Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan), author of eight books, including How to Change Your Mind, Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire, all of which were New York Times bestsellers. A longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Pollan teaches writing at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. His newest book is This Is Your Mind on Plants.
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. And my guest today is one of my favorite guests, Michael Pollan. You know him on Twitter at Michael Pollan, P-O-L-L-A-N. He is the author of eight books, including How to Change Your Mind, which has changed many minds, indeed. Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire, all of which were New York Times bestsellers.
A long-time contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Pollan teaches writing at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. His newest book is This Is Your Mind On Plants. You can find him at michaelpollan.com, on Twitter and Instagram @MichaelPollan, @Michael.Pollan, respectively. Michael, welcome back to the show.
Michael Pollan: Thank you, Tim. Good to be back.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would begin in the beginning. Go back to the archives. And I came across something titled My Two Gardens. And I would like to ask you about your first garden, or childhood garden, since that will be, I think, a great launching point for many, many topics in our conversation.
Michael Pollan: Yeah. Well, gardening is really the germ of all my work. It’s funny, the piece you’re alluding to appeared in Forbes, but it was an adaptation from my first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. And this came out in ’91. And it was really the story of my learning how to garden, which was also the story of my learning how to think about nature, and my engagement with the natural world.
I gardened as a little kid. I had a garden when I was eight years old. I called it a farm, and it was right along the edge of my parents’ suburban tract house on Long Island. And I had a kid across the street who would do the heavy labor for me. He was always happy to do what I told him to do. And I would do the planting. And if I could grow two or three strawberries, I’d put them in a Dixie Cup and sell them to my mother. So it was a business, too.
But my love of gardening came from my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, who was a Russian immigrant who had come here to escape conscription, basically, in Czarist Russia. He came in 1917. He started out selling potatoes from a horse-drawn cart on Long Island, and gradually got into the produce business, and became a wholesaler. And then started buying farms, the farms of the farmers he knew who wanted to get out of the business on Long Island. Turned those into shopping centers. It was a classic story. But he never lost his love of produce. He grew in his garden, it was huge. There were just two of them, and they grew enough to have a farm stand.
And I loved working in his garden, and I loved harvesting more than anything. And I didn’t have much in common with him except this. In fact, we didn’t get along that well through the teenage years. He thought I was too much of a hippie, and my hair was too long. And he really was kind of a right-wing guy. But in the garden, we really connected.
And that experience of growing something, and then actually creating something of value that you could eat, or sell, in my case, to my mother, was just so gratifying. And there began my love of plants. And so this first book was an attempt to look at what I was learning in the garden. And I was making a lot of mistakes. I got into a war with a woodchuck. And in fact, that was the first essay I wrote about.
This woodchuck, I’d planted my seedlings one spring. We bought a house in Cornwall, Connecticut when I was 30, I guess, and I started gardening on the weekends there. And every time I planted, this woodchuck would emerge from his burrow and wipe out everything I’d planted. So I went to war. I found his burrow. I did a lot of research. I found that they’re actually, even though they look like slobs if you’ve ever seen a woodchuck, or a groundhog, same thing, they’re fat, and they can barely see. And they kind of toodle around with their belly scraping the ground.
But they’re clean. They’re obsessed about cleanliness. And so I poured molasses and creosote down their hole, because I found the hole, thinking that they would be disgusted and move away. But they just dug a new hole right next to it. And I escalated this war.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds just like Caddyshack.
Michael Pollan: It was lot like Caddyshack. When that movie came out, I identified completely with Bill Murray. But I got into this escalating series of steps. I got angrier and angrier that here I was, the more evolved creature with the bigger brain, being thwarted by this idiotic rodent. I don’t know if they’re rodents, but I thought it was a rodent. So it was my horticultural Vietnam basically. I kept getting in deeper and deeper and deeper.
At one point I was driving along the road nearby and I found a flattened woodchuck on the side of the street, and I had an idea. I got a piece of cardboard and I scooped the roadkill onto the cardboard, brought it home, shoved it into the hole, thinking this would send a message. You know, it was kind of like Don Corleone with the horse’s head in The Godfather. Didn’t work.
I was finally reduced to pouring half a gallon of gasoline down the burrow and lighting a match, and throwing that in there. I poured the gasoline down. I know, people think of me as an environmentalist writer. And I just gave some time for the gasoline to go through all the different rooms. I had an image in my head because they have all these different rooms. They have a latrine. They have a food room. They have these elaborate burrows. And then I threw a match.
I never took physics in college. I was an English major, and I didn’t realize that fire would not go away from oxygen as I wanted it to go. So the flames shot the other way, and there was this fountain of flames that comes out of this hole in my garden. I was almost incinerated myself, thrown back, and shocked into a recognition that this is not the way to deal with the natural world.
And what I was doing was very much in sync with what our species does when we feel thwarted by nature, which is we feel we have the right, and we’re the smarter creature. And I realized at that moment, and I wrote an essay about this that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. That what’s happening in the garden is a microcosm of our engagement with the natural world, for better and worse, and in this case worse. And that I could use the garden and gardening as a place to explore our relationship to nature.
In general, American nature writers go to the wilderness, right? They go to the desert. They go to the forest. They go to places where you just stand back and look. But in the garden, like the farm, we have no choice but to engage. We have to act if we’re going to get what we want. So how do we act? What are the ethics? What’s the morality? And that began this path of examining our relationship to other species in the garden, including plants.
Tim Ferriss: I am going to come back to gardening quite selfishly to ask you for some advice, because I am planning on over the next year doing my first gardening. Now we probably don’t have the scope to explore that fully in this conversation, but just to plant that seed, pun intended, I’m going to.
Michael Pollan: So you now have some land. You have some land.
Tim Ferriss: I do. Yes.
Michael Pollan: Excellent.
Tim Ferriss: And we’re going to return to the concept of garden as microcosm very shortly, but before we do, you could write on anything that you choose. And This Is Your Mind On Plants. How did you arrive at this particular book? Because you have carte blanche, you could do whatever you want.
Michael Pollan: Yeah. I mean, it’s my first love, writing about plants. My interest in psychoactives and my interest in plants kind of come together in this book. In Botany of Desire there was a chapter, which is a book that looks at the symbiotic relationship with people and plants, how they change us, and we change them. And I have always been fascinated by this one weird particular use to which we put plants. And this is true for most cultures, probably 95 percent of cultures around the world have some plant or fungus they use to change consciousness, to achieve transcendent experience.
That’s a very peculiar thing, because if you think about it, why would that be adaptive? It could be the opposite. You know, when we take drugs, when we change consciousness, we’re more vulnerable to accident, to predation. We lose a lot of our defenses. So there’s a danger in changing consciousness, in a radical way anyway. Yet we do it and people have always done it. The only culture that’s been documented that doesn’t have a plant to change consciousness are the Inuit in Greenland, because nothing good grows where they live. That’s the only reason.
That human desire has been fascinating me since I first grew cannabis when I was quite young. And so I wanted to do a deep dive into it, and I wanted to look at three plants that produce important psychoactives, an upper, a downer, and an outer, as I call it. So I chose caffeine, which is, we don’t even think of that as a drug, as a psychoactive, as an addictive substance. But of course it is, and I have it right here. I’m consuming it as we speak.
Tim Ferriss: That makes two of us, I’m holding up a mug of coffee.
Michael Pollan: And then the other two I chose were opium, which has a particular relevance now because of the opiate crisis. That is actually a piece that I wrote many, many years ago at the height of the drug war, and that piece is kind of a parable of the absurdity of the drug war that we can talk about in more detail. And then the third one, I wanted to do a psychedelic, and a psychedelic I hadn’t written about and that nobody’s written much about since Aldous Huxley and that is mescaline. My interest in that one grew out of all the reporting I did in the psychedelic community and asking people, “What’s your favorite psychedelic?” And to my surprise, the answer I heard more than any other was “mescaline.” And nobody seems to have it. Nobody seems to use it anymore, and yet it was everybody’s favorite. It was the master material, somebody told me.
I remember, I don’t think I should use his name, but somebody we both know, who’s younger than I am, saying, “Why have you been hiding this from us for all these years? The hippies were hiding the best drug.”
Tim Ferriss: Keeping it all for themselves.
