Psychedelics

Psychonautical Journalist Michael Pollan Is Finally Ready To End the War on Drugs

The evolution of Pollan's thinking reflects the confusion caused by arbitrary pharmacological distinctions.

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Journalist Michael Pollan, author of the 2018 psychedelic history/memoir How To Change Your Mind, seems to have changed his own mind about the best way to address America's unjust and irrational drug laws. The evolution of Pollan's thinking illustrates the arbitrariness of the categories that Americans use to classify intoxicants and the confusion it causes even for well-meaning and thoughtful observers who are sympathetic to drug policy reform.

In a 2019 New York Times opinion piece, Pollan expressed concern about using ballot initiatives to decriminalize or legalize psychedelics, suggesting that we should rely on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to decide who may use which psychoactive substances under what circumstances. "Psilocybin has a lot of potential as medicine," the subhead said, "but we don't know enough about it yet to legalize it."

In a New York Times essay posted this morning, Pollan, whose new book on psychoactive plants was published this week, acknowledges the limitations of treating psilocybin and other psychedelics as medicines and welcomes the success of the ballot initiatives that initially worried him. He also extends his critique of the war on drugs to "hard ones like heroin and cocaine."

There are two main problems with relying on the FDA to decide how drugs should be treated. First, approval of a new medicine takes years and requires spending millions of dollars on clinical studies. Second, the agency's mission is limited to assessing the safety and efficacy of drugs that are presented as a treatment for a recognized medical or psychiatric condition.

The war on weed continued after the FDA approved synthetic THC as a treatment for the side effects of cancer chemotherapy in 1985, after it added AIDS wasting syndrome as a recognized indication in 1992, and after it approved the first federally sanctioned cannabis-derived medicine as a treatment for two rare kinds of epilepsy in 2018. The war on psychedelics likewise will continue after the FDA approves MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or psilocybin as a treatment for severe depression. FDA approval means only that patients who have the requisite diagnosis and prescription can legally use substances that are otherwise forbidden. Every other user is still treated as a criminal.

Another "path to normalization" that Pollan discusses is religious exemptions. "Since 1994," he says, "the Native American Church, now with an estimated 250,000 members, has had the constitutional right to use peyote as a sacrament." Pollan is wrong about both the origin and the nature of that exception, and the history of this issue shows that pharmacological freedom for members of one religious group does not necessarily imply a similar tolerance for other sects, let alone Americans generally.

The ceremonial use of peyote by members of the Native American Church has been protected by federal regulation since 1965. That exception was codified in 1994 by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which said "the use, possession, or transportation of peyote by an Indian for bona fide traditional ceremonial purposes in connection with the practice of a traditional Indian religion is lawful, and shall not be prohibited by the United States or any State." Far from establishing a "constitutional right," that law was a response to a Supreme Court decision that said there was no such right.

In the 1990 case Employment Division v. Smith, the Court upheld the denial of unemployment benefits for two drug counselors who had been fired for violating Oregon's drug laws by using peyote in Native American Church ceremonies. Departing from precedent, the justices said the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause does not require exemptions from neutral, generally applicable laws that impinge on religious conduct. Congress reacted by passing both the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and a broader statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which revived the test that the Court had rejected. Under RFRA, the government may not "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless it is using "the least restrictive means" to pursue a "compelling government interest."

In 2006, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that RFRA protected the ceremonial use of ayahuasca by the religious sect Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal. Eight years later, the Court ruled that RFRA also protected business owners who for religious reasons objected to a federal mandate requiring them to provide their employees with medical insurance that covered 20 specified kinds of contraception. Citing both of those cases, Pollan suggests "this Supreme Court's expansive jurisprudence on religious freedom has created a wide opening through which a parade of new psychedelic churches may be able to march."

Given the skepticism with which federal courts have greeted such claims, I have my doubts. More to the point, RFRA protection is available only to psychedelic users who belong to organized religious groups that describe a particular drug as central to their rituals. What about the rest of us?

Pollan, who in 2019 expressed trepidation about the psilocybin initiative that Oregon voters approved last year, is now more sanguine about that measure, which gave the Oregon Health Authority two years to write rules for licensing and regulating "psilocybin service centers" where adults 21 or older can legally take the drug under the supervision of a "facilitator" after completing a "preparation session." The initiative specifies that regulators "may not require a client to be diagnosed with or have any particular medical condition as a condition to being provided psilocybin services."

Pollan describes this newly permitted drug use as "psilocybin therapy," a hangover from his earlier focus on psychedelics as officially approved medicines. But the significance of Oregon's initiative lies in its departure from the FDA's approach, which allows drug use only by prescription for treatment of a "particular medical condition."

Oregon nevertheless will restrict psilocybin use to licensed, supervised settings, which reassures Pollan. Building on the Oregon model, he imagines "spa-like retreat centers" that would cater to "Americans who want to use psychedelics in a more secular setting." He suggests those services would include a psychiatric screening, administration of psychedelics by "a doctor or nurse practitioner," and supervision by "trained facilitators."

