Author Michael Pollan, with one eye on Oregon’s psilocybin rollout, talks about plant-derived drugs

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Michael Pollan spoke with OPB’s Dave Miller about his new book, “How to Change Your Mind,” about the cultural and scientific history of psychedelic drugs, as well as his own personal experience with the guided trip.

Allison Frost/OPB

Four years ago Michael Pollan published “How to Change Your Mind”. Like so many of Pollan’s books, it was a mix of reportage, history, botany, and experiential journalism. It focused on promising new research into the therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin. Pollen’s latest book digs deeper into that territory. It’s titled “Here’s Your Mind on Plants” and focuses on three plant-derived drugs: opium, caffeine, and mescaline.

“Societies tolerate mind-altering drugs which help maintain the rule of society and prohibit those which are seen as undermining it,” writes Pollan, “therefore, in society’s choice of psychoactive substances, we can read a lot about his fears and cravings.”

The OPB’s Dave Miller spoke to Michael Pollan in front of an audience at the Newmark Theater on Wednesday night in Portland. Excerpts from the conversation are below.

Ditch coffee for research

“After a few days it went out of your system and you don’t feel withdrawal and you’re supposed to be back to normal. But I wasn’t back to normal. It really hit me: that what was normal for me, it was this caffeinated awareness that was my flaw… It made me appreciate how deeply this molecule was embedded in the construction of who I was. It was part of my ego. It was something thing that I used to gather my ego every morning, like a lot of people do. We get a certain power and strength from that that allows us to do the work. And so I missed that a lot. My work has really suffered.

If caffeine is a drug

“It’s very difficult to find a really solid and rigid definition of a drug. It is something we take into our body that changes us in some way. Yet you can say that about the food too. Where do you put something like a placebo? Is it a drug? Or chicken soup? And so it’s very messy and the FDA doesn’t really offer much help. I mean, they regulate food and drugs, and I think their definition of drugs is “whatever we say it is,” basically.

Why he wrote about mescaline after focusing on psychedelics in his previous book

“I hadn’t written about mescaline because it wasn’t used in the context of research, and that was really what ‘How to Change Your Mind’ was about. The Image of Psychedelics in 2018 was still kind of a 60s image of young mind destroyers and something that made you blow up buildings and I was trying to make people see that they had this value as a medicine, like the researchers So I focused narrowly on what is the most authoritative source in our culture – which is science – and left out the fact that there was this ancient history of indigenous use of psychedelics that I hadn’t paid attention to going back, in the case of peyote, 6,000 years, so I was interested in exploring all of the indigenous use of psychedelics in hopes that we might learn something useful in our own approaches. The State of Oregon is trying to determine in what is the appropriate container for a psychedelic experience. I think indigenous peoples have a lot to teach us about this. So that was one of the reasons. The other reason was a bit funnier, which was whenever I asked people when I was doing my story for ‘How to change your mind’ ‘what was your favorite psychedelic?’ they are people with tons of experience, and again and again I heard: mescaline, mescaline.

On Oregon’s approach to legalizing supervised use of psilocybin

I think these substances – and I’m thinking here specifically of psilocybin but that would apply to mescaline or LSD – are best used in a guided way if you’re using a high dose…. And that means there’s a lot of time on the part of the therapist or the guide. It’s six hours of travel, two hours of preparation at least, two hours of integration. So it’s going to be expensive… I think what’s happening in Oregon is a very important experience for the country. This is exactly how we are going to find the best ways to use these substances through these kinds of experiments. It is unclear how the business model of psychedelic therapy [will work]. It’s all in the air… But if he [costs] $500 won’t be available to everyone. This is why medicalization is important. I don’t think that should be the only way they’re available, but going through the FDA approval process – like psilocybin currently does for depression, and MDMA currently does for PTSD – will give you a drug that insurance can pay for. And that’s how it’s really accessed, if it’s a better treatment for depression or anxiety or OCD than what we have now. There will be a lot of pressure on these healthcare companies to pay. So I think that’s one way to solve the access problem.

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