Pollan’s Paranoia

If you don’t recognize the name Michael Pollan and haven’t read his books, you’ve missed a lot of good writing about drugs.

In his new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants (Penguin; $29), Pollan dives into the exciting world of opium, caffeine and mescaline. In The Botany of Desire, which is probably his best book, he focused on apples, potatoes and marijuana, and argued convincingly that over thousands of years humans and plants have co-evolved.

Slick writers have hijacked and distorted that notion and have insisted that plants kick our asses all over the planet. That’s not Pollan. It’s not his fault that his ideas have been corrupted. In the middle section of This Is Your Mind on Plants, he talks about caffeine, a drug that’s legal, that millions of Americans imbibe every day and that they probably don’t think is addicting. In the last part of his book he writes about mescaline—which is much harder to score than a cup of coffee or tea—and in the first part he gets into the realm of opium, which comes from poppies and which the British forced on the Chinese to successfully addict a whole nation. Poetry lovers might remember that opium was the drug of choice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his fellow English romantics.

Part one of this book is less about opium and more about Pollan’s harrowing bout with paranoia, a state of mind shared by many who try marijuana and swear never to use it again. Years ago, Pollan says, he was working on an article about opium and was terrified that if and when it was published he would be arrested, imprisoned and lose his property.

I know the feeling. For the first 15 years that I wrote about weed, coke and opium, I did so under the pseudonym “Joe Delicado.” Paranoia is real, and it’s powerful. I understand why Pollan cut the crucial section from his article. In This Is Your Mind on Plants he has finally published it. What he says is that opium has the effect of subtracting “things: anxiety, melancholy, worry, grief.” That’s how I felt when I used “O,” as my friends and I called it. Pain vanished. My whole body became a storehouse of pleasure. 

The problem was that when O wore off I felt every single little pain, magnified more than ever before. I knew I couldn’t go on using O, so I kicked my habit before it kicked my butt. I don’t recommend O, but I do recommend Pollan’s new book. It illuminates the war on drugs, which has created a kind of police state that generates mass paranoia and that hasn’t gone away yet.

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.”

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