In terms of liberalizing the legal treatment of psychedelics, that is about as far as Pollan seems willing to go. "The prospect of magic mushrooms being commercialized like cannabis—advertised on billboards and sold next to THC gummy bears in dispensaries—should fill us with trepidation," he says. "Microdoses perhaps, but a macrodose of psilocybin is a powerful, consequential and risky experience that demands careful preparation and an experienced sitter or guide."

Keep in mind that Pollan himself has used a wide range of psychedelics, experiences that he describes in How To Change Your Mind. He did that without joining a church, getting permission from a doctor, or visiting a government-licensed "retreat center." And while he says there should be some allowance for "healthy people without a psychiatric diagnosis who want to use psychedelics for therapy, self-discovery or spiritual development," where does that leave people who use psychedelics out of curiosity or just for fun?

Pollan's insistence that would-be psychedelic users demonstrate a serious purpose and comply with regulations that he never followed reflects a disdain for psychonauts who have not written bestselling books about their adventures. While he can be trusted to take appropriate precautions, he thinks, the rest of us need to be constrained by legal rules.

To his credit, however, Pollan has begun to overcome the "psychedelic exceptionalism" that irritates Columbia psychologist Carl Hart, author of Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear. Hart, a temperate heroin user, decries the bigotry of people who see nothing wrong with marijuana or psychedelic use but look down on drug consumers with different pharmacological tastes.

"This is uncomfortable territory, partly because few Americans regard pleasure as a legitimate reason to take drugs and partly because the drug war (with its supporters in academia and the media) has produced such a dense fog of misinformation, especially about addiction," Pollan writes. "Many people (myself included) are surprised to learn that the overwhelming majority of people who take hard drugs do so without becoming addicted. We think of addictiveness as a property of certain chemicals and addiction as a disease that people, in effect, catch from those chemicals, but there is good reason to believe otherwise. Addiction may be less a disease than a symptom—of trauma, social disconnection, depression or economic distress."

Although addiction experts such as Stanton Peele have been making these points for half a century, they apparently were news to Pollan, despite his keen interest in chemically assisted mind alteration. In support of the observation that drugs do not cause addiction, Pollan cites the "Rat Park" experiments that Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander conducted in the late 1970s, inspired by Peele's 1975 book Love and Addiction (co-authored by Archie Brodsky). Pollan also mentions a classic study of veterans who used heroin in Vietnam that was published in 1974.

Better late than never. The newly enlightened Pollan endorses "harm reduction" measures such as "drug treatment, instead of incarceration," needle exchange, heroin maintenance, and decriminalizing low-level possession (as Oregon voters also did last year). He even broaches the possibility of repealing prohibition, which is where the logic of harm reduction ultimately leads—the reason the concept "terrified drug warriors," as Maia Szalavitz notes in her new history of the movement. Pollan suggests that "the uneasy peace our culture has made with alcohol may point to a way drugs like heroin and cocaine might someday be used in the post-war-on-drugs era." Indeed it might.

"The long history of humans and their mind-altering drugs gives us reason to hope we can negotiate a peace with these powerful substances, imperfect though it may be," Pollan says. "We have done it before. The ancient Greeks grasped the ambiguous, double-edged nature of drugs much better than we do. Their word for them, 'pharmakon,' means both 'medicine' and 'poison'—it all depends, they understood, on use, dose, intention, set and setting. Blessing or curse, which will it be? The answer depends not on law or chemistry so much as on culture, which is to say, on us."

Our disastrous drug control regime is built on pharmacological prejudices that cannot withstand rigorous study or careful thought. Pollan deserves credit for discarding some of his.

NEXT: More Americans Are Satisfied With Their Lives Now Than Before COVID-19, Says Gallup Survey

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  1. First, approval of a new medicine takes years and requires spending millions of dollars on clinical studies.

    Not always.

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    2. Maybe not the years, but I imagine there were a few millions invested to get those billions of windfall from the jabs that were approved.

    3. Could you give a counterexample? Even the COVID-19 vaccines do not actually have full approval and they would be an exception that proves the rule where emergency rules were put in place and risk acceptance criteria were changed and a lot more money was invested to speed up even the reduced process.
      I can’t find any data that shows approval processes that don’t last years and cost millions of dollars. If you have data that says otherwise please share. I would actually love to be incorrect in this case.
      https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2018/cost-of-clinical-trials-for-new-drug-FDA-approval-are-fraction-of-total-tab.html

  2. “This is uncomfortable territory, partly because few Americans regard pleasure as a legitimate reason to take drugs and partly because the drug war (with its supporters in academia and the media) has produced such a dense fog of misinformation, especially about addiction,” Pollan writes.

    It cannot be understated that we had an entire cultural and generational movement towards taking drugs for both pleasure and mind-expansion, and when that generation got into power, not only were drugs NOT legalized, but arguably were cracked down upon harder.

