There's a crisis brewing in the mental health world. Suicide rates climbed by 35.2% in the United States between 2000 and 2018, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death for Americans 10 to 34 years old. Drug and alcohol abuse alone led to the deaths of around one million Americans since 2000. Antidepressants, stimulants, mood stabilizers, and other pharmaceuticals are frequently diagnosed as remedies — yet depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD diagnoses are out of control.
Now, desperate for new tools to fight a growing mental health crisis, psychiatry has turned to psychedelic drugs. But are psychedelics actually the answer or just another "miracle drug?"
Perhaps surprisingly, author Michael Pollan — who is typically known for his food and botany writing — has spent years scrutinizing this very topic. From "The Botany of Desire" to "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the New York Times best-selling author has often explored the relationships between humanity and the natural world.
"[At] a dinner party I went to in Berkeley, this woman in her sixties was talking about her LSD trip from a couple weeks ago and how much it had taught her about the consciousness of children. I said, "That's interesting. That's not the kind of person I expect to use LSD."
Now, Pollan has said his piece on food, and he is off in another dimension with psychedelics, having recently co-founded the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics and published another take on psychedelics with "This Is Your Mind on Plants." An expansion of his 2015 New Yorker article, "The Trip Treatment," Pollan's 2018 book, "How to Change Your Mind," arguably catalyzed the unlikely return of psychedelics to mainstream discourse.
A Netflix adaptation bearing the same name, released earlier this month, takes a hard look at four of the psychedelics with the greatest potential for use in psychiatry: LSD (acid), psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDMA (ecstasy), and Mescaline (peyote). As he demystifies the science and history of some of the most villainized plants and fungi known to humanity, Pollan guides us on a journey through our most idiosyncratic use of plants: altering consciousness.
I spoke to Pollan, the man at the heart of the controversy, about his own journey from the food beat into psychedelia to understand how a fringe movement turned into a nationwide obsession.
This interview has been condensed and edited for print.
How did you find yourself writing about psychedelics?
I've always been interested in what is to me the most striking and surprising use of plants, which is to change consciousness — not necessarily in the psychedelic context but just in the context of psychoactives that we find in nature. That this is something all human cultures have been doing for thousands and thousands of years. It's a human drive like the drive for sex or the drive for food, but those are a little easier to explain.
The food work I did — I wrote three or four books about food and agriculture — grew out of, really, my interest in this relationship we have with the natural world. That's really at the center of all the work. Food was one way to explore that, and to my mind, psychedelics is another. When you take a drug, especially one produced by a plant or a fungus, you're engaging with the natural world in a really complicated and interesting way. I also was a little tired of writing about food; not so much tired, but I sort of felt like I'd said what I knew and there wasn't more to say. I didn't want to get stuck in a beat just because I was in the beat. So I was open to other ideas.
Journalists cultivate some sense of where the culture might be going. We have our fingers in the wind. Hopefully, we can see around one corner what might be coming. And a few different data points made me think, "Oh my God, psychedelics are coming back, but they're coming back into medicine." [At] a dinner party I went to in Berkeley this woman in her sixties was talking about her LSD trip from a couple weeks ago and how much it had taught her about the consciousness of children. I said, "That's interesting. That's not the kind of person I expect to use LSD." Then this paper that was published at Hopkins about inducing a mystical experience in people, which struck me as a really interesting thing for scientists to be doing. It was just like, "There's something going on here." Very often you hear three different things about a subject and it makes you realize, "Oh, I have to pay attention."
So it started with this piece I did for the New Yorker in 2015. And in the course of writing that piece, I realized there was a book here — that there was such an interesting history in neuroscience. I felt really lucky to have hit on this topic because nobody was writing about it. Normally you feel other journalists breathing down your neck, and I'm not particularly fast, so that doesn't feel good, but here I was like, "Hey, where is everybody?" So I feel lucky. When you find a topic like this that you can have to yourself for a while, it's the best thing that can happen in journalism.
Rarely does an author get to amend the message of a book significantly after its publication. But with the Netflix documentary series adaptation of "How To Change Your Mind," you get to do exactly that. And a lot has changed since the book's publication.
