Against Michael Pollan and The Psychedelic Renaissance


The other day I listened to NPR's Terry Gross interview Michal Pollan, author of the recently published How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. The book marks another chapter in what has been dubbed the “psychedelic renaissance"—the resurge of interest in hallucinogens and their effects. 

I’d like to say I’m excited about the book, but I’d be lying. Pollan appears to be another company man promoting and profiting from this so-called new research that shows psychedelics produce all kinds of psychological benefits. Who knew??

Timothy Leary, Owsley Stanley, Nicholas Sand, and Tim Scully knew—and they were jailed for their knowledge while the feds busily swept MKUltra[1] under the rug. The Grateful Dead knew. Ken Kesey knew. Vietnam vets knew. The hippies knew, and they were castigated, arrested, choked out with tear gas, even shot.

Now the intellectual class, with a curtsy from the FDA, would convince us psychedelics can cure addiction, assuage depression, help the terminally ill accept impending death, and deliver the rest of us from existential bondage. Just look at Pollan’s book title. It reads like a BuzzFeed headline that’s been split tested for maximum clickage.[2]

In the interview with Gross, Pollan gives no credit to the psychonauts who pioneered what he is now peddling as scientifically-tested medicine for the new age. There is a brief mention of Albert Hoffman, the man who first synthesized LSD and tested it with a thumbprint dose,[3] and Bill Wilson, cofounder of AA who found his higher power and sobriety after an illuminating LSD trip, but the counterculturists who have done more to raise the collective consciousness than the FDA, DEA, DOJ, and DARE combined are all but ignored. In fact, they’re belittled. Their actions, Gross and Pollan suggest, spawned the moral panic which led authorities to snuff them out and schedule psychedelic compounds as Class I drugs.

Pollan says that in researching the book he took LSD, psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT, which is imbibed by smoking the venom from the Sonoran desert toad. These experiences, he says, comprised his initiation into psychedelia. Now he is advocating for further research of hallucinogens and, if approved by the FDA, regulated dispensing by doctors.

I spent my youth dropping LSD in spite of the urban legends that said doing so would cause me to strip and run head on into traffic, jump out a third-story window, or go permanently insane. I also discovered through my use of mind-altering substances that most of what I'd been taught about psychedelics was utter bullshit. In fact, my experiences with psychedelics have been much like Pollan's—beautiful, profound, ineffable, and transformative, albeit sometimes nightmarish. On that much we agree. Psychedelics have also supported my own recovery from addiction, and I regard them as an essential and sacred human rite of passage. But Pollan's advocacy is anticlimactic, even disingenuous, for it reinforces and legitimizes the powers that brainwashed a nation and oppressed the freethinkers who cried for a recall of the warmongering, pillaging, gluttonous, American way.

So here's what I'd say to Pollan: You can’t have had a true psychedelic experience if afterward you advocate that psychedelics ought to be dispensed by medical personnel, manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, and controlled by the federal government.

Aside from the legal status, there's the monetary component. Already psychedelics are being positioned as a panacea. The BBC, Huffington Post, NPR, The Independent, and The New York Times have covered the resurgence of psychedelics, citing stories of saved marriages, nixed depression, recovery from addiction, and end-of-life contentment. Silicon Valley execs have been gobbling LSD in tiny daily doses—called microdosing—in hopes of upping divergent thinking and increasing productivity. In fact, the so-called renaissance seems to hinge on psychedelics as a maintenance medicine. And regular dosing means regular profits.

The other day I ran into an old friend. "Hi, Ryan! Oh my gosh, how are you?" she said. "I'm trying to find mushrooms. Do you like mushrooms? I like mushrooms. I mean, not eating large amounts, but, you know, like, taking a microdose each day—to be more creative and present. I'm all out. I've been doing it for a month now."

"Is it working?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said.

Gone is the ritual, the reverence, the respect. Gluttony wins again. Pollan's book, I suspect, will feed the insatiability.

Other drugs that have been positioned as panaceas in America include Adderall, Oxycontin, Valium, and Prozac. Remember Fen-Phen, the dietary wonder pill? Or recall that in 1898 Bayer dubbed their new opiate derivative "heroin," an over-the-counter cure-all, to connote this idea: the hero.

