Opinion | ‘The Standard American Diet Kills Us Slowly in Normal Times and Quickly in Covid Times’


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When you walk in a room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” My guest today is Michael Pollan. He describes his work as an investigation of the places where the human and natural worlds intersect — on our plates, in our gardens, and in our minds. In his early books, he’s urged us to reconsider where our food comes from and rethink the way we eat. And his more recent books take on another big topic, the plants that alter our consciousness. In his latest, he writes about the morphine in opium poppies, the caffeine in coffee and tea, and the psychedelic mescaline in cacti. The book’s title, “This Is Your Mind on Plants,” is a play on that famous drug PSA that played in the 1980s when the US was well into its war on drugs. [SIZZLING] You, know, it’s got that egg.

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This is your brain. This is drugs.

kara swisher

And then they fry it. [METAL SPATULA CLANKS ON FRYING PAN] [EGG SIZZLES IN GREASE]

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This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?

kara swisher

Well, a lot has changed since the 1980s, when the ads were about as subtle as the shoulder pads I used to wear, including the cultural acceptability of marijuana and psychedelics. So I wanted to talk to Pollan about where our thinking on drugs goes from here. Michael Pollan, welcome to Sway.

michael pollan

Thank you, Kara. Great to be here.

kara swisher

So one of the things that you talk about a lot is the threat to societal norms by using plants like this. And they can either be used as a tool or a weapon. Talk a little bit about that and the threat to societal norms.

michael pollan

Well, I’ve always been interested in the fact that we demonize certain drugs and we celebrate others. In our society, alcohol is legal, and tobacco is legal. And these are two of the most lethal drugs out there. And yet cannabis still is a Schedule I substance, even though it’s been legalized in 18 states and partly legalized in another 18. So how does this happen? What’s the history behind it? And there’s some arbitrariness to it. But a lot of it has to do with whether a given drug is lubricating the gears of society and the economy, or is it mucking them up.

kara swisher

Right, or perceived to be mucking them up.

michael pollan

Right. Because these perceptions aren’t always accurate. I look at three plant medicines in this book — opium, caffeine, and a psychedelic, mescaline. And the reason I wanted to look at a legal drug that almost all of us are involved with, caffeine, is to look at why this powerful and addictive drug has been, for most of its history, celebrated. And the reason has to do, I think, with the fact that it was an incredible boon to civilization, to capitalism especially, in that it produced a new kind of worker who was more sober than workers were before caffeine was introduced.

kara swisher

So therefore, this is a good drug versus this is a bad drug.

michael pollan

So this is a good drug. This helps society. This helps your employer.

kara swisher

Right. I want to get into the space with each of them that you go through, which are each fascinating their own way. You pose a big question at the beginning of the book. Why do humans go to such lengths to change our minds? And then why do we fence the universal desire with laws and customs, taboos, and anxieties?

michael pollan

Yeah. And that’s the question that got me very interested in this whole area. It’s kind of weird that we want to change consciousness, that we’re not satisfied with everyday, normal consciousness. We either want to optimize it, or transcend it, or —

kara swisher

Turbocharge it.

michael pollan

Yeah, we’re just not satisfied with it. And that’s odd. And the other question is, wouldn’t changing consciousness be a dangerous thing? Because we in certain instances it is. You get addicted. You overdose. You’re sloppy. You make mistakes. There’s a lot that would seem to not be conducive to success in an evolutionary sense. So you would think that the drug takers would have been edited out of evolution because they made so many errors and left themselves vulnerable to predation or whatever it was. But they haven’t been. So you then have to ask the question, what might this be good for? Why might there be an advantage to being a drug taker? So I’ve been fascinated by this question. And some of the answers are kind of obvious, like relief from pain. You could see that as being a boon to any species. And then you get to drugs, though, that do more radical things, like psychedelics. Why would this be helpful? And I think that it actually contributes to cultural evolution in really important ways. The encounter of certain minds and certain molecules sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes produces visions, breakthroughs, insights that benefits us as a species.

kara swisher

Or could.

michael pollan

Could.

kara swisher

This is why tech people always say, I’ve gotten all these ideas. I’m like, how many of them were good? You know what I mean?