Yeah. Phase three trials on MDMA have come out since then. The book was 2018 and the movie is four years later, so it was an opportunity. It was also just — storytelling had to be done differently. You couldn't have done an episode based on each chapter of the book. You would lose people with a whole hour on neuroscience or history. So we had to find another way through the material, and that's why we organized it by substance. It makes each episode somewhat self-contained. No chapter in the book is self-contained. It's a different storytelling medium. That's one of the reasons I'm interested in working in TV.
There's also the fact that what got me excited was my conversations with people who'd been through psychedelic therapy and been transformed by it. I wanted the audience to actually meet those people and not have their stories mediated by me because that's what moved the needle for me, was seeing them, hearing them. I think that's one of the most exciting things about the series is you do get to meet these patients and volunteers and hear their stories in their own words.
There were more I could have chosen from, but these seem like canonical psychedelics, and they allowed me to go down different paths.
LSD, which is not a big subject of research today except in Switzerland. [More research] may emerge, but in general the American researchers are using psilocybin because it's shorter-acting and less controversial. But LSD allowed me to talk about the social and cultural history around psychedelics, and it was the substance in the '50s that really got the first wave of research started. So I saw LSD as a way to explore those issues.
Psilocybin is the main research chemical being used today in America to treat mental illness. The second episode is very much about therapy as well as the history of how psilocybin was an indigenous sacrament and how it found its way into our culture through Gordon Wasson in the '50s.
MDMA is the one that's going to be approved first. There's the most research out about it. It's already in phase three, and it's shown efficacy in treating trauma. I hadn't covered it in the book at all because it wasn't plant-based. Also, I just had enough to do with the so-called classic psychedelics that it would've made the book too long. … The film was another thing. It was an opportunity to look at this research and amazing stories of these victims of sexual trauma or soldiers.
"A lot of the leaders in the Native American Church were really worried about shortages of peyote. It's very slow growing. It only grows in this very narrow band along the Rio Grande. Its habitat is under threat of development. And Native Americans are using a lot of it these days because the Native American Church is growing."
And then mescaline I wanted to do partly because I kept hearing about it, hadn't used it. It also opened a door into something I had not treated very comprehensively in the book which was the indigenous use of psychedelics. I focused very closely in the book on the science, but indigenous people have been using these substances to heal for, in the case of peyote, 6,000 years. So this was my opportunity to really explore that world. And frankly, I don't know that the general public was ready for that [in 2018]. They needed to hear about the science first because that's how you make a topic credible, right? It's the most authoritative discourse in our culture for better or worse. I leaned heavily on the science because I was trying to get people to take this seriously. Had I done too much on the Amazon or American Indians it could have been slotted as pretty fringe and not real science.
Unlike the book, the Netflix series prominently features Indigenous Curanderos and other traditional healers who use psychedelics. You yourself wrestle with the decision to enter indigenous spaces and ultimately draw the line at the use of peyote. How did you decide where to draw that line?
It really grew out of my conversations with Native Americans, people I interviewed, and I realize there's not a monolithic opinion on this. There is disagreement, but a lot of the leaders in the Native American Church were really worried about shortages of peyote. It's very slow growing. It only grows in this very narrow band along the Rio Grande. Its habitat is under threat of development. And Native Americans are using a lot of it these days because the Native American Church is growing.
"Even tobacco — which has to be the most demonized plant drug in our world because even opium has legitimate uses that people are grateful for — in the right context, can be a powerful healing medicine. I thought that was kind of amazing, and I didn't know it."
So it seemed to me that since there were other ways to get the same molecule through San Pedro cactus or through synthetic mescaline and that we have taken so much from Native Americans that to take this seems like the final indignity. Until the stocks recover and we figure out a way to take care of peyote, I think for me — and I'm not trying to be normative here — but for me, declining to use peyote seems to be the most respectful choice. And I've heard from people who disagree, who say, "Hey, there are many Indians who think we need peyote to heal the white man." The problem is we just don't have enough of it.
Most of the psychedelic substances touched on have notable pharmaceutical potential, but the series actually opens with tobacco, a known carcinogen. Do you think tobacco is unfairly or fairly maligned?
There were two reasons we did that. One was I couldn't do anything illegal on camera, so I couldn't have another kind of trip because I'd be breaking the law, and I'd be documenting it for the police. And so the idea came up to do what was legal, not psychedelic, but psychoactive that had a whole ceremony attached to it.