Michael Pollan: Yeah. Anyway, so I chose those three as representing different dimensions of our relationship to psychoactive plants and to remind people that this is part of our engagement with the natural world as much as eating it, as much as clothing ourselves in fibers produced by nature. We use plants to alter our minds. And how incredible is it that plants have evolved the precise molecular key to unlock your consciousness? That’s really weird. I think it’s one of the great mysteries of nature.
So anyway, I thought it’d be fun to write about. This book is more of a romp than the last one. I mean, yes, there’s science and history, but these are really personal stories of my engagement with these plants and what these plants have to teach us. So I wanted to do something that was just very close to my heart, and that would be enjoyable, and take me back to the garden.
Tim Ferriss: Were there any other plants or molecules that came close as candidates, but ultimately didn’t make the cut? Did you consider others?
Michael Pollan: Yeah, I did. Well for psychedelics, I thought about writing about 5-MeO-DMT. Of course, it’s not a plant, it’s a toad. I could have done salvia divinorum. There were a whole lot, but I wanted something that had a really rich history, that has changed the course of history, and mescaline has, and not just for our culture, but for native American culture. We can talk more about that.
So actually it wasn’t like when I was writing Botany of Desire, which is a portrait of four plants that I had like 10 I could have done and I had to settle on corn and apples and tulips and cannabis. There was something that loomed large about these three to me. Caffeine, because that is really the drug I have the deepest involvement with. It was actually Roland Griffiths, who we both know, the psychedelic researcher at Hopkins who, before he started working on psilocybin, he was the world’s leading researcher on caffeine.
I remember the first time I interviewed him, I saw all these books about coffee in his study, and I was very curious about his interest. And he gave me the idea for the experiment at the heart of that piece, which is, he said, “You can never understand your relationship to a drug, to a psychoactive substance, unless you get off it and stand back and look at it.” Because if you’re an addict, he doesn’t use the word addict, but if you’re dependent, you will never see it accurately. And so that was the challenge to me, which is at the heart of that piece is like, could I abstain from coffee for three months without going crazy and losing my livelihood, which I nearly did.
Tim Ferriss: We’re going to dig into all of those. It strikes me that those three, as you noted, the three options that you chose, allow you to do in a sense what you do best, which is take these layers of the scientific, the philosophical, the political, journalistic, historical, and layer them properly. Right? So not all candidates are created equal in that sense.
Michael Pollan: No. And they don’t all have quite enough layers. I think that’s exactly right. And that is key to my method, which is not to privilege any one way of analyzing something. I don’t think the scientists have all the answers. I don’t think the poets have all the answers. But if you multiply lenses, you suddenly get the full picture, and that’s what I love doing as a writer.
Tim Ferriss: So you have many types of stories in this book. You have the fascinating, the hilarious. You also have, as you know, from my well-caffeinated texts to you at one point, stories that I consider quite terrifying.
I wanted to read, this is from page 16 and 17. I’m just going to read a snippet. Then I want to talk about Jim Hogshire and I want you to tell that story. So this is on page 16. “In April, 2016 article in Harper’s Magazine, Legalize It All, Dan Baum recounted an interview that he conducted with John” — is it Ehrlichman or Ehrlichman?
Michael Pollan: Ehrlichman.
Tim Ferriss: — “Ehrlichman in 1994. Ehrlichman, as you will recall, was President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor. He served time in federal prison for his role in Watergate. Baum came to talk to Ehrlichman about the drug war of which he was a key architect.” This is one paragraph and then we’re going to hop back to you. This is a quote from Ehrlichman, a quote. “You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman then explained that the Nixon White House “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.” This is a direct quote. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
That is insane. Just the fact that those are spoken words quoted is incredible to me.
Michael Pollan: That’s all you need to know about the drug war. There it is in a kernel, the real reason for it, the fact that it had nothing to do with public health. Did he mention public health? Did he mention people suffering with addiction? No. Or overdosing? No. It was simply political. And we’ve known long before Nixon that the drugs that get criminalized are the ones that are used by troublesome populations. I mean, the reason they went after cannabis was because of Mexicans and Blacks who were using it.
The drug war has always been about politics, and there is about as blunt a revelation of that fact as you can imagine. Yeah. I remember reading that. That quote got quite a bit of publicity when it came out. Unfortunately, Baum died. I wanted to interview him about that interview. He died last spring or last fall and I wasn’t able to.
You know, I think there are two things where whatever you think of the drug war, it collapses when you look at them. One is that. Looking at Nixon really starts at 1970. There are his motives. He needs to criminalize these two troublesome populations. The other is the fact that while we were fighting this drug war, which reaches really its peak in the Clinton administration. Whatever you think about Clinton, his crime bill led to mandatory minimum sentences and led to mass incarceration. And the drug war was being fought with particular vigor during the ’90s. It was all part of Clinton’s triangulating to the right.
This is part of the story I tell in the opium chapter, is that while the DEA and other authorities were going after small time drug dealers and individuals even trying to grow a little opium for themselves, Purdue Pharma was introducing, in 1996, OxyContin and leading to eventually the opiate crisis because they marketed opiates so aggressively and convinced the medical establishment that pain was being under medicated, and that this was a safer, non-addictive opiate when they knew precisely the opposite. This has come out in court cases.
So the biggest public health crisis during the period of the drug war involved legal drugs, not illegal drugs. So the government was looking at the wrong problem, and the FDA had approved OxyContin. And yes, many people who began with legal opiates, like most heroin users, eventually transitioned because they can’t get access to legal opiates. And then they transitioned to street drugs and then bumped into things like fentanyl and the likelihood or possibility of overdose.
But I think nothing points up the absurdity of the drug war than the two things that were happening in the year 1996 that I wrote about, one of which you haven’t heard about, which is Jim Hogshire. And the other is the opioid crisis.
Tim Ferriss: So this is a very personal, I mean, I guess the opiate, opioid discussion is a very personal one for me because my best friend from growing up on Long Island died of a fentanyl overdose. So I have firsthand experience with how easily these, and this is obviously simplified, but super strength opioids can do damage. I know another person who had an accidental overdose of fentanyl. So sort of the extent and growth of this problem is pretty staggering. I mean, at some point in the book, you compare the stats kind of then and now, and it’s really unbelievable.
I think to jump into the microcosm, to explore the microcosm, Jim Hogshire. Could you please tell me and tell the listeners about Jim and how he came onto your radar?
Michael Pollan: Yeah. So, this story about growing my own opium began with an editor friend sending me an underground press book called Opium for the Masses. I was writing columns about my garden, the pieces that became Second Nature. And my editor, a fellow Austinite named Paul Tough, said, “Hey, this book is like, up your alley.” And he sends me Opium for the Masses. I read it and it was like, “This is so cool. I can grow my own opium.” And like most gardeners, I just want to see if I can do it. I wasn’t interested in consuming opium.
Tim Ferriss: Just for clarity, because opium is going to sound scary to a lot of people. But when you say grow opium, what do you mean?
Michael Pollan: Okay, it does sound scary, I guess. It means growing poppies, papaver somniferum, which is an annual poppy. You can buy the seeds at a garden center. You can order them online. You can scrape them off a poppy seed bagel. Those are poppy seeds, and they grow this plant, this beautiful plant with paper thin petals and this beautiful seed pod after the petals fall off, and this gorgeous lettuce-like leaves. When the petals drop and that seed pod forms, it looks like a piece of sculpture. If you slit that green skin of that seed pod with your fingernail or with a blade and wait 60 seconds, you will see this white, latexy looking sap emerge, leak out of it, bleed from it. That is opium, pure and simple. It dries brown, and you can roll it off and you have opium.
Now you need a few thousand of those pods to get a usable amount of opium if you do it that way. It’s a lot of work, and that’s one of the reasons that it’s grown in places with very cheap child labor, who can go through fields, slitting every pod. But it grows just as well in your garden.
So anyway, he was explaining all this, which I didn’t know. And he was saying a much better way to use it is to make a tea from the poppy seed heads, just let them dry, put them in a coffee mill or grinder somehow, and soak them in hot water, and you’ll have this tea. In fact, this tea is drunk in the Arab world during funerals, and as a mild painkiller. You know, it’s not a big experience, but it’s a very mild narcotic, and that you can make at home.
Tim Ferriss: For taking the sadness away.
Michael Pollan: For taking the sadness, lifting the sadness, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Lifting the sadness.