michael pollan

Well, and that’s why I emphasize some molecules and some minds. 99% of the insights people have on psychedelics are probably useless and possibly stupid and certainly banal. But every now and then, something interesting happens. I see it not so much as these chemicals are so intelligent, and they get in our brains, and they give us ideas. It’s more like they’re a disruptive force like radiation. Radiation gives us mutations in the genes, which are bad. But every now and then, there’s a mutation — and this goes for culture as well as in the genome — that benefits the species. And I see psychedelics and drugs in general as that mutating force. And yes, there’s a lot that goes wrong. But every now and then, it goes right.

kara swisher

Right. OK. So you picked a sedative, opium, a stimulant, caffeine, a hallucinogenic, mescaline, which you call the downer, the upper, and what I think of as the outer, which is mescaline. So let’s talk first about opium. You tell a story about growing poppies. It’s from a piece you did for Harper’s called “Opium Made Easy” in which you wanted to brew a narcotic tea made from poppies. And you were writing about it. And then you couldn’t. Let’s talk first a little bit about the opium flower. You were interested in it based on a book that you got from Jim Hogshire. His book was “Opium for the Masses.” Talk a little bit about opium itself and why it had this reputation. And then talk about what happened with your project.

michael pollan

Well, opium is, first of all, the most gorgeous flower you can grow. And opium has been important to our species, I mean, as far back as we can go. Before recorded history, people recognized its value as a painkiller and something that, as I wrote, lightens the existential load. So it had this really interesting history. I had no particular interest in using it. I mean, my experience with opiates had been when I had my wisdom teeth removed. And it made me very nauseous. What engaged me about growing opium was like, wow, I could do this? I could grow this narcotic in my garden without leaving home? This was in the ‘90s, and I read this book, “Opium for the Masses,” basically describing how you could take the seed heads, crush them, soak them in hot water, and make a tea that would make you feel opiate-like effect. And I was like, let me see if I can do it. And I was writing columns for The Times and Harper’s about gardening. So I was always looking for column ideas. [LAUGHS] But it turned out to be a much more frightening experience than I expected. I start corresponding with Jim Hogshire, the author of “Opium for the Masses,” and getting horticultural advice, and does he have any seeds he could share. And then I learn that he has been busted for possession of dried poppy heads he bought in a florist shop.

kara swisher

So he bought legally.

michael pollan

He bought legally. But there’s a funny little quirk when these drug laws were written, which is, if you’re growing a scheduled substance, you’re committing a federal crime. If you don’t know, and you think you’re just growing flowers, no problem. But his book proved he had that state of knowledge. And guess what. My email was on his hard drive. So suddenly, I’m in this very fearful, paranoid place, thinking, when are they going to bust me?

kara swisher

You had grown the flowers, and therefore, guilty before you were guilty essentially.

michael pollan

Yes. I had the state of knowledge that condemned me. It’s very much like the Garden of Eden, right? So I had this summer of paranoia. I started doing reporting to figure out well, what exactly was the DEA doing here. And indeed, back in ‘96, they had a campaign to stamp out domestic opium growing by gardeners like me. Anyway, I complete this piece. It’s this long piece. And I’m gradually learning how dangerous it is to commit a drug offense at this point in history. This is the Clinton administration, post crime bill —

kara swisher

Joe Biden involved. Yep.

michael pollan

— a mandatory minimum sentence. And what I had done could result in a prison term, a million-dollar fine, and the confiscation of my house under the drug laws. If a piece of land is involved in the production of a drug, whether the owner of that land is convicted or not, that piece of land can be seized. So there was a lot at stake. I finished the article. Realizing I had already broken the law by knowing what I knew, I went ahead and made the tea tried it, described it in the text. And I submitted it to Harper’s. And I said, look, we’ve got to get this lawyer. And initially, they sent a criminal defense lawyer to read it.

kara swisher

Yeah, who told you you were screwed.

michael pollan

Yeah, who said forget it. You can’t publish this. But when Rick MacArthur, the publisher of Harper’s, heard that his lawyer had said not to publish it, he was outraged. So we hired a First Amendment lawyer, who said, you must publish this article. This is exactly what the First Amendment exists to protect. And I wasn’t sure what to do at all. There was a lot at stake. And obviously, it was my wife’s decision too. We had a four-year-old. We couldn’t afford to lose this house or have me be in jail. So in the end, the lawyer had said, look, there are two passages that are particularly antagonistic to the government. One is the recipe for how you make the tea, and the other is, how does it make you feel, the trip report, as we say in drug journalism.

