Many of my best experiences being a son were with my Dad while we were driving somewhere on the weekend. It was during those times that my Dad’s mind would wander and he’d talk to me about whatever was on his mind (cars, school, and, uhm, sex) and I’d ask about whatever was on mine (what’s the stock market, why atomic bombs, and, uhm, sex). On one of those trips, I asked my dad where beer came from and ultimately why people made it. I remember the answer had something to do with barrels, rain, and this fundamental truth:
They caught a buzz and humans like getting buzzes.
Wow, that pretty much nailed a critical aspect of human nature for me.
At the time, I didn’t even know what a buzz was or what the metaphor “to catch one” meant, but Dad’s summation wasn’t far off. Fundamentally, we are Great Apes who like catching buzzes. An occasional flirtation with zymurgy, kefir, and kombucha confirmed Dad’s just-so tale: early alcohol was surely caused by natural yeasts in barrels mixed with rain consuming sugar to make alcohol in a time far lost to memory. It was an honest and surprisingly adult answer to give a young lad.
But I had no such space to ask about humans’ love of other drugs and thusly never did. It didn’t feel safe, this was the era of MADD, “Just Say No” and DARE.
ASIDE: Parents of now I’d warn you to be careful about which programs you let your children internalize. If they’ve been conditioned to proscribe curiosity, that means they’re not asking you. And if their curiosity isn’t being addressed by you, it’s likely being catered to by someone else who’s likely selling them something (looking at you, Pornhub) — possibly something that distorts a healthy but uncomfortable truth..
Many decades later, with cannabis now recreationally available in several states in the union, alcohol sales remaining strong, caffeine ubiquitous, and nicotine experiencing a renaissance in e-cigarettes, we’re seemingly coming to better grips (and therefore better policies) that are built on the fundamental truth my Dad shared: human love to get high.
The only questions remaining is which substances will be legally permitted and which will not? And how will be punish those who choose to fulfill this love or sell the means to fulfill it? Having long been an advocate for cannabis decriminalization myself, I thought I’d dig into these questions with Michael Pollan, the square of squares who wrote the Omnivore’s Dilemma. With the same journalistic style with which he exposed the problems of industrial scale food production, I figured Pollan could deliver a measured evaluation of the science, the value, and the undeserved demonization of psychedelics.
More about Pollan’s experience with psychedelics after the jump
Pollan missed the chance for honest inquiry (and experimentation) during his youth in the 1960’s. He sheepishly describes himself as “less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic that psychedelics provoked.” Consequently he’s asking himself less about the political signification of the psychedelic movement but, with 30 years remove, is asking about the chemicals themselves and their value to society.
This was familiar history for me, but what was wonderful was how early Pollan-the-man started peeking out instead of Pollan-the-author. I appreciated how Pollan couched this book in the midlife-not-really-crisis of a man in his mid-60’s. Having successfully raised children and living in a happy relationship, Pollan seems to ask “Is there something more?” or “Did I miss something along the way?” This book as personal exploration rooted in his Danteän (“I lost the path that does not stray”) moment of having come to question one’s way was a story that I wanted more of.
Pollan’s work falls into three major phases: a history of psychedelics, his own ingestion of psychedelics, and a fundamental evaluation of the risks of taking them. Spoiler alert, just like cannabis, the risks are likely highly overstated and per the Times’ Tom Bissell’s wry observation: “LSD is probably less harmful to the human body than Diet Dr Pepper (NYTimes).”
The History of Psychedelics
The first of the book is to provide the thumbnail history of humans and their use of these psychoactive agents. For a thumbnail sketch it looks like this:
- Humans have always used psychedelic chemicals, across cultures and across landmasses
- There’s a rich history of psychedelic experience woven into some of our most important and most sacred texts / myths
- They were administered largely under shamanic / religious rite
- Until industrialization
This leads to the late 40’s where Albert Hoffmann accidentally synthesizes LSD and accidentally doses himself massively in the process. After experiencing a trying and challenging trip, he isolates the cause and becomes curious about it. Trying to understand his experience, he’s lead to see that it conforms to much of humanity’s history of mystical experience as catalogued by William James, Blake, and others. He wonders if he’s uncovered the scientific explanation for mystical experience and whether his employer, Sandoz Labs, can make a lot of money with this new psychological analgesic.
The next steps of this story are part of 1960’s lore. LSD comes to these shores and is used as a psychological remedy for the likes of Cary Grant and other Hollywood and New York notables. Huge doses are liberated by Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary as they attempt to rewire the basis of social consciousness. Meanwhile, in the lab-coat-versus-Jefferson-Airplane facilities, researchers earnestly seek to understand more about these chemicals.
Eventually LSD is demonized by the counter-revolutionaries as a means to discredit the “hippies” and their movement. As the political pendulum swung into the mid-70’s psychedelic research entered a tundra period. Under the rubric of a Schedule C classification and a “Just Say No” ethos, pursuit of therapeutic use stalls.
Pollan records how a few brave souls continued their research through psychedelic winter, acquiring small doses for research and therapy through legitimate and not-quite-so-legitimate means. Caught up to the present, Pollan decides that his only means for obtaining full understanding of the impact of psychedelics is to try them out himself.
In most cases, Pollan’s recollections under the influence are nothing unfamiliar to anyone who’s read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception or leafed through an art school freshman’s portfolio. Colors, voices, intensely warm and intensely strange feelings are all recounted in a friendly, open tone. Pollan undoubtedly has a boyish and innocent enthusiasm for his experience. He never hesitates to give an unvarnished and gleefully honest portrayal of his experience, his emotions at the time, and the impact of the trip. While tripping he reckons with the deaths of loved ones, the changes in his children, the beauty of his marriage. Pollan weaves those experiences along with the tripping experience and invites, I felt, us to see psychedelics not as an lens external to life, but part of life itself, just like us.
Pollan and Politics
Ultimately based on his experiences, Pollan concludes that there are people for whom the psychological counseling + psychedelic influence could be a key form of therapeutic help. Those coping with other addictions, PTSD are end-of-life care are all obvious beneficiaries of the chemically-induced ego-dissolution that seems to go with psychedelic experience and which are marked as chief mental shifts in lasting psychological healing.
While some might have resistance to the idea of “ego dissolution” being real, Pollan provides significant neurological research to explain what’s happening and indeed the sense of oneness, of a silenced internal monologue, of peace promised by Buddhism and meditation can be paralleled after ingesting these chemicals.
At the end of the day if we can offer chemicals to to soften the suffering of the scarred, scared, and soon to be departed, with little-to-no risk, why are we doing so? Pollan makes a compelling case, as many did around cannabis 3 decades ago, that this is an error that hurts individuals and creates unnecessary and perversely-motivated judicio-penal business opportunities (that there is a literal investor prospectus on the prison constructing industry is certainly one of the most disgusting facts of American life).
The Times review nails the summation so let me again tip the hat to Mr. Bissell and quote:
That’s the problem with psychedelics. They’re hard to talk about without sounding like an aspiring guru or credulous dolt. Michael Pollan, somehow predictably, does the impossible: He makes losing your mind sound like the sanest thing a person could do.