Michael Pollan: So I thought, “Well, I’d get a column out of this. This could be kind of fun.” And so I order some seeds and I start communicating with Hogshire. I got a hold of his email and asked him some questions, and did he have any seeds he could spare? We’re going back and forth, and then suddenly I get a call from my friend, Paul, who I don’t know how he had this information, that Jim has been arrested and charged with manufacturing narcotics. The only evidence the police have — this happens in Seattle. They bust into his apartment. They bring a SWAT team, 20 guys with guns and ninja suits. This guy is sitting there with his wife, and they bust in and throw him up against the wall.
What do they get him with? He’s got a bunch of dried poppies from the florist shop. Okay? You’ve seen these flower heads in every florist shop because they look beautiful in arrangements, and his book. His book proves his intent to take those poppy seeds and make a narcotic with it.
Tim Ferriss: This is where things get super crazy. Yeah. Please continue to expand on this.
Michael Pollan: So it turns out that it’s perfectly legal to grow opium poppies — possess the seeds and grow the poppies — unless you have knowledge that you are growing a scheduled substance. In which case the same act miraculously gets turned into a federal crime of manufacturing narcotics that carries a five- to 20-year sentence. So all your listeners, now that they know this —
Tim Ferriss: I’ve just endangered millions of people. No plausible deniability.
Michael Pollan: They’ve lost it. Because if there’s any record that they heard this podcast and they’re growing opium poppies they are at some risk. The risk was a lot greater in the ’90s at the height of the drug war, I might say. So suddenly when I hear he’s been arrested and he is in jail and his wife is in jail, I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’ve got this paper trail — or this digital trail — between him and me because we’re exchanging emails and they, I’m sure, seized his computer. Now, what do I do? Do I rip these things out?”
And thus began this summer of like Fear and Loathing, as he’s going through the court process and I am trying to determine how risky my little crop of poppies are. So I start reporting. I start calling DEA agents and the local police, and asking them questions about it. So, “I want to grow some papaver somniferum, is it okay?” And they would say, well, “Yeah, if it’s just for scenery looks,” as one put it to me. And I said, “Well, what if I slit the poppy heads?” And he said, “Oh, then we’ll bust down your door.”
And I did learn that there was this quiet crackdown going on all across America led by the DEA who, probably alerted by Jim’s book, wanted to make sure this didn’t become a fad. Because the myth had been spread that you couldn’t grow opium poppies in America, that it had to be Turkey or Afghanistan. And that simply wasn’t true. It was a cash crop for many people in the South for many years.
And it turns out there was this crackdown going on, that the DEA agents were visiting florist shops to tell them to stop carrying dried poppy heads. They were calling seed companies telling them to remove them, even though they were perfectly legal. It was a tense summer for me.
In the end, I wrote an article about my experience and about Jim Hogshire. I submitted it to Harper’s Magazine who had commissioned it. It was a long piece. I’d worked on it for a year. It was like 15,000 words. And I said to my editor, “Look, we have to get this piece lawyered because I’m confessing to a federal crime here.” Because I did describe not just growing the opium poppies, but making poppy tea, and something called laudanum, which is how opium was used in the 19th century. Basically you dissolve the poppy heads in alcohol. All you do is crush them and put them in vodka. That makes it much stronger. I learned from a USDA ethnobotanist that, yeah, if you really want to get a strong opium hit, dissolve it in alcohol, not water. But Jim didn’t include that because he was a Muslim and he doesn’t drink.
So they send it to a very prominent criminal defense lawyer in the State of Connecticut where I was.
Tim Ferriss: Who is they at the time?
Michael Pollan: Oh, Harper’s Magazine, the publisher. I say, “Please, we have to get this piece lawyered before we publish it.” And he said “Oh, I’ve got a friend who’s a criminal defense lawyer in Bridgeport,” you know, where there’s a lot of crime to be defended. This guy reads the piece, drives up to our house in Cornwall. My son, who is four at the time, is off in daycare. The lawyer and his young associate sit us down and say, “Well, you can’t publish this piece. This is a confession. On the basis of this piece and nothing more they could arrest you on charges of manufacturing narcotics, and possession of narcotics. They could also take your house away under the asset forfeiture laws,” which are still in effect. They’ve been diluted somewhat, but they’re still an effect. If a piece of property or a car is involved in the commission of a drug crime, the police may seize it. And the standard of proof is not beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s, I forget what the one, there’s one standard below that, but it’s not a very high standard. So there are many cases where even though you, if you had a son or daughter who was growing marijuana in your backyard, even if you didn’t know about it, your backyard could be guilty of a drug crime and it could be forfeited.
And these laws stand. They’re absolutely outrageous. And so they could take your house and basically wreck your life. And my wife and I are like turning white. I mean, first of all, that we have a criminal defense lawyer in our living room, because of some gardening crime I committed, was amazing. And so I thought, “Well, that’s it, a year’s work down the drain.” I was a freelance writer. I was counting on that paycheck. When the publisher of Harper’s, who is a man named Rick MacArthur, a very wealthy man who kind of keeps the magazine afloat. He’s descended from the MacArthurs of MacArthur Foundation. And he’s a champion of the First Amendment. When he hears that this lawyer has advised against publication, his immediate response is, “We need a new lawyer.”
And so he hires a very prominent First Amendment lawyer in New York named Victor Kovner, who represented The Nation and a bunch of magazines. And is one of the big voices in that world, and Victor reads the article and says, “In effect, you must publish this article for the good of the Republic. This is what the First Amendment exists for. This is critical commentary on the drug war.” And I’m like, “Really? What about the jailing and the loss of my house?” And eventually he says, “Well, you could make it less antagonistic to the government by removing two pieces, two sections. One is your recipe where you describe how you make poppy tea. And the other is what we would call the trip report, where you describe the effects.” He said, “This is particularly antagonistic to the government, given their interests. If you take those two sections out, I think your risk is not nil, but it’s negligible.”
So I still wasn’t ready to publish, because I still heard that other lawyer in my ear. So I asked Rick if he would protect me, Rick MacArthur, the publisher, and he had Victor draw up a contract the likes of which no writer has ever seen in which he says, “If you get arrested, we will not only defend you, we will pay your wife a salary for the whole amount of time it takes for you to defend yourself and if necessary, serve your sentence. And if they take your house, we’ll buy you a comparable new one.” So I was completely indemnified, but still terrified. And that’s what we did. And we published it and it was a cover story in ’97 called Opium, Made Easy. And nothing happened. The piece comes out, I mean, Victor calculated they wouldn’t want to go after a well-funded magazine, and they would look really stupid doing it. And unlike Jim Hogshire, they left me alone, and that’s because I had the protection of a reputable publication. So I’ve always wanted to publish the piece the way it was written. And this is another wrinkle. It’s hard to recreate the paranoia of 1996, 1997 around drugs. It was a very different moment. They were busting lots of people, there were 1.1 million arrests in ’96 for drug crimes, and they were filling the prisons with people who had done things like I had done.
So I got the offending pages off the property. I just said, I have a brother-in-law who’s a lawyer. And I said, “Could you just take these to your office or in your safe or wherever? I just don’t want them around.” And I got them off my computer. I just kind of cleansed everything of these 7,000 words or 5,000 words, I forget how much it was. I realized I now had an opportunity to publish it the way I wanted it. And so I went looking for the missing pages. And my brother-in-law said, “I think I gave them back to you a few years ago.” And I searched my house in Connecticut, which we still own, and hidden away in this closet I found this lawyer’s brief container with the rubber band around it, and in there was a purple floppy drive. I don’t know if you remember Zip drives from the late ’90s?
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Michael Pollan: They were hard, they weren’t actually floppy. And on the outside, it had a list of contents, and one was “Poppy draft.” And I said, “Oh, I’ve got it, it’s here.” But I don’t have anything to read a Zip drive, do you? I mean, those are like obsolete media. So I found a computer wizard in a neighboring town. He said, “Let me see what I’ve got in my basement.” And he found a Zip drive and he was able to get the file off it and sent it to me. But it’s an early Microsoft Word file that current Microsoft Word can’t read. So then I had to find a piece of software, and there is something called LibreOffice, which will read any Microsoft file from any era, it’s free software.