kara swisher

Oh, as we say in drug journalism.

michael pollan

Yes. [LAUGHTER] And so he said, if you really want to reduce your exposure, that’s what I would take out. So I had to self-censor back then. And I never felt good about it. And now the statute of limitations has passed, and the atmosphere has changed dramatically. So I wanted to republish it in its true state. But the other reason I wanted to republish it is it stands as a very interesting document about the drug war and how bad it was. And something else was going on at that same moment that I was unaware of at the time, everyone was unaware of.

kara swisher

Well, let me read a passage. “While we were caught at this remote and ridiculous skirmish in the drug war, the drug in question was quietly and legally making its way into the bodies of millions of Americans as Purdue Pharma pursued its marketing campaign, sating the culture with seductive disinformation about the safety of Oxycontin.” So near you, not far.

michael pollan

No, just down Route 7 from where I lived, this company, owned by the Sackler family, was planting the seeds of the real opiate crisis. While the government was messing around with a couple of gardeners, this company was legally addicting millions of people to their product. We now know they knew it was addictive and subject to abuse, even though they claimed it was a safer form of opiates. And this is a big issue in that I think the story of Purdue Pharma has undercut a lot of the rationale for the drug war. The drug war was sold to us as a public health campaign. These drugs were damaging our health. They were addicting our children.

kara swisher

Just say no.

michael pollan

Just say no, and this is your brain on drugs. But we were looking at the wrong problem.

kara swisher

Right. So do you think of the story differently now in light of the opioid epidemic, which is now they’re paying money, not enough by any stretch of the imagination? But do you look at it differently?

michael pollan

Yeah, it makes me question whether the real rationale of the drug war was ever public health. We have reason to believe now that Nixon saw it as a political war and that the drug war was a way to gain power over the two communities he regarded as a threat to his presidency — hippies, as he called it, and Blacks. And that gives you a very powerful cudgel to disrupt a community you want to. The collateral damage of the drug war to communities of color — and think of these countries in South America and Central America that have been wrecked by cartels, empowered by the fact these drugs are illegal. There’s just been so much damage done, and so many lives ruined, and so little accomplished.

kara swisher

So how do you look at your experiment in tea now?

michael pollan

Well, as a parable on just how misbegotten and crazy the drug war was. And I say “was” advisedly because it’s still going on, even though I think it’s running out of gas. I think we can begin to see the end of it. But they’re still arresting more than a million people a year on drug charges. And I see us moving to a harm reduction model. And in fact, in Biden’s Covid relief bill, there’s $30 million for harm reduction. This is needle exchange and things like that. That’s unprecedented for our government. So I do see us moving. And certainly, the voters are moving quickly to change things.

kara swisher

So the second section of the book is about caffeine. And even though a lot of us aren’t dependent on it, it’s a drug. You call it the most widely used psychotropic. So talk a little bit why you picked coffee here, because everyone is on as psychotropic drug.

michael pollan

Yeah. Well, 90% of us use a caffeine product every day.

kara swisher

Yes, I’m using one right now.

michael pollan

Yeah, I just finished mine. It could be coffee. It could be tea. And it could be soda. The top brands of soda in this country are all caffeinated. That’s added by the manufacturers. It’s been proven that the caffeine is there as a reinforcer. It makes people like it more.

kara swisher

Just like the bees you talked about.

michael pollan

Exactly.

kara swisher

Bees like caffeinated flowers.

michael pollan

This was a big surprise to me because caffeine in nature evolved as a pesticide. The plants produce this alkaloid in order to protect them against insects and from other plants growing too close to them. But plants are so clever that certain ones have repurposed caffeine as an attractant. And they discovered that if you put a little caffeine in your nectar, which, of course, is designed to attract not repel insects, the bees will prefer you, return to you more reliably, remember where you are, and basically, yes, become more faithful and effective pollinators.

kara swisher

Like a Starbucks or something.

michael pollan

Basically. It does for the bees what it does for us. It makes us better workers. And I mean, I’m constantly amazed at the cleverness of plants and their mastery of neurochemistry to get us to do what they need us to do.

kara swisher

Well, I’m going to get into you giving up coffee. But first, coffee was on trial in Mecca, Charles II tried — there was political elements with coffee.

