Welcome to the v8well Book Club! Topics will largely center around food and health, but I reserve the right to meander in search of an interesting book. I hope the bookworms amongst you enjoy this series of posts, and that some of my recommendations find a place on your bookshelf.
Welcome to a slightly different book club. I never stray too far from a Michael Pollan book, and here is my latest obsession.
The masterful guide leads us, willing lambs, into the world of psychoactives: plants that change our consciousness. Psychoactive plants have a long cultural history, with several populations having used them in religious rituals or for healing. In this book, Pollan chooses three plant ‘drugs’ that represent distinct dimensions of this experience.
He takes us back his personal experience in his younger years, where in the process of doing research for an article in Harper’s magazine, he grew his own, ordering poppies off a garden catalogue. This was the height of the war on drugs in the US, and he skirted the edges of trouble with the DEA. Fun fact - it is not illegal to grow poppies - however, if you know how to produce opium then it automatically becomes illegal. There are some startling and troubling revelations about the political nature of the war on drugs and its underlying motives. Ironically, around the same time, the opioid crisis was underway, with a perfectly legal drug, in particular, OxyContin being marketed heavily as less addictive.
Pollan poses a profound and provocative question - “Why is making tea from the leaves of a tea plant acceptable, but making tea from a seed head of an opium poppy a federal crime?”
Do you think of caffeine as an addictive substance? I don’t. That’s why this section was an eye-opener to me. My morning “I need that coffee” feeling is actually a symptom of withdrawal! Caffeine is a unique drug - the one to which society has given its wholehearted stamp of approval. Pollan quits coffee cold turkey for three months to fully understand his relationship with caffeine and in the process almost gives up writing this section, as the “daily sharpening of the mental pencil took longer than usual and never quite felt complete”.
He takes us through the fascinating (and separate) history of both coffee and tea - how they replaced alcohol, enhanced productivity at all hours of the day and were a revelation to employers and employees alike. We also learn the origin of the ‘coffee break’. But is this ‘control over our biology’ a good thing?
Finally, we are introduced to the world of psychedelics. Long associated with hippie populations, there has since been a culture change and psychedelics are now emerging in the mainstream. Their therapeutic effects are being acknowledged as new tools to deal with a growing mental health crisis. Notably, Native Americans use mescaline in the form of the peyote cactus, to help treat anything from alcoholism to trauma - this is done in the form of highly regulated rituals. As Pollan researches this book, he is posed with a conflict: given the short supply of peyote, should anyone other than the Native Americans use it? Eventually, he decides to leave it alone - “as so much has been taken from the population already”.
This is a truly fascinating book that that weaves his multi-layered personal stories of experimentation along with science and history - classic Pollan. Read with an open mind (pun intended).
P.S. If you’re interested in the topic of psychedelics, you can also watch How To Change Your Mind on Netflix (it’s on my todo list).
If this author has captured your imagination, you might also like this book.