And the other reason: I thought it was important is it underscores a point that I hit pretty hard in "This Is Your Mind On Plants," which is that drugs are not — and any given drug is not — inherently good or evil. It's really about context: how it is used, to what purpose. Even tobacco — which has to be the most demonized plant drug in our world because even opium has legitimate uses that people are grateful for — in the right context, can be a powerful healing medicine. I thought that was kind of amazing, and I didn't know it.
"They have risks. The risks are not physiological. The risks are psychological. Some people have really disturbing, sometimes even traumatic, experiences on them. This can be mitigated by working with a guide and approaching it with a lot of preparation, but it still can happen even in that setting."
The Greeks have this word for drugs, they call them pharmakon, which means both poison and blessing. I think that's very smart that they were able to hold two such contradictory ideas in their head and we, of course, are terrible at that. We go to demon or savior instantly. But a lot of it was I'm introducing myself as going on these journeys of exploration. And that was a journey that I could show on camera although I have to say it's really cringe-worthy to watch.
Have people truly overestimated the danger of psychedelics or is there some truth to it? Should everyone try them?
I don't think everyone should try these. They're not for everybody, and nobody should feel compelled to try them just because some people have great experiences. There's a FOMO effect happening. I had somebody get up at a book event I did in DC last week, and this was clearly someone who was feeling huge pressure to try psychedelics even though he didn't want to. People around him were doing it. He was hearing good things about it. And he says, "Do I have to do this?" And I was saying, "Absolutely not."
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.
No, they have risks. The risks are not physiological. The risks are psychological. Some people have really disturbing, sometimes even traumatic, experiences on them. This can be mitigated by working with a guide and approaching it with a lot of preparation, but it still can happen even in that setting. And people at risk for schizophrenia are not allowed in these trials. It's not well advised or mania for that matter. People need to work with someone who can tell them, "Yes, you're a good candidate to do this, or you're not."
I would hate to think that my work was making people feel pressured to do something. Those kinds of sentiments that are out there now are one of the reasons we built this website at the [Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics], which you'll see is incredibly sober — lots of discussion of risk and how to mitigate risk — because there's a lot of people out there who are curious and there are a lot of people who are desperate and don't really have a good place to turn for evidence-based information.
I got the sense that the show was written for a suburban audience. You focus overtly on the medical uses of psychedelics for everyday people. Do you think that's the target demographic here?
No. I don't think it's suburban people. My target, as in all my work, is not people who are already up to speed about something. I take people along on a journey. Some people already know a lot more than I do about psychedelics. It's definitely not for the psychedelic community, although they seem to be watching it. I think it's for the curious but uninformed. But yeah, some of those people are in the suburbs.
"I don't think anyone should go to jail for using or possessing drugs. But I don't know that I want capitalism pushing psychedelics on people."
I think it's also going to appeal to a lot of people who know someone struggling with mental difficulties — or are themselves. The larger context of this whole movement is the mental health crisis and the fact that we have such high rates of depression and anxiety and suicide and addiction. We lost over a hundred thousand people to overdose last year. Psychiatry is desperate for new tools to treat people.
The headline here is that psychedelics may be the tool that they're looking for, a new way to treat it and really get at the causes. Now we can't say that with complete confidence yet because we have to do more phase three trials, but you talk to people in psychiatry and they're very hopeful about psychedelics.
Where do you stand on full legalization versus medicinal legalization? Does it vary depending on the substance?
I don't support full legalization. I'm not exactly sure what I want to see happen, but I definitely don't think the same legal regime should apply to all substances. They have different risks. And I think in the case of psychedelics like psilocybin, I would be very troubled if they were handled like cannabis and you could just buy a bunch of mushrooms at your cannabis dispensary. I really think if you're going to take a high dose, there's some rules of the road that need to somehow come with it.
I don't think anyone should go to jail for using or possessing drugs. But I don't know that I want capitalism pushing psychedelics on people. I'm very intrigued by the experiment going on in Oregon where they have, through ballot initiative, approved the use of psychedelic mushrooms in guided situations, with guides licensed by the state, growers licensed by the state. They're really trying to create a safe container for the use of psychedelics and not just among the mentally ill by the way. You don't need a diagnosis. You just have to be over 21.
I think this could be a model for a non-medical use of psychedelics in society. I think we have to experiment. I think we have to figure out the best way, and we're going to make mistakes along the way. But going full legal for everything, I don't think we're quite ready for that.