michael pollan

Yeah, there was a drug war against coffee at various times, as there has been against almost any drug. They’re always threatening to somebody. Charles II thought that the coffee houses were going to be hotbeds of sedition, and so he tried to ban them for all of about two weeks. People were already so far gone in coffee culture that they just ignored him. And he wasn’t powerful enough to enforce it. So ever since then, no one has really come after coffee.

kara swisher

They decided to use it as a help, actually. And you said caffeine has allowed us to adapt our bodies and our minds to the requirements of modern life and industry. Can you talk about the link between the modern age and caffeine?

michael pollan

Well, what’s interesting about caffeine is, as a drug, it comes into the West very late in history. Not till the 1650s does coffee, tea, and chocolate arrive in the same decade in England. All the other big drugs — alcohol, cannabis, opium — go so far back that we don’t have a before and after. But coffee comes in late enough that we know what the world was like before it and the way the world was after. Basically, before it, everybody was drunk all the time or at least buzzed.

kara swisher

Because it was safer.

michael pollan

It was safer than water. This is not conducive to oh, a scientific revolution, the rise of capitalism.

kara swisher

Manufacturing.

michael pollan

Manufacturing. And so when you’re moving to a place where mental work becomes more important than physical work, you need a drug that helps you to focus. And along comes caffeine, which does this really well. The whole age of rationalism and then the Enlightenment was fueled by caffeine. In the Enlightenment, characters — you know, Voltaire would have 72 cups of coffee a day.

kara swisher

Do you think he did?

michael pollan

I don’t know how you would do that exactly. Maybe they were a little French cups.

kara swisher

Yeah, I guess.

michael pollan

I don’t know.

kara swisher

I don’t believe it.

michael pollan

[LAUGHS] I’m sure it’s exaggerated.

kara swisher

But I’ve seen people put out 12 Diet Cokes a day.

michael pollan

Oh yeah.

kara swisher

But you decided to give up caffeine because you were already caffeinated so you didn’t know what the uncaffeinated was. And you said it gave you — I love this word — mental tumescence. [LAUGHTER] But then you became an unsharpened pencil. I like all your penile references. But explain how you did this. And how did your thoughts on caffeine change after you did that?

michael pollan

So I was interviewing Roland Griffiths, the great American caffeine researcher. And he said, you cannot understand your relationship to a drug or anything you do habitually. Until you stop and look at it, you don’t really know what’s the caffeine and what’s you. And you don’t know how powerful it is. So it was a challenge I felt I had to accept. So I got off caffeine. I did it cold turkey. And I was struck at what a powerful effect it had, giving it up. I couldn’t write for a week or two.

kara swisher

So you couldn’t focus.

michael pollan

I couldn’t focus. And I couldn’t do anything linear. I mean, I was just bouncing around like a ping pong ball. And after a while, that faded, and I was able to work again but without great pleasure. And as I say in the book, no work of genius has ever been produced on chamomile tea. And that’s all I had.

kara swisher

Not yet.

michael pollan

Not yet. [LAUGHS] It’s a long shot. But even after a couple of months — and I was off for three months — I didn’t feel myself. And that’s a very weird statement because that was myself. That was my uncaffeinated, baseline self. But I had been using caffeine for so long, and it had been so intricately woven into my sense of things and my perceptions of the world that I wasn’t myself without it.

kara swisher

So one thing you wrote is, “has the discovery of caffeine by humans been a boon or bane to our civilization, and what about to our species, which might not be the same thing?” What do you mean by that, and the costs? How do you look at caffeine as a cost drug?

michael pollan

Well, if you’re looking at the civilization, I think you’d have to argue, on balance, it’s been a boon. It has helped give us a scientific revolution, a capitalist revolution, all the blessings of our advanced economy, such as they are. But as a species, it’s a little different. The way caffeine gave us this is it disconnected us from our circadian rhythms. We’re not paying attention to our body’s desire for periods of rest and periods of activity. But it’s important to stress, there are not a lot of good health reasons not to drink caffeine. Coffee and tea are protective against cardiovascular disease, against certain kinds of cancer, against Parkinson’s, against dementia. It’s kind of remarkable. We don’t know whether it’s the caffeine or something else in the coffee and tea. It probably is the latter. Believe it or not, coffee and tea are the leading source of antioxidants in the American diet.

kara swisher

Wow, compared to blueberries or something.

michael pollan

Yeah. So if you took away coffee and tea, we’d really be screwed.