And there it was. And it popped up on my screen one day and I was like, I was able to restore it. So that was one reason to publish it, to restore those pages. And I was happy to be able to do that and share the recipe and the trip report with people. But the other was learning later what was going on at the same moment. The same summer that the DEA was going around, terrifying florists and nurseries, Purdue Pharma was introducing OxyContin, and the real opiate crisis was beginning. And the government was looking in the wrong way. And I just thought that that irony was so telling that it was time to take another look. So the piece now is republished in its entirety, but also there’s a shell I built around it about what life was like in that moment and what was going on with Purdue Pharma.
Tim Ferriss: In reading that chapter, that section, coming back to Rick, I kind of fell in love with Rick MacArthur, honestly. And I know it’s described a bit in the book, but why do you think he offered you all of those assurances? If you lose your house, we’ll buy your house. You get put in jail, we’ll pay your wife a salary. The extent to which he was willing to go to get this published seems extraordinary. Was it because he had complete confidence that nothing would happen? Was it, I know you said he was a staunch supporter of First Amendment, but I can’t imagine that he did this all the time. Maybe he did.
Michael Pollan: No, I didn’t. I mean, he’s a crusading publisher, like a crusading journalist. And I shouldn’t speak for him, but my guess is he was hoping something would happen. He was hoping I would get arrested. This would put Harper’s on the map. This would be a giant case. He would take it to the Supreme Court, and he would. He has bottomless pockets. I mean, and publishing for him is kind of an avocation. And he was always looking for the big story that Harper’s would get involved with. I mean, we saw that just last year with the Harper’s letter around free speech versus the efforts to curb free speech in the name of various woke values. He’s not afraid of controversy.
I mean, you shouldn’t think of him as a publisher. He’s not a bean counter. Although I should say he’s incredibly cheap as a publisher with his employees, but with issues like this, he’s incredibly generous. So this is a guy I was lucky to get a one percent raise every year from, because I worked there as an editor first and fighting — in many ways, my writing career began because I couldn’t get a raise at Harper’s. And one year I asked Lewis Lapham, who was the editor, “Instead of a raise this year, will you assign me an article? I want it to get published in Harper’s Magazine.” And I’d been an editor there for a couple of years, and he was delighted to do that instead of having to fight with Rick about money. And that assignment was my first garden essay. So I have Rick’s cheapness to thank for my writing career.
Tim Ferriss: The opium chapter really opened my eyes to so many different facets of the so-called drug war and just the arbitrary nature in some respects, although I guess I should take that back. It’s not entirely arbitrary, but the reasons for which certain compounds are vilified are not always obvious at first glance. Because we have, for instance, I’m sitting here in Austin, Texas, if you go to the Austin — well I shouldn’t. I don’t want people going to hunt this down. But throughout Austin you can find something known as datura or jimson weed. It grows easily in many, many places. It is an extremely potent and also dangerous psychoactive plant that has been used by many different civilizations. It’s everywhere. And people die every year from trying to ingest it, or ingesting it, I should say more accurately. So what were some of the points you hoped to underscore in the closing portions of this section? Because it’s not toxicity clearly, that is determining —
Michael Pollan: No, if you go through it, you can find there’s no rational reason. I mean, if you’re worried about drugs’ addictiveness, then cigarettes should be illegal. Nicotine should be illegal and caffeine should be illegal, highly addictive substances that people fairly quickly become dependent on. If your concern is about toxicity, yes, you look at things like datura. If your concern is just public health in general, you look at alcohol. And alcohol and tobacco are much more dangerous than any of the drugs we’ve criminalized. Now we realize it was a folly to criminalize alcohol, it doesn’t work, as it hasn’t worked with drugs. I mean, in general, the war on drugs is won by the drugs — they keep flourishing. Telling people you can’t have them does not stop. It just makes them more dangerous.
I mean, your friend who died of a fentanyl overdose, I don’t know the details, but that’s probably a product of the drug war. Because there’s no regulation of what’s in street heroin. And also a lot of people die from fentanyl overdoses because often after they’ve broken their addiction, if people go through withdrawal and then slip, they don’t realize that their tolerance has changed dramatically. They’re back to baseline where the drug has a much bigger effect than it does after you’re addicted. So there are many people who have fentanyl overdoses for that reason. But the point is, it’s about information and it’s about regulation and an illegal drug market is going to lead to lots of accidental deaths. I mean, this happened during prohibition. People died from bad hooch all the time. And in fact, the government would put methanol in various over the counter, I forget where they were putting it, but they were using methanol to contaminate sources of alcohol so people wouldn’t drink them, and they did drink them.
And so the idea that a drug war contributes to public health, and then you have dirty needles and the spread of AIDS, it doesn’t contribute to public health. It has the opposite effect. But there are lots of examples of, why is this legal and why isn’t that? And in the end it comes back to, I mean, I tell the story in the piece of the person that lived on my land before I bought it. It was a farmer named Joe Matyas. And he was known, there were old apple trees on the property, these wonderful cider apple trees. And he made hard cider during prohibition. And he was known for having the best applejack — applejack is basically a hard cider that you freeze to get the alcohol fraction and remove it. He made the best applejack in town.
But this was a crime, and he was committing it on his property, not hurting anybody, but potentially himself. And in those years when he was making applejack, opium was legal and it was in patent medicines all over America. And in fact, we have evidence that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and those women who were fighting alcohol were consuming opium because they would use these patent medicines, and cannabis, which was also in patent medicines. So it was a complete reversal of the current situation where alcohol is legal and opium and cannabis were illegal. And so I wanted to just highlight, it’s not totally arbitrary. You’re right to catch yourself there in that we tend to criminalize the drugs used by populations that make the establishment uncomfortable — immigrants and the poor and African Americans. But in terms of the schedule too, I mean, cannabis is still on schedule one, and so are psychedelics, this means that a drug has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
Neither is true. We’ve demonstrated the medical utility of psychedelics. And to a lesser extent actually the medical utility of cannabis, and neither are addictive. Yet there they are. So this schedule is an artifact of politics. No public health authorities would agree with that schedule. And opiates are two or three, schedule two or three, because they do have a legitimate medical use.
And we should remember, even in the midst of the opiate crisis, what a blessing opiates are. Morphine, surgery would not be bearable without opiates. And the passage from this life would be much more painful for people without morphine. So this is, like a lot of drugs, opiates are a blessing and a curse. And we need to be able to hold both those ideas in our head at the same time. As the Greeks did, they called drugs pharmakon, and that meant literally they were both a blessing and a curse, depending on how they were used. A poison and an ally.
Tim Ferriss: I definitely want to continue with the discussion, or sort of segue of sorts from opium to, it seems like our morning favorite for both of us right now, 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine, otherwise known as caffeine, makes it a little less biochemical sounding. But before we get there, I just have to say how much I admire How to Change Your Mind. Your previous book has contributed to the national and international conversations about psychedelics. And so I know that you’ve probably heard that before, but I want to say it here, because things do change and conversations change. And just as populations have been targeted for persecution, sympathetic populations can be targeted for treatment, right? So in the case of say, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy or psilocybin, you might have those suffering from complex PTSD, like veterans or victims of sexual abuse in the former, or for the latter, psilocybin you might have end of life sort of existential distress in cancer patients and so on.
And the conversation has dramatically changed in the last few years. And just yesterday, I think there was a news piece that came out covering, and I want to give him credit where credit is due, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, that’s the NIH, expressed positive remarks about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. And this was in a public discussion. For that to have happened this week would have been to my mind, I don’t want to say unimaginable, but things are happening a lot faster than even I would have expected. It’s so, I think, instructive to study the history to see how quickly things can change or how dramatically things can change. Because like you said, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union would relax with their women’s tonics with laudanum, opium, to take the edge off after a hard day of fighting alcohol. And so I just want to give you a pat on the back for really contributing to a deeper, more nuanced conversation of psychedelics specifically.
Michael Pollan: Thank you. It has been remarkable what we’ve seen in the last three years. And I’m sure the book played a role, but also the research. The research is panning out. When I wrote that book, a lot of it hadn’t been published yet. I knew from talking to the researchers what was coming and the publications have done a lot to move the conversation along, because we have some very good evidence that these work for the various indications you’re talking about, and we’ll have evidence of other indications, it’s valued other indications too. But culture does change and it can change really quickly. I used to write a lot about food and agriculture and that conversation changed. And there are a lot of people who give me credit in both cases, which is very nice, but as journalists I think we kind of have, if we have any talent, it’s that we kind of have a sense of where the culture is moving and that the culture might be ready to hear this.