Of course, the psychonauts who were jailed and lambasted for their "turn on, tune in, drop out" mantra thought LSD could save the world. The difference, however, is they never sought approval from the techno-corporatocracy to descend the rabbit hole. The idea wouldn't have occurred. Such was anathema to them.

Why the need for regulation, anyway? It's not because psychedelics are physically harmful. Research shows that a person would have to eat several pounds of peyote or mushrooms, a physical impossibility, to achieve toxicity. There are no documented deaths related to LSD toxicity. And psychologically? Do you want power-hungry money-grubbers, or anyone for that matter, dictating what you can and can't do with your own mind?

That's the crux here. This isn't about being able to take psychedelics—we take them all the time—it's about who determines who has the right to take them. What does it say about us when we can be conditioned to mistrust and jail bearded men in flares who want to raise their own consciousness, then reconditioned to trust Ivy League professors and scientists and Silicon Valley billionaires who want to turn psychedelics into an industry that promises to fix our broken asses? Call me a cynic.

Perhaps the hoop-jumping scientists and intellectuals are clandestinely moving for broad legalization of psychedelics, to follow the model of marijuana's continually evolving legal status. On the surface this sounds super. But this yet reinforces obedience to an illegitimate force. To play ball, you must play on the established court. The counterculturists of yesteryear, conversely, sought to relocate where and how the game is played.

Michael Pollan ought to drop a few more tabs of acid. Psychedelics have ever been related to divergent thinking, which might be why governments have sought to control them, even harness them as warfare. As it stands now, Pollan's advocacy, dressed up as brave and innovative insight, is little more than genuflection to the powers that be, positioning Pollan's mouth, metaphorically speaking, about waist-high. No wonder the research is FDA approved.


Edit: Since writing this piece I’ve had time to reflect on why I reacted to Pollan’s position. And I’ve come up with two ideas.

First, it offends me, as embarrassing as that is to admit, hurts even, or did briefly anyway. I don’t know what else to call it other than a sense of cultural appropriation. Psychedelics have held a specific meaning for decades, supported by a specific cultural context. Now that the context is changing, so too is the meaning. And because I identify with the vintage meaning, the new is difficult to accept.

I say this despite recognizing that the context by which I embraced psychedelics was appropriated—appropriated from the early hippies, which they perhaps appropriated from native and indigenous peoples. But I can get past the appropriation, and have since thinking on it. Alas, ever does the real get popularized, commoditized, and sold, made less real.

Secondly, since posting this rant I’ve had a chance to glance at Pollan’s book, though I only had the chance to read the inside cover, which states: “Pollan sifts the historical record to separate the truth about these mysterious drugs from the myths that have surrounded them since the 1960s, when a handful of psychedelic evangelists inadvertently catalyzed a powerful backlash against what was then a promising field of research.”

“Inadvertently catalyzed” is the troubling doublespeak there—the bullshit. What I sensed in Pollan’s interview—and what the intro in his dust jacket suggests—is that Pollan is not going to hold accountable the people who stomped the first psychedelic renaissance, namely authorities. It smells of kowtowing to me. “Mistakes were made,” he seems to be saying. Made by whom?

That's what I was getting at above. It reminds me of how the LDS Church treats its history of blacks and the priesthood: no admission of wrongdoing. But Pollan is precisely in the position to point out what went wrong in the ’60s—and it wasn’t that hippies “inadvertently catalyzed a powerful backlash.” It was that politicians and cops unleashed brutality out of fear and ignorance. That’s part of the equation, anyway. Pollan seems unwilling to honestly report that, so his so-called advocacy stinks. There's a foul, stale air wafting from the airwaves that carry his voice, his book tour, his self-promotion.

  1. The CIA mind-control program that involved giving LSD to military personnel without knowledge or consent.
  2. Split testing is the process of running an article with various headlines to small audiences to see which headline yields the best clickthrough rate, then publishing the article in full under the best performing headline.
  3. A dose based on sticking one's thumb into pure LSD powder and licking it off, an amount equivalent to hundreds of doses, or several milligrams of pure LSD (1). Usually taken accidentally by chemists.