kara swisher

All right, so the last one you write about is mescaline, which I found to be the most important section. You were trying to make the case for the modern moral use to bind community rather than seeing drugs as hedonism. And you wrote, “that such a model exists or exists in other traditional cultures requires us to reconsider the whole concept of drugs and the moral failings we associate with them in the West. Our understanding of drugs is organized around ideas of hedonism, the wished-for escape, the desire to dull the senses.” Mescaline, talk about it a little bit.

michael pollan

So mescaline is a chemical produced by a couple kinds of cactus, most famously, peyote. And it is really the first psychedelic that people were aware of in the West. It’s discovered around 1900 and synthesized then. Mescaline is a powerful psychedelic. And it is used in the form of peyote by Native Americans in their religious ceremonies and has been for a very long time. There’s evidence of mescaline use, or peyote use, going back 6,000 years in Texas and in Mexico. And I was interested in looking at it because it does suggest a radically different model of drug use. I was also interested because, when psychedelics came to the West, we didn’t know what to do with them.

kara swisher

Use them alone or use them for —

michael pollan

Yeah, we used them alone. We just took some, walked around the streets of Manhattan. We put them in the punch bowl. Basically, we were in this big, sloppy R&D program to understand what were these things good for, how to use them. But, in fact, an instruction manual existed. And that was the Native American use of mescaline. And it was fundamentally different. And I still think we have a lot to learn from it without appropriating it, but the underlying principles that you basically don’t use these substances alone, you never do it casually, you do it with a clear sense of intention — in their case, usually to heal somebody.

kara swisher

And this was why it was used in these Native American churches, right, because they were dealing with —

michael pollan

Trauma.

kara swisher

Trauma, constant trauma — extermination is really what was happening.

michael pollan

Yes. So the peyote church begins for Native Americans in the 1880s, at this moment where they are on the verge of cultural annihilation. We’re forcing them — and I say we. I mean white Americans are forcing them onto reservations and kidnapping their children and putting them in schools, boarding schools. And we’re cutting their hair first, which is the most offensive thing you can do. We have outlawed most of their ceremonies. So they are in the process of collapsing as a culture. They rediscover peyote and create this ceremony around it that proved to be very healing. And I was so struck by the testimony of the Native Americans I interviewed as to what a role peyote had played in preserving their culture and in healing their trauma. It was inspiring to learn about. But I also learned that the population of peyote cactus is crashing.

kara swisher

Yes, right. And they’re reserved only for Native American churches, correct?

michael pollan

Yeah, except other people are using it and shouldn’t, in my view. I mean, I concluded that the only way to express respect for this practice is to not do it ourselves as non-natives. We’ve taken so much from Native Americans. To now start poaching their peyote is just criminal. There are other ways to get mescaline though. I mean, you can get it in synthetic forms, which I did for the book. And also, it grows in something else called San Pedro, a cactus which is very easy to grow, at least in California.

kara swisher

Yeah, I didn’t realize. I think I have one, actually, in California. I think I do.

michael pollan

You may well. It’s all over the place. It’s legal to grow. And peyote is not legal to grow unless you’re a Native American.

kara swisher

You had a hard time interviewing a lot of Native — they didn’t want to talk to you about it.

michael pollan

They’re very protective of the ceremony. They’re aware of the psychedelic renaissance, and they think some of these companies coming into the psychedelic space are going to eventually train their attention on peyote or mescaline and that this will be taken away from them. I interviewed Steve Benally, who’s a Navajo roadman, who leads ceremonies. He said, you know, there’s a long tradition of discoverers coming here to discover what we do and how we do it. And that has not worked out well for us. Implicit in that, I was one of these discoverers. It took me aback because we always think our own intentions are so pure. But I could see it from their point of view.

kara swisher

Right. You decided not to take peyote but used both San Pedro and then also a synthesized mescaline. And you enjoyed it. You said there was “a sufficiency of reality,” which I love that idea is that basically you stared at everything.

michael pollan

[LAUGHS]

kara swisher

And you wrote, “there is enough here to see, to understand, to experience —”

michael pollan

You’re trivializing my staring, Kara. It was profound.

kara swisher

[LAUGHS] I once used to stare in the mirror and seek myself out. I’ve done that. But you talked about- – this is what you call “unending observance” versus mushrooms and LSD, which is magical thinking. Talk about the difference.