And I had a mentor in publishing many years ago who said that, as journalists, the goal is to be a short-term visionary. If you’re a long-term visionary, no one will know what the fuck you’re talking about, and you will not sell any books or articles, but you want to just see around one corner. And I’ve always kept that in mind. But I have to say that with regards to psychedelics it’s happened much faster than I imagined. I just see any opposition kind of melting away, and that I didn’t expect. I expected a lot of pushback when How To Change Your Mind came out from the psychiatric establishment and from mainstream media because there was so much baggage surrounding psychedelics in our culture going back to the 1960s. But there wasn’t, and that I think is really interesting.
And the reason there wasn’t, and I didn’t understand this until later, I think we talked about this last time, is that mental healthcare is in crisis. The people who practice it, the psychiatrists and the therapists and psychologists, know that they don’t have very good tools. They have no tools that cure anything. At the best they can alleviate symptoms, but the drugs they have to alleviate symptoms are pretty lousy and people don’t like taking them and they’re addictive in effect and you can’t get off a SSRIs very easily. And people put on weight and they lose their sex drive and it’s — the tools are lousy. And so the prospect of acquiring new tools to deal with the growing mental health crisis is attractive to just about everyone. There is at least curiosity and openness, and in many other cases, support.
So I think it’s a measure of desperation as much as anything. And then the media too has been so friendly. I mean, there was a cover story in The Times two weeks ago, three weeks ago, how psychedelics are going to revolutionize psychiatry. And that’s probably what Francis Collins is responding to and that has to do, and that piece was inspired by the the Phase 3 MDMA trial that MAPS brought out as well as Robin Carhart-Harris’ depression trial. Psychedelic research used to end up in journals you’ve never heard about. I mean, that first study that Hopkins and NYU did about existential distress was in The Journal of Neuropharmacology or something, or psychopharmacology, a pretty small journal based in England. Now they’re in New England Journal of Medicine, Robin’s last depression study. And the MAPS study was in, what was it? Nature Medicine or Nature Psychiatry, I forget, but —
Tim Ferriss: One of the Nature umbrella journals.
Michael Pollan: So now this research is in the top tier journals. And so the respectability — the other measure of acceptance that has really struck me is all these universities starting psychedelic research centers. Harvard is starting one at Mass General. I took this as particularly surprising. I remember a few years ago having lunch with a young psychiatrist at MGH who was fascinated by psychedelics and we had lunch. And he was very eager to start something in Harvard. And I said, “Well, I’m afraid Harvard is going to be the last place to do this, because of the Timothy Leary embarrassment, as the Harvard people think of it.” But I was wrong. They’re doing it too. And they’ve got a very interesting center getting started. And Yale has a center and now Berkeley has a center that I’m involved with and the stigma is washing off. It’s wonderful to see.
Tim Ferriss: It is, it’s really exciting. And I think the curve of change, sort of the angle of that inflection is just going to continue to point skyward.
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: By all indications, certainly with the for-profit.
Michael Pollan: And it’s important for people to keep that in mind, we get discouraged about politics and change all the time. And the model that has always struck me is gay marriage. I mean, how that went from, in the course of just the Obama administration, from something that a national politician couldn’t touch, to one that he had to touch. And the culture changed around gay marriage so quickly. And so we should take heart in the fact that when you tell the story in the right way, when you have good research, because the gay marriage story was like, “Oh, these people want what we have,” not, “They want to be different.” They want this basic human institution called marriage. And that tells a very different story about homosexuality than was in a lot of people’s heads. It was a brilliant thing to focus on. It seemed crazy at the time. I know a lot of activists thought that was a risky move and asking for the sky, but it wasn’t; it was exactly the right move.
As was the move of starting with cancer patients. Roland Griffiths, and the team at NYU, “We’re going to use psychedelics to help people who are dying.” How can you be against that? And the fact that it worked opened up this research into depression, and anxiety, and obsession. And because they were telling a really good story and all I did was amplify that story and find a way to talk about it that made it much more sympathetic, I think, than it was.
I mean, most of the people writing about psychedelics before I did it were in the tank already. They were sold on psychedelics. They were users of psychedelics. They were believers. And those are not the people you want to tell your story, ever.
But I was skeptical. And I had one foot out and one foot in. I was terrified of using psychedelics before I started. I hadn’t used them at the age-appropriate time. So in some ways, I was the right messenger because I was more like the average reader than most people who would write about psychedelics. And, as a writer, finding where you stand, who you are, and the story you’re telling is everything in terms of getting people to come with you on the journey.
Tim Ferriss: Those steeped in the Kool-Aid can always be a liability.
Michael Pollan: Yeah. They’re kind of off putting; no one likes evangelists except the people who do.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I remember after my first book came out and I was just becoming to engage more publicly. And someone said to me, I wish I could remember who it was, but they said, “It’s not the detractors you need to worry about, it’s the diehard fans who get the message wrong.” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what that means,” but it didn’t take long to realize how true that is.
So let’s talk about mescaline, I think that’s probably the most natural segue from what we’re talking about right now. And you, I suppose, gave some preview of this already, but what makes mescaline interesting? What makes it different from, say, psilocybin or LSD from any context?
Michael Pollan: Well, it has a different phenomenology, as the philosophers say. The experience has a very different quality. And I was very surprised to discover that.
I had read Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception when I was working on How to Change Your Mind and before I had used a psychedelic. It’s a wonderful essay. I encourage everybody to look at it. It’s the first trip report, really, and it’s influenced everybody’s trips since then. You may not have read this book, but what you saw and happened to you on psychedelics, he wrote in part because that’s the way culture works. Because we’re looking for vocabulary and names for what’s happening to us, and we take them from literature, even indirectly.
Anyway, when I read that, I thought it was an account of the ur-psychedelic experience. That this stood for LSD experience. It stood for psilocybin experience and that’s how I took it. And a lot of people take it that way. But then I read it again after I had gone through the menu of psychedelics in my research and I realized, oh, this is very specific. This is not like LSD or psilocybin. In this quality, the mescaline experience, as described by him and I can confirm this based on my own experience, although my own experience was probably influenced by him, it doesn’t take you out of this world to another world, as people say, talk about DMT, taking you to another dimension of existence. It takes you deeper into this world.
Huxley describes being able to stare at the folds of his trousers for an hour and it made him think about folds of cloth in Botticelli’s paintings. And it just makes the present richer and deeper. And he uses this metaphor of the reducing valve that he argues that most of consciousness is editing reality, keeping things from us, because we would be overwhelmed if we took in all the sensory information available to us at any one time. We just couldn’t process it. Well, on mescaline those valves open really wide. And the sensory information is so intense. The colors are, you just see nuances of green in nature, or blue in the water that you’ve never seen before. And you can stare at the most common object and find it absolutely fascinating, and understand it in a deeper way.
There was no ego dissolution. There were no hallucinations, really. It’s this here and now drug in a way I wasn’t prepared for. So it has a different quality. Also, you can hold a conversation much more easily. Chemically, mescaline is closer to MDMA than it is to LSD. It’s a phenylethylamine. And so, it has that kind of warmth, and sometimes chattiness, and heart opening quality that MDMA has. Compared to, I think of psilocybin and LSD as a very solitary endeavor. Somewhere you’re going deep into your head. So it had a very different quality.
An interesting question is, so why isn’t it used in research? And this points to another difference, it is a very long trip. It can be like 14 hours longer than LSD. And if you’re really enjoying it, it is the most generous of psychedelics. If you’re getting a little tired and you’d like to go to bed, or have dinner it’s like, “Can we stop this now? Is this enough?” And I think that makes it very hard in a research context where you need a therapist present. And 14 hours is two shifts for the therapist. So it hasn’t been used, although there are plans to use it in therapy. And I think it has potential. I think it has particular potential in group therapy, since there is this ability to talk, and that you might be able to administer in a group, which would help.
But I also think the reason I was interested in mescaline too is its long history of use in the Native American community. First of all, it is the oldest known psychedelic in use. I mean, there is evidence 6,000 years ago — in Texas, they found evidence of mescaline use in the form of peyote, the peyote cactus. And peyote has been used by natives in both Mexico and the United States for a very long time. And they’ve had great success treating trauma with it, treating alcoholism with it. And so, I think there’s a great deal to learn.
