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How opium, caffeine and mescaline shaped the world – and got us hooked

A farmer works an illegal poppy field in Myanmar

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This is Your Mind on Plants: Opium, caffeine, mescaline
Michael Pollen
Allen Lane

TRY to think of an area where plants haven’t benefited us and you will probably come up short. But as well as providing us with food, medicine and textiles, they are a source of psychoactive drugs. These mind-bending, state-altering substances lurk in plants everywhere. For millennia, they have been at work on the human mind, behaviour and lifestyle.

Even so, we have only begun to understand how this relationship shaped our history, says journalist Michael Pollan in This is Your Mind on Plants. In a narrative that is part memoir, part reportage, he probes this complex relationship, and how and why such plants have become embedded in our lives.

Pollan examines the sedative morphine, found in the opium poppy; the stimulant caffeine, found in tea and coffee; and the hallucinogen mescaline, found in certain varieties of cacti. All three are bitter-tasting alkaloids, evolved by plants as a form of defence. But, as Pollan makes clear, they have become important parts of human culture.

The book’s first section, about opium, is told mainly through Pollan’s eyes and is based on an article he wrote in 1997, when the US war on drugs was at its peak. Pollan describes how he tried growing opium poppies after coming across the book Opium for the Masses by Jim Hogshire, which told people how to extract opium from poppies at home.

What follows is a turbulent journey into the legal, if murky, world of opium at the time. Buying poppy seeds and growing the plants is allowed, Pollan finds, but beyond that the rules become more opaque. He does succeed in cultivating (and sampling) his homemade version of the drug.

Of Pollan’s trio, caffeine is the most widely used substance, with about 80 per cent of the world’s population consuming it. Many become hooked on its ability to keep us alert – Pollan included.

To probe the effects of caffeine on mind and body, he decides to stop drinking it temporarily, while he explores the rich and often shocking history of coffee and tea. Their energising influences have fuelled advancements in learning and thought, while huge demand from consumers led to an increase in the transatlantic slave trade, for example, with coffee growers in Brazil bringing enslaved people from Africa to their plantations.

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Coffee has a rich and often shocking history

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Caffeine is what Pollan calls “one of the cleverest evolutionary strategies ever chanced upon by a plant”. Thanks to the global dependence on coffee and tea, “these two have also assisted in the construction of precisely the kind of civilization in which they could best thrive”, he writes.

The final section is on mescaline, a consciousness-altering psychedelic contained in the seeds of cacti including the peyote and San Pedro cactus. It largely focuses on the religious, spiritual and cultural importance of the drug to Indigenous people in the Americas.

Mescaline has been used by these groups for more than 6000 years, making it the oldest known psychedelic, and its effects are recounted through Pollan’s experiences with it, as well as its use in traditional ceremonies.

In that sense, This is Your Mind on Plants delivers on its title more through the anecdotes and self-experimentation of Pollan and others than by providing hard facts. The book points to the far-reaching impact (and sometimes domination) of plant drugs on human history, culture and thinking, and Pollan seems to have become an advocate for the personal use of drugs derived from plants. As he writes: “I’ve come to appreciate that when we take these plants into our bodies and let them change our minds, we are engaging with nature in one of the most profound ways possible.”

“Coffee and tea plants have assisted in the construction of the kind of civilization in which they best thrive”

Ultimately, while his book is thoroughly researched, it may not satisfy those looking for the precise scientific detail of exactly what it is they do to our minds.

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