michael pollan

Yeah, no, I mean, in high doses, LSD and psilocybin take you to other worlds. You leave the known universe. That’s not true with mescaline. Mescaline immerses you in the here and now more deeply than you have ever been immersed before. In normal times, your consciousness is limiting the amount of information you’re getting. But there’s a lot more out there. And on mescaline, you feel like it’s all flooding in. And there was a period where it was overwhelming, that it was just too much reality. It was frightening. But for most of it, it was just kind of riveting. One of the qualities of psychedelics is whatever insights you have, they feel more like revealed truths than anything else. And that’s why people who have psychedelic experience can be so annoying to other people because they have this absolute certainty that they have found something profound, that love —

kara swisher

The wave.

michael pollan

— that love is the most important thing in the universe. But guess what. It is.

kara swisher

It is. It’s just if you’re not taking drugs, and you’re with someone who’s taking drugs —

michael pollan

Yeah, I know.

kara swisher

— you’re like, and remove yourself from my place. So is this a kind of roadmap reframing the way we think about other drugs, I mean the way the Native American church uses it? Again, you discuss cultural appropriation. But does it means something different for you to do these drugs and write about it than these groups?

michael pollan

So look, the native ceremonies are not our ceremonies. And we’re going to have to create our own ceremonies. And I think we’re in the process of doing that. We have this medical model, where two therapists sit with you during a psychedelic experience, and they help you interpret it. But there are other models yet to be invented. I think the challenge for all of us is to devise the proper cultural containers for drugs. And they’re going to be different for different people. And they’re going to be different for different drugs. And that’s as it should be. I mean, one of the mistakes of the drug war was to lump all illicit drugs together. They’re more different than alike. Psychedelics are completely different than the opiates. For one thing, they’re not addictive. They’re not toxic. But they have very specific psychological risks that you have to deal with. So I think one of the challenges of the next few years is negotiating the drug peace that follows the drug war.

kara swisher

So what is drug peace to you? Oregon decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs, and you see marijuana decriminalization all over the country, obviously.

michael pollan

It’s the first step. It’s only the first step. It’s going to be a lot more complicated than simply decriminalizing or legalizing drugs.

kara swisher

So you’re saying this is a drug peace we’re moving into, and you write the drug war is fading and the end appears in sight. But there are more than a million people being arrested each year for drug crimes. What has to happen to make that stop?

michael pollan

Well, I think we have to look at what’s happening in Oregon for starters. The voters of Oregon, not the leaders of Oregon, voted to decriminalize all drugs and specifically voted to legalize psilocybin therapy for anyone who wants it, not just people who are mentally ill. And it obliges the government of Oregon to set up a program to train and certify guides, psychedelic guides, and license growers of magic mushrooms. It’s an incredible idea. And this obviously usurps power normally reserved to the federal government and the FDA. But will they stop this? If they don’t, it’s going to happen within two years. And we will have this amazing experiment in legalizing a psychedelic. And then in terms of decriminalizing all drugs, what are they going to do with heroin addicts? Well, they’re going to move them into treatment. Is that going to work?

kara swisher

Rather than jailing everybody.

michael pollan

Yes, jailing is not working. I mean, everything we’ve done in the drug war has essentially failed. I mean, it’s failed to stem drug use. It’s failed to discourage it. And it’s had all this collateral damage. So it’s time to try other things. What will work? I don’t know. I think we’re going to have to try different things with different drugs. What we’re doing with cannabis, we’re kind of feeling our way. Now you can get cannabis in, what, 18 different states. And it’s promoted heavily. And I’m not sure that commercial model is right for psychedelics. I think it’s a much more powerful and consequential experience. So I think we’re going to have to figure out another way to do that. I’m really reluctant to see psychedelics commercialized.

kara swisher

Some people think you’re too conservative, by the way, on that.

michael pollan

Yes, I know. I know. And that’s fine. I can live with it. I mean — and in fact, I have moved in my — as time has gone on and I see that how we use these drugs. But I think that we need to give a lot of thought to especially when you talk about the opiates. If we’re going to decriminalize the opiates, how do we deal with that? How do we treat people who have addiction? How do we prevent addiction from happening? And our understanding of addiction is really primitive. So we have a lot of work to do.

kara swisher

So where does it start? Does it start in research? Medical, that’s how marijuana moved into the mainstream. It was a medical usage.