I was fascinated by the Native American use of mescaline in the form of peyote. Here, we have, essentially, a conservative model of drug use and that kind of blows our minds because especially psychedelics, we think of disruption of society, certainly, in the ’60s.
So the Native American Church, which is developed in the 1880s and kind of made official in 1917, is the cultural container that Native Americans developed for the use of peyote. And it’s a highly regulated ritual that is used in what are called, peyote meetings to help people in trouble, especially with alcoholism, which has been a huge problem for Native American cultures since it was introduced. But also for spousal abuse, as a rite of passage, to help people deal with trauma, and to help Native Americans deal with their trauma. I mean, this is a traumatized population and it was particularly traumatized in the 1880s.
This is when Plains Indians were being forced onto reservations. People who had lived itinerant lives, in many cases, following the buffalo or the bison, and suddenly they were forced onto reservations and given rations of corn. They didn’t know about corn, these weren’t agriculturalists, so they fed it to their horses. I mean, imagine how traumatized such a population would be.
And in the 1880s, Native Americans from Texas brought peyote into Oklahoma, that was the Indian territory where a lot of the reservations were. And they began using it in a ritual setting and they found it enormously helpful, and they still find it enormously helpful. So there’s a very interesting, a moral conservative use of a drug to hold a society together, to create cultural cohesion and healing. And it has a lot to teach us. And why mescaline was the right substance for that is an interesting question.
So I wanted to explore that and it raised a very hard question for me though, which is whether I should use peyote, whether any non-Native person should use peyote, because it’s in very short supply. The habitat, which runs along the Rio Grande on the Texas side, there’s a lot more of it on the Mexican side. But between cattle ranching, and development, and poaching by psychonauts — and it’s a very slow growing plant, it takes 15 years to get from seed to usable button. It’s a low growing, very pretty, bluish green cactus. It looks like a stone, or a pin cushion, and you actually eat it. You eat the whole thing.
But there is a real question about, I mean, we have taken so much from these people that if we now take their peyote, which has been such an important aid to them adjusting to the situation we’ve put them in, I think there’s a real moral and ethical question about that. I mean, it’d be one thing to grow your own peyote and I wouldn’t have a problem with that. But see me in 15 years and it’ll be ready.
And this has, of course, become a controversy because there’s a Decriminalize Nature movement that’s very vibrant in America right now. And the idea of leaving out peyote is offensive to some people in that movement. It kind of complicates their message, which is that all these psychoactive plants should be legal and available to people. So there’s now a fight between the Native American Church and Decrim. Nature going on, which is really unfortunate. My basic thinking is we should leave this one alone. And the way you pay respects both to peyote and to Native Americans is not to use their sacrament. And there are other ways to get mescaline. You don’t have to use their sacrament. There’s San Pedro, for example, which is another cactus that comes from South America and is very easy to grow. And once I had my eyes on to notice it and knew what it looked like, I see it all over Berkeley, where I live. And I bet it’s all over Austin, too.
Tim Ferriss: It’s all over the place everywhere. I remember first becoming familiar with its look and I noticed in San Francisco, in a sort of empty space between two apartments across the street from where I lived, a bunch of San Pedro cactus. And it thrives. So, like you said, and I’ll just second your position, which is I think there’s a lot of good being done by the Decrim. Nature movements in various places. And I think that that good can exist while reserving peyote for indigenous use. And having looked at this quite closely and spent time, as you have, with IPCI, the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, which I encourage people to check out. IPCI.
Michael Pollan: Yeah, it’s a really important initiative.
Tim Ferriss: And having spoken with members of the NAC, as you have, and others, leaders in the Dene or Navajo communities like Steve Benally, the availability of peyote is such that if we continue at current rates of consumption, also recognizing that for Northern American Indigenous people, greenhouse-grown or hydroponic-grown peyote is not viewed in the same way as a sacrament necessarily as something grown in the ground, which takes 15 years. And there are other means by which one can get mescaline, the San Pedro cactus being one good option.
Michael Pollan: And, by the way, it’s legal to grow San Pedro cactus, and it’s not legal to grow peyote. So that’s another advantage to San Pedro.
Tim Ferriss: A lot of benefits. So what did you do?
Michael Pollan: Well, I had hoped — so all three sections of this book, there’s a writing problem, it’s interesting. Or a publishing problem. With opium, it looks like I’m not going to be able to publish and I have to self-censor. With caffeine, I abstained from caffeine to the point where I can’t write. And the very chapter is endangered by the lack of the drug. And in mescaline, there was the pandemic. And I was looking forward to going to Texas and participating in a peyote ceremony before I understood these issues, and meeting all these Native Americans in person. And interviewing Native Americans on Zoom is not always easy because they don’t have good internet connections on the reservation, and sometimes they have to drive for hours to get to a good internet connection so they can talk to you.
So, it was a piece that was inflected by that. But I did talk to quite a few Native Americans. And I was really struck by, first, their reluctance to tell me “What happens in the tent? How has this helped you?” And it was a real wake up call to me. I mean, these are normal journalistic questions you would ask anybody. And I remember Steve Benally, who you just mentioned, saying, “Why should I tell you, white man, the unspoken next thing?” And he said, “We have a long history of discoverers like you coming to our world and taking things.” I was just kind of shocked, but, of course, yeah, why should he? And, ultimately, I found people who would describe what happened in the tent and the value to their people. I learned a lot in the course of doing that. And it was very humbling in a way.
So I grew San Pedro. And I was lucky to get some really good specimens from the Shulgin Farm, Ann and Sasha Shulgin, where they have a wonderful — Sasha Shulgin was fascinated by peyote cactus and San Pedro, and he was always tweaking the mescaline molecule. That was his favorite one to mess with. And then some other friends in Berkeley gave me some. And they’re very easy to take cuttings. And the plant just wants to grow. You can just take a length of it, if one falls, and they fall over in storms, and leave it anywhere and it’ll send up new columns. It’s remarkable.
But it’s important for your listeners to know that, at a certain moment, it does become a very serious crime when you cook your San Pedro. So growing it’s fine. It’s not scheduled as a plant. But if you prepare it and it’s prepared, essentially, like a vegetable stock, you are breaking federal law.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve crossed the line.
Michael Pollan: Crossed the line. Has anyone been arrested for this? I don’t think the authorities really know about San Pedro, otherwise, they would have scheduled it. I think it just kind of got lost in the wash. And I think it would be hard to get in trouble using San Pedro.
It’s a fairly mild psychedelic. Well, I don’t want to give bad advice. You could get in lots of trouble. I don’t want to be responsible.
Tim Ferriss: How far we’ve come from the Fear and Loathing in Connecticut, Michael.
Michael Pollan: Well, we are in a different moment and one of the —
Tim Ferriss: Mescaline for the masses! Here we go!
Michael Pollan: The drug war is subsiding, it’s fading. I mean, what happened in the last election, I think, was really significant. You had Oregon decriminalizing all drugs, specifically legalizing psilocybin therapy. You had several states, including red states, legalizing cannabis. And you had decrim. ballot initiative passed in Washington DC and several other places. So something is changing. And the right doesn’t even want to fight the drug war.
But I would argue, and this book in a way one of the subtexts of this book is, when the drug war ends, our confusion and problems around drugs are not going to end. In fact, they’re going to intensify because it’s one thing to have the government take charge of “You can use this; you can’t use this,” and law-abiding people follow that or not. But each of these drugs, we have to figure out our relationship to them.
Drug abuse is a dysfunctional relationship with drugs, in my view. And so what’s the proper container for mescaline? What’s the proper container for caffeine? What’s the proper container for alcohol? We’ve kind of worked out this truce with alcohol and cigarettes. It’s not perfect, but we know prohibition doesn’t work, so we have all these social rules that govern the use of alcohol. And we sort of de-socialized the use of tobacco only in the last 20 years. You can’t use it in all these places where you once could. And there’s a stigma now attached to smoking in lots of places, which I think is a healthy thing.
But the point is it’s going to be culture rather than the law that is, I think, going to shape this. And that conversation is going to take place over the next couple of decades and it’s going to be fascinating. So, the question is: after the drug war, what does the drug peace look like? And that’s where we are now. We have to figure that out.
And we’re kind of working on it with psychedelics. We know there’s going to be this FDA approval, this medicine path. But there’s also this religious path. There are already some psychedelic churches and there are going to be a lot more, and they’re going to be tested in the courts.
