespectacled 63-year-old food writer and journalism professor, named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people and described by The New York Times as “strait-laced” and “a giant square”.
He is also a man who decided to smoke toad. The Sonoran Desert variety was “milked” until it squirted its highly toxic venom against a piece of glass. The fluid dried into a substance resembling brown sugar. Then Pollan inhaled the vaporised crystals, which have been dubbed the “Everest of psychedelics”.
Since turning 60, the American has also dropped acid for the first time, knocked back the Amazonian brew ayahuasca and nibbled on magic mushrooms (using chocolate to help get them down). And this was a hardbitten sceptic who previously described himself as an atheist who had never had “a single ‘spiritually significant’ experience”. Talk about a midlife crisis.
Pollan bristles slightly at being called “a square”. But he readily admits he was “a reluctant psychonaut”.
“There were so many kinds of reluctance I had to get over to do this,” he says as we chat in his London hotel. “There was the fear it would damage my health or my mind. There was my discomfort with the new-age lingo that people used in this underground world. There was the music, some of which I thought was just, eugh, horrible.” But it was the science that caught his imagination.
In 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered the molecule that would become known as LSD. Throughout the 1950s, LSD and another psychedelic, psilocybin (the compound in magic mushrooms), were at the centre of frenzied academic research and seen as wonder drugs that could treat everything from alcoholism to anxiety.
Then came the moral panic. The hallucinogens had hit the streets and become central to the hippie counterculture. The “high priest of LSD”, former Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, who encouraged youngsters to “turn on, tune in, drop out”, predicted that its users “aren’t going to fight your wars” or “join your corporations”. President Nixon called him “the most dangerous man in America”, while reports of psychotic episodes and suicides quickly turned hope to fear. Possession of LSD was criminalised in 1966 in the UK and two years later in the US, and research ground to a halt.
Then, in 2006, the first serious scientific paper on psychedelics in four decades opened a door that had been firmly shut since the Sixties, prompting studies looking at how psychedelics can treat drug-resistant depression and help cancer patients cope with a terminal diagnosis. It also provided the impetus for Pollan’s latest book, How To Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics.
But it was the testimony of the wideeyed, ageing converts, not the clinical studies, that persuaded him to go the whole hog, taking a trip or two himself for the most gripping section of the 450-page tome, his “mental travelogue”.
He was struck by the “infectious” exuberance with which pensioners described their experiences to him.
“They had a ‘reset’ at a point in life where people don’t change very much. We are trapped in these habits and loops.”
The central challenge of the book is describing experiences that are ineffable.
Trips that are transformative for the individual sound pretty banal or plain ridiculous to the rest of us.
“I felt as if I had been repeatedly sucked into the asshole of God,” one user told Pollan, who is best known for his books on food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked (turned into a Netflix documentary series), as well as for his seven-word culinary philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The writer said that the dissolution of his ego brought on by magic mushrooms involved seeing himself “liquefied” – “spread over the landscape like paint, or butter”. When he went to the toilet: “The arc of water I sent forth was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, a waterfall of diamonds.”
Pollan’s wife, painter Judith Belzer, had been concerned about what effect this would all have on their marriage. He reflects now that it has been positive, turning him into a more open, patient and “emotionally available” husband, and helping him to cope with his father’s death in January.
you’re It has also taught him about his ego. “That I’m not a slave to it. I’m not identical to it. And I could have gotten that after 30 or 40 years of psychotherapy. But it happened in an afternoon, which is quite remarkable.”
seems there’s grist mill ” His adventures have led him to quip that drugs may be “wasted on the young”. I’m 31, I tell him. How long should I wait before I start dabbling? Pollan laughs. “I can’t offer advice on those questions. I wouldn’t argue for a minimum age. But when you’re not completely formed, it seems like there’s less grist for the psychedelic mill.”
LSD and psilocybin are not addictive and Pollan says “it is virtually impossible to die from an overdose” of them.
Nevertheless, his book is carefully caveated – nobody with a family history of or predisposition to mental illness should ever go near a psychedelic. For everyone else, he has an extraordinary prophecy.
“You can imagine, at some point, that there will be mental health spas where people go to have a guided psychedelic experience and there will be a doctor on staff who’s writing the prescriptions and trained guards who are conducting it. It’s not science fiction.”
Politicians would have to do a mighty U-turn first. Just last week, British mother Charlotte Caldwell was told she would not be able to reclaim the cannabis oil confiscated by officers at Heathrow, until it was returned at the weekend. She had bought it to continue treating her epileptic son, Billy, who went from suffering up to 100 seizures a day to having none for 250 days.
not “It strikes me as absurd,” Pollan says of the case. He claims that the UK Government is not interested in the science, but “in holding on to their drug war”, and that this may well be the least evidence-based area of public policy. “I don’t know that people want to be rational about drugs.”
it like less the ” Pollan’s dream is that, instead of the “all or nothing” approach legislators now take, psychedelics will be regulated so they can only be administered by trained guides. He would like them to be available not just to the sick, but to “healthy normals”, as the scientists call them. “We all have low levels of addictive behaviour, of depression, of anxiety,” he explains.
Once legal, he would consider taking a trip every birthday “as a kind of annual stock-taking, a personal ritual. I think that’s a nice idea.”
But Pollan posits that the knock-on effect, on society and the planet, could be so much deeper. He wonders whether this kind of shift in our consciousness could fix the environmental crisis and put an end to the nationalistic, religious and racial “egotistical zero-sum game with other people”. So could the US President do with a mushroom or two?
Pollan smiles. “I’ve thought a lot about the fact that the mental formation that appears to be Donald Trump’s – the sense that everything is a competition I mean, he is the paragon of ego consciousness, right? “The objectifying of the other, the objectifying of nature – you go down the list and if there were a case study of a personality that could benefit from psychedelics, he’s pretty much it. But what I see as his pathologies he regards as his strengths, and he may be right. So it might be like Samson having his hair cut off and that he’s embodying the ego consciousness of a lot of his followers, too.” Pollan says that he has been inundated with requests from friends, family and strangers for details of where they can access underground psychedelic treatment. He politely declines them all.
“But if Trump decided he wanted to change, I’d make the one exception,” he says, chuckling. “I’m not referring anybody else. But it seems to me that would be in the public interest.” And could he also help out the Brexit negotiators? An intake of breath. “You’ll have to take care of them!” ‘
- How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics’ by Michael Pollan (£20, Allen Lane) is out now
FAST FACTS: PSYCHEDELICS RESEARCH
- Britain is in the vanguard of psychedelics research, according to Pollan, saying Imperial College London “is in the first rank” of universities studying their healing properties.
- A small study at Imperial of 20 people with depression (who had tried at least two other treatments without success) found six were in remission six months later.
- Pollan says the drugs could help to tackle the global “mental health crisis”. One in three depression sufferers has not responded to other treatments and “suicide rates are climbing”.
- The drugs could combat alcoholism, studies show.