    1. The hippies were a distinct minority, depite the MSM portrayal of the era. Most boomers were very straightlaced growing up, especially out in the hinterlands

      1. The hippy movement reached its zenith with Charles Manson, and they’ve been working hard to make his vision reality

      2. my pop’s fave band was Bread lol.

        1. Where are your latest releases from Bread?

          Oldies.

          But you got all the top bands here. Styx? I just heard them on the King Biscuit Flow Hour!

          1. *King Biscuit Flower Hour

            1. sometimes I shake my head like this No No No Don’t Stop-a-Rockin!

              bong-rattling bass of Mark Farner lol

              1. The competent drum work of Don Brewer?

                1. Did you have to suck too much Mormon cock to be able to pay the rent on your little hippie parcel?

                  1. “Little hippie parcel?”

                    What makes you think I’m a hippie?

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            2. King Biscuit Flour Hour (originally)

      3. Look at the survey data on drug use for class of ’78-80 or so.

  3. JFC, it is entirely appropriate to draw disntinctioms between substances that produce a temporary pharmacological effect, and substances that permanently alter brain chemistry and physiology. To pretend otherwise is ridicous.

    There is no justkfication for our marijuana laws. In contrast, something like methamphetimine, or taken to rhe extreme, Krokodil, which permamaently alters brain function, and indeed rots flesh, there is a compelling interest in keeping ot out of widespread circulation

    1. Alcohol poisons every organ in the body and similarly ‘alters brain function,’ causing addictive changes in the brain. It kills tens of thousands of people every year – many more than most ‘hard drugs.’ Therefore, there is a compelling interest to keep it out of widespread circulation, right? Oh wait…we tried that with the XVIII Amendment! From a medical standpoint, it’s stupid, but people still drink.

      In the case of Krokodil – whose use is unheard of in America – the ‘rotting flesh’ problems are not caused by the drug Desomorphine, itself. They are caused by impurities resulting from manufacture using hardware store chemicals in Pavel’s filthy kitchen sink. The same is true of illicit methamphetamine and most other black market drugs. Unknown purity, dosage, etc. are problems directly arising from Prohibition.

      Cannabis is a C-I drug, meaning it’s more restricted than methamphetamine and fentanyl! Along with other powerful amphetamines, methamphetamine is (rarely) prescribed in the US for refractory ADHD and refractory obesity.

      The long and short of it is that, if we are basing policy on death statistics, our drug laws are either totally insane and counterproductive, or working as intended to give the federal government arguably unconstitutional powers.

      1. If other opioids such as heroin, oxycodone, and fentanyl were not so restricted, no one would want Krokodil. Apparently the reason home-made Krokodil became popular in the former Soviet block and not the rest of the world is that it’s made from codeine via a comparatively simple reaction, and pure-enough forms of codeine were available without prescription only in the Soviet block. And of course, the reason it eats the flesh is that street chemists use any available powerful solvent and don’t do well at purifying their product. This is all a result of drug Prohibition.

        Methamphetamine is available at many pharmacies by prescription, and one of it’s recognized uses is to treat kids with severe ADHD if Ritalin and dextroamphetamine don’t work. (It apparently helps in cramming for an exam whether or not you have ADHD, but those kids I knew in college that got through courses with “speed” didn’t remember anything from them when needed for higher-level courses.) Prescription meth is dangerous if over-used, but it doesn’t make your teeth fall out. Street methamphetamine is far more dangerous than the prescription drug because it’s impure because it’s made by criminals and addicts – a result of drug Prohibition, just like Krokodil.

    2. If dope weren’t illegal no one would do “krokodil.” They’d just do dope. Same is true for fentanyl. It’s so prevalent because it’s synthetic and cheap to produce. If dope were legal most addicts would just do that and not other opioids.

  4. did you see the size of that chicken?

    1. Siv takes note.

  5. Fuck him for thinking the FDA should have anything to do with it in the first place.

    1. What else do you expect from a progressive liberal?

  6. we should rely on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to decide who may use which psychoactive substances under what circumstances

    Pollan will remain an enemy of freedom for as long as he lives no matter how much he “evolves”. He should have stuck to evangelizing to vegans that it is moral to eat animals so long as you kill them yourself,

  7. I like his work. He also has a book coming out. Hmm.

    1. That’s not very funny

      1. You sucking too much Mormon cock just so you can pay the rent on your hippie parcel isn’t funny.

        1. You should check your sources because neither of those are true

  8. And while he says there should be some allowance for “healthy people without a psychiatric diagnosis who want to use psychedelics for therapy, self-discovery or spiritual development,” where does that leave people who use psychedelics out of curiosity or just for fun?

    Practically speaking, aren’t those the same people? So you call the curiosity or fun therapy, self-discovery, or spiritual development. The main thing is you don’t need special permission.

  9. End the drug war now. Expunge criminal records of users. Pay reparations to people tried, fined, imprisoned, otherwise harmed by the laws and their enforcement.

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