michael pollan

Yeah, although the interesting thing is that the science around the health benefits of cannabis was mostly anecdotal, whereas with psilocybin and MDMA, there’s a lot of very solid research suggesting that these have a place in treatment. So I think it’s partly going to be a question of research, and it’s partly going to be a messy process of trial and error.

kara swisher

So can you give us an update on that research? You have a lot of tech people funding some of this stuff. There’s a lot of research happening. Where do you think it goes?

michael pollan

Yeah, so there have now been phase II and increasingly, phase III studies. MDMA, or Ecstasy, a phase III study was recently released that was incredibly promising in terms of treating PTSD. That’s remarkable. We have nothing like that for PTSD. So it appears that MDMA will be the first of this class of drugs to be approved by the FDA. And that should happen within the next two years. Meanwhile, the research on psilocybin is also panning out. There’s been studies of depression and a great many more coming. There’s a bunch of companies who have gotten into this space. No one knows quite how they’ll make money because it’s a drug you’re going to take twice in your life probably.

kara swisher

Yeah, no, you need a drug that doesn’t cure you.

michael pollan

Exactly. You need to a drug that keeps you mildly improved for a long time.

kara swisher

Caffeine!

michael pollan

Yes, caffeine works. So it’s going to be a challenge to fold it into the system we have. But the research is very encouraging.

kara swisher

Do you think Americans could be able to go to church and have a ritualized psychedelic experience to — I mean, there’s never been a time we’ve been more apart, right? And these are supposed to bring people together.

michael pollan

In many ways, psychedelics is just what the doctor ordered for our screwed up civilization, I mean, in terms of fostering connection between people, making people feel more part of nature. But I have to be a little skeptical that this will happen on a massive scale. This is what individuals report. But the kinds of individuals who take psychedelics are already inclined in that direction. The research we need to do — and I’m hoping we can do it. We have a new psychedelic research center at Berkeley that I’m involved with. We want to research enduring changes in people’s attitudes after psychedelics. But you have to work with conservatives too. You have to take coal mining lobbyists and executives and see whether they feel more connected to nature after they have the experience, not just liberals and leftists. So the jury’s out on whether you can actually heal a culture with a drug. Yes, I do think you will be able to go to a church at some point and have a psychedelic experience. Already, there are three churches in America where that’s legal, two ayahuasca churches and the Native American church. But right now, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, new churches using psychedelics as sacraments are forming. And this Supreme Court has been so generous in granting religious exemptions to federal laws that I think this is going to be an exploding cigar in the face of Sam Alito when the Church of Lysergic Acid ends up at the Supreme Court. I can’t wait to see what he does.

kara swisher

He’ll be the first to sign up. [MUSIC PLAYING]

We’ll be back in a minute.

If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Jane Goodall. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Michael Pollan after the break.

I just want to ask you about food sustainability. So in some of your early bestsellers like Omnivore’s Dilemma, you advocate a more plant-based way of eating, more locavore, more sustainable. So after this pandemic, what is your report card now on where we’re compared to then?

michael pollan

Yeah, so the pandemic had a very interesting effect on the food system. It fell apart for a while, as most of us know. And it has adjusted. And they’ve figured out a way to take that industrial supply chain that’s feeding institutions and restaurants, and repurposed it, and brought it into the supermarkets. The system did adapt. It took a couple of months. In general, though, local food, CSAs, farmers markets have thrived during the pandemic. People have been home more. They’ve been cooking more. Whether this will be a lasting change, I don’t. know. Some people learned to cook who had never cooked before and were forced to cook during the pandemic. Will they use these skills going forward or be happy to give them up? I don’t know the answer to that. So the food system, there is an alternative food system that has been growing by leaps and bounds if you combine —

kara swisher

Decentralized. Local.

michael pollan

Yes, decentralized, local, organic. That’s growing quickly, but it’s still not the mainstream food system. You do have changes coming, I think. There is a real strong effort to bring antitrust law to bear on the food industry.

kara swisher

Finally.

michael pollan

Yes.

kara swisher

Which was used to make them bigger. Correct?

michael pollan

Exactly, when efficiency was everything that mattered, we would allow companies to combine as long as consumer prices didn’t go up. But that was not the idea of antitrust. The idea of antitrust was to keep powerful entities from dominating our political culture. And that’s certainly happened in the food industry. And Biden’s hires, I know some of them are really good and intent on breaking up some of these big food monopolies.