Bob Jesse’s idea, the betterment of well people. I mean, how do we make it available? What’s the container for people who are neither religious or sick? That conversation is happening right now. It’s very exciting. And it will happen, I think, around opiates also. There’s a real difference between making some opium tea because you’ve got a bad back, or you’re sad, and using fentanyl or shooting up. There’s a whole spectrum of ways to use drugs. Going back to that idea, that fundamental paradox of blessing and curse, ally and poison, we always have to keep that in mind and navigate that path, because all drugs can get you in trouble.
Tim Ferriss: Oh yeah, it’s Paracelsus, the dose makes the poison, certainly, applies in many cases.
And I was talking to an acquaintance of a new friend recently at a dinner and, well, the topic of drug regulation and drug development came up. And he mentioned that he grew up somewhat religious, and had never used any drugs except for alcohol. And I said, “Oh, you mean the civilization destroyer? Just that one?” And, of course, I was joking and we had a laugh. But it’s tremendous how — and I don’t expect legislation to change around alcohol any time soon. But how much the cultural context can shift the lens through which we look at these things.
And mescaline is very interesting for a bunch of reasons. And it’s also, at least at a basic level, kind of self-limiting in the sense that not only does it last, as it stands right now, let’s just say, up to 12 or 14 hours. But a very common side effect is feeling extremely nauseous. So if one might imagine the most intense seasickness they’ve ever felt, you may feel that for six to 12 hours. And, of course, I think in the therapeutic context —
Michael Pollan: And this is on synthetic mescaline or cactus?
Tim Ferriss: Or on plant-derived. And it’s sometimes referred to in the communities that use peyote as “Getting well.” If you vomit, that’s getting well, not getting sick. And while I think in that container that is accepted from a psychotherapeutic perspective, poses some challenges. I do think you could probably take Zofran or some anti-nausea medication to attenuate it.
But do you think, at least based on your reading and research, that there are potential applications outside of, say, alcoholism and addiction? And, as you mentioned, and I think it’s worth underscoring part of what is, I think, attractive about mescaline is that it does not obviously fall into the class of hallucinogen. I know there are people who will disagree with this because at high enough doses, certainly, you can, you can experience visuals. But it doesn’t produce the type of experience that you mentioned these tryptamines often involve. Where you’re sent to a parallel dimension, where you’re riding mechanical elves. I mean, that is less the experience than a sort of heightening of reality and your sensory inputs. So I think it could end up being viewed very much the way that MDMA is viewed.
Michael Pollan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think there are any particular targets or indications for which mescaline, or maybe some designer version of mescaline would be interesting?
Michael Pollan: Alcoholism is the obvious one because that’s been where it’s had a lot of success in the Native American community. Although they use it for physical healing too. I mean, they really think it’s helpful with various physical — and there are stories that I did hear from Native Americans about children being cured of cancer and physical elements. I think we know a lot less about it, and I think that we need some really basic research into mescaline that hasn’t been done yet, and that goes for other substances too. I mean, the focus has been so narrowly on psilocybin and MDMA, and they’re good reasons for that, but substances like mescaline have been neglected. And Journey Colab is a new startup that hopes to work with mescaline and has a very elaborate system of reciprocity with Native Americans, a certain amount of their revenue is going to go to Native American communities. And there is a researcher at University of Alabama who has a plan to use mescaline, but in his case it’s going to be alcoholism. I think that’ll be the first indication.
I’m not sure what else would be good, but I would guess trauma would be worth looking at. I mean, MDMA has already proven its value there. So I don’t know whether there’ll be a lot of people willing to invest the resources necessary, but trauma is what it’s — the MDMA qualities of it suggest that, and the fact that it’s been used by Native Americans so successfully, and in effect they are dealing with trauma in one form or another, one symptom or another. But this raises a very interesting question. Jump ahead 50 years and psychedelic therapy is a thing, it’s just part of mental health treatment. Will it be the familiar molecules that have been around for a while — mescaline, psilocybin, DMT — or will there be drugs we can’t imagine right now, tweaked versions?
And now there’s a whole lot of that drug development going on, driven in part by desire to control patents, intellectual property, but all these companies, even the ones that are working with psilocybin, they’re tweaking psilocybin too, trying to come up with something shorter acting perhaps, or without certain side effects. And then you have the development of all these non-psychoactive psychedelics, which to me just seems nuts, but for a lot of people that may be the way to go. And there’s a whole effort to prove, and there’s some evidence it might work on certain indications, that a psychedelic that didn’t produce any phenomenological effects could nevertheless be a healing substance. And that is very attractive to the pharmaceutical industry, to large portions of the population. It flies in the face of the general belief that it is the nature of the experience you have that’s curing you, not anything pharmacological.
And that question will be resolved in the next few years. And I understand that Roland Griffiths made a bet with somebody who wanted to test this concept by giving a big dose of psychedelics to someone anesthetized, really deeply anesthetized, to see if this would actually affect him. And Roland was willing to bet that it would not, that you have to have the experience. But we are learning that there is a pharmacological effect in terms of neurogenesis and brain plasticity. So who knows? So we may look back on words like mescaline and psilocybin as ancient history in 50 years when we have all these new substances or not. Sasha Shulgin developed lots of new substances and we’re still very interested in the originals. What do you think about that?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think that, just as a side note for anyone who has some passing familiarity with anything in the 2CX class, 2CB, if you’ve ever heard of something like 2CB or 2CE, which is a much trickier substance to use, they can produce some very dramatic unraveling, so I don’t necessarily recommend. But 2CB would be one of Sasha’s, in a sense, one of his molecules.
Michael Pollan: Proudest creations.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. So I think that if I look at the market forces and incentives of for-profit companies, much like we have ketamine regularly available and at very low cost, nonetheless, we now have esketamine and Spravato through, I think I want to say Johnson and Johnson, I may be getting the pharma company wrong, for ongoing administration. So I think that we will see pressure, a lot of pressure, by shareholders, by founders, by incentives alone, which then shape behavior and decisions towards non-psychedelic versions of psychedelics or close cousins that require constant administration rather than conferring potential curative effects in a handful of sessions, using it more to mask symptoms or suppress symptoms for better business models.
I don’t want to sound cynical, but I do think that if we study our history, this is what we see over and over and over and over again. And I think the playbooks that have been used by big pharma, big tobacco, are going to be used in this world as well. We already see that, in fact. We see a lot of the same tactics and strategies being used, which are not necessarily the best for the scientific, therapeutic innovation within the ecosystem.
But that is, for better and for worse, often for worse, but not always, how the free market game is played. And I do think that the comments made by Francis Collins are a very big deal and hopefully a harbinger of things to come, because right now, and I’d love to hear your opinion on this, but researchers find themselves sometimes in between a rock and a hard place with respect to funding, because they can either pursue individual philanthropists who’ll take time to wrangle, often don’t have a lot of budget and the fundraising then becomes a part-time/full-time job for these researchers.
Or they can take money from for-profit players, which as you would expect, have something to gain in the forms of strings attached. And that could be IP ownership. It could be exclusive access to safety data. It could be non-compete clauses or nondisclosure clauses that act in some way as non-competes. I’ve seen some really bad behaviors. So my hope would be that if that happens, which I think is more of an eventuality, so it’s a matter of trying to put safeguards in place or allowing people in different positions to act as countervailing forces, whether that’s from a law advocacy perspective, or from a journalistic perspective, let’s just say. My hope would be that through the efforts of groups and movements like Decrim. Nature, that at the very least the other better known versions that we’ve been referring to, so let’s just say San Pedro cactus, psilocybe mushrooms, et cetera, remain available for use or legal on some level to use. That would be my hope. How does any of that land for you?
Michael Pollan: That jibes. I mean, I think we’re at an inflection point and a huge amount of capital has moved into this space and very quickly, and that the desire to figure out ways to take psychedelics and force them into this model of the pill you have to take every day, the pill that isn’t disruptive, the pill that doesn’t take any talking therapy is going to be fierce. And as will the desire to make original intellectual property. Nature will save us, though. The psilocybe mushrooms will continue to grow, the mescaline-producing cactuses will continue to grow, and that as the drug war ends, people’s access, their ability to do it themselves, that’s not going to go away. However Compass Pathways thinks it can control psilocybin through IP, psilocybin will defeat that, I think. Maybe not in the business context or the pharmaceutical context, but in reality. So I think that nature is irrepressible and I don’t think these substances will go away.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned for your Harper’s piece way back in the day that Rick MacArthur so strongly supported that you worked on it for a year. That’s a long time.