kara swisher

The focus is on tech, but food is right in there.

michael pollan

Food is right in there, and it’s really important.

kara swisher

So the links also between food and Covid comorbidities is really clear. The underlying conditions happen to be the predictors of Covid-19. You wrote, “49% of the people hospitalized with Covid-19 had pre-existing hypertension. 48% were obese. 28% had diabetes.”

michael pollan

Diabetes, yeah. I don’t know why we don’t talk about that more. So yeah, the predictors of a Covid death, a death from Covid, are essentially bad diet and an inflamed body. It’s all about inflammation. And Covid appears to send your immune system into this hyperdrive. And if you are already inflamed by a Western diet — and that is what this diet does to us, a diet of lots of processed food, lots of meat, lots of sugar — it screws with your microbiome and leaves your body inflamed. But we don’t talk about diet in general and the role it plays in our health. It’s the main thing. If you want to predict someone’s likelihood of cancer, cardiovascular disease, look at their diet.

kara swisher

And COVID.

michael pollan

And COVID. The standard American diet kills us slowly in normal times and quickly in COVID times. And that’s basically what’s happening.

kara swisher

So where’s your report card now?

michael pollan

We’re still eating a crummy diet. I’m encouraged by the fact that there is a real renaissance in food science, food technology around meat replacements, which I think have enormous value from an environmental point of view, and in many cases, from a health point of view. And it’s been really interesting to watch the dairy industry take a hit from synthetic milks. It’s like 13% of the market now. And that happened really fast. This could happen to meat also. And so there are signs that the diet is changing. I don’t want to get too far ahead there. I mean, changing habits in adults is very difficult. It’s one of the things psychedelics are good for is changing habits in adults.

kara swisher

If we take a psychedelic, we’ll eat more vegetables. “Mostly plants, not too much.”

michael pollan

Right. So anyway, we have a long way to go with food. I mean, this industry is so powerful and does such a good job of putting very tempting, cheap things in front of us. And healthy food costs more. And we can’t get around that. And in order to make it possible for people to eat healthy food, we’re going to have to raise wages because we’re not going to make farmers bear the brunt of this. We’re not going to make the food any cheaper. And we have to make it more affordable. And we have to do that on the wage side, not the cost side.

kara swisher

Let me ask you one last question. What is the drug plant that you think are focusing on next that everyone’s using now? Mine is, of course, Twitter. The New York Times called you, “ever the lotus eater,” which I love that expression towards you. What is the new thing? What is the thing you are focused in on now?

michael pollan

Well, I do think that the scientists should look at mescaline, synthetic mescaline, in that I think it combines some of the qualities of the psychedelic with that of MDMA. And so it allows you to talk and be very present to other people as well. So it strikes me, from my one experience on it, that it might be useful in a group context, group therapy, in that people could be present, hold a conversation. It’s no accident that it’s used in a group setting by Native Americans. So it is 12 to 14 hours. And I think that’s going to be a challenge for researchers. So what if we could take mescaline and tweak it in such a way that it only lasted four hours or six hours? That might be a really valuable contribution. And somebody could get their beloved IP on it too.

kara swisher

That’s true. That’s fair. Do you think that is where we are going?

michael pollan

Well, psychedelics are moving faster than food, much faster. I mean, what has happened since 2018 when “How to Change Your Mind” came out, I never would have guessed. I thought we were 10 years away from anything happening. In that time since, though, I mean, you think of the universities — Yale, Berkeley, Hopkins — all starting psychedelic research centers. This was the kiss of death for graduate students and academics. And it’s not. It’s a totally respectable area of research. What that means is some very good minds and some capital are going to be brought together around psychedelic research. And that is going to produce change much more quickly than we’ve seen in food.

kara swisher

Excellent. Well, when the techies don’t want to die, they’ll move on to food. Just wait.

michael pollan

[LAUGHS]

kara swisher

Thank you, internet. You’ve done one thing good. Michael, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much.

michael pollan

Thank you. Always a pleasure to talk to you, Kara. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

Sway is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schnick, Caitlin O’Keefe, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen. Edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Isaac Jones, Sonia Herrero, and Carole Sabouraud. Fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristin Lin, and Liriel Higa. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you along with a membership in the Church of Starbucks, download any podcast app and search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.



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