Michael Pollan: I know, it’s crazy.
Tim Ferriss: And that you were counting on that paycheck. I don’t know if you had mortgage payments at the time —
Michael Pollan: I did.
Tim Ferriss: But it was important to your livelihood and also therefore a determinant of your ability to continue writing that you had that kind of support. Do you want to, maybe this is as good a time as any, to mention the fellowship? Do you want to introduce this?
Michael Pollan: Yeah. So, as I’ve continued to stay involved in this area, I’m doing it in different ways, and as are you. And I was involved with the founding of a psychedelic research center at Berkeley that just got established last year, and we’re doing a couple of things that we thought would be different than other centers, but that would also help the entire field. So rather than doing clinical research, which isn’t done at Berkeley, because we don’t have a medical school, we’re going to do basic science. We’re really going to try to understand the brain mechanisms involved in psychedelic experience and explore what psychedelics have to teach us about things like consciousness and predictive coding and perception. We’re also going to do training of guides, which is understood to be the great bottleneck going forward. The Funders Collaborative estimates we’re going to need a hundred thousand guides in the next 10 years.
And then the third thing that I’m most excited about, because I’m going to be directly involved in and I have something to contribute, is we’re going to do a major public education initiative. There’s a huge amount of curiosity about psychedelics and sources of information are somewhat limited and not always that rigorous. So I see psychedelics as becoming a very important journalistic beat in the next 10 or 20 years, in the same way food and agriculture became an important beat beginning in the early 2000s. Before then, just to use that as a model, journalism about food was essentially the recipe page, the pages on Wednesday in the newspaper, and journalism about agriculture was trade magazines like Beef Today or Progressive Grocer, that’s where you had to go to learn what was happening in agriculture. Beginning with Eric Schlosser’s important book Fast Food Nation in 2002, and a couple of other books, including my Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, suddenly writing about food and agriculture as a unified whole, as a system, took off.
And now you have a generation of journalists who are good at it and cover the subject well and you can learn a lot about where your food comes from and its carbon footprint and all this information is out there. So we need to do the same for psychedelics. It’s a rich beat. It involves many layers. There is science, there is policy, there is business, and there is culture, and we don’t have a lot of people writing about it yet. And so how do we attract really talented young journalists to work on it, and that will serve everybody. And so we came up with a series of ideas, one of which you and I discussed, which was what if we created a journalism fellowship where we would have a sum of money each year to give grants to young journalists who have cool ideas to report on psychedelics, whether it’s business or science or culture or whatever, and you very generously funded it, it will be called the Ferriss UC Berkeley Journalism Fellowship, I think it is.
And we’re going to assemble a small panel of judges with expertise in science, policy, and business, and every year we’ll give out grants to people and help fund their journalism, whether they need $5,000 or $10,000 or $15,000. And I know for young journalists this can make all the difference and that they then can take these pieces and pitch them to mainstream magazines. So I’m hoping it’ll bring more psychedelic journalism into mainstream magazines. Some of which don’t have resources to fund expensive reporting. There’s been a change in journalism where journalism that’s been supported by nonprofit organizations can appear in places like The New York Times Magazine or The Atlantic, or Harper’s, that they’re willing to take funded journalism as long as they believe that the source is credible. And the fact that the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism will be the container for this, for the Ferriss Fellowship, I think will give our journalists a real leg up in terms of getting published.
So that’s probably going to launch in the fall, we’ll start taking applications on a rolling basis. So anyway, if you’re a journalist with a really good idea, I hope you’ll get in touch with us and we’ll publicize how to do it. If you follow my Twitter feed, we’ll definitely have it there. And perhaps in Tim’s newsletter as well. So anyway, I’m very grateful to Tim for recognizing the value of this.
We’re also hoping to do some other things. We’re going to do a newsletter starting this summer that will be free. And we’ll have a digest of news about psychedelics, about the field. I’ve just hired a young science writer to do that. I think she’s going to be terrific and it’ll report on new research as well as other developments. Eventually we hope to do a podcast and we’re going to do a massive online course too, Psychedelic Science 101, that I’m working with my colleagues to develop. So I’m hoping that Berkeley will become a center for really high quality journalism related to psychedelics. And we all at the center are very grateful to you, Tim, for supporting this effort.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I couldn’t be more excited. I have watched this field so closely over the years, most recent years, and couldn’t think of a better person to head it up. And also, I’m not sure if you touched on this or if we touched on it perhaps earlier, but you have some experimental data, so to speak. This is not the first time that you’ve offered these types of grants. So I’d love to maybe hear about how your experiments in other subject areas have turned out because this isn’t the first rodeo, in other words.
Michael Pollan: No, I actually about eight years ago I started a similar fellowship, which is Wendy Schmidt’s foundation, 11th Hour Berkeley Journalism Fellowship. And this was to cover food and agriculture. And it’s organized somewhat differently. We take 10 people a year, we get several hundred applications. People who have an idea, young journalists, 30s, early 30s or 20s, and we pick 10 and we give them a $10,000 grant to report their stories. And we also give them help in shaping those stories, pitching them, and helping them with the editing and introducing them to editors. Some of which we’ll do with this grant, it’s not going to be quite as hands-on because I think these people are going to be in a slightly different stage in their career, but we found that this was incredibly helpful to people’s careers and I’ll give you one example, there was a young journalist named Nicola Twilley who had a really cool idea about the refrigeration revolution coming to China.
A country without good refrigeration is only going to develop to a certain level. And refrigeration has all sorts of implications for the food system and climate change, all kinds of things. And she had this cool idea about going to China as they’re embarking on this revolution. And she wrote a really good pitch and she sent it to The New York Times Magazine. And they said, “Well, this is a great story, but you don’t have any experience reporting from China. We can’t afford to send you. If you were a name writer or whatever we would.” So she came to us and we gave her a grant and she went back to The Times and she said, “Well, what if I can cover all my expenses?”
And they said, “Great, we’ll take your piece.” They took her piece. They published it. It was very successful. And it led to a book which is coming out, I think, next year. She also met someone else in that fellowship and they started a very good podcast whose name I’m forgetting.
Tim Ferriss: We can put it in the show notes also.
Michael Pollan: Okay. I’ll send it to you. Anyway, and now she’s a New Yorker staff writer. And she still writes a lot about food. The right boost at the right moment in someone’s career can make such a difference. And so we’re hoping we’re going to build a cadre of really good journalists who have the necessary skills and skepticism and investigative abilities to hold this space accountable. Because we’re moving from a time where the scientists have held the microphone about psychedelic research to a moment where the entrepreneurs are going to hold the microphone.
And as you pointed out, they’ve got a very different agenda and there’s some cool ideas coming and there’s some really bad ideas coming. And one of the ways you hold an industry accountable is with good journalism, and we saw that with food. And that led to real changes in the food system. So we were going to need the same in psychedelics. It’s going to get much more contentious and much more complicated in the years to come. So we’re hoping that we’ll have a group of journalists up to the task of holding everybody’s feet to the fire.
Tim Ferriss: Couldn’t be coming at a better time. I’m so excited about this. Michael, there are two more things I’d love to touch on. One is related to the book, and one is going to bring us full circle in a way. I’m holding up my mug, for those who can’t see it.
Michael Pollan: Here’s mine.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Coffee. So as we all know, it has always been the case that the Brits drink tea and Americans just love their coffee. Is that a true statement?
Michael Pollan: It is. I mean, they are definitely a tea culture and we’re more of a coffee culture, and there’s a specific historical reason for it. When you’re in London now you’re very aware of coffee and there’s a lot of great coffee houses. But initially, when coffee and tea were first introduced to Europe, which happens in the same decade, in the 1650s, it was coffee that took off. And coffee became this tremendous fad in England. And there were coffee houses. There was one coffee house for every 150 Londoners. I mean, they were everywhere, and people were spending hours and hours in the coffee house, which became much more than a place to drink coffee. It became, really, a social media. You would go to the coffee house to get the news. It was about information more than it was about the drug.
Although the drug definitely played its role, and there were different coffee houses for whatever your interest was. So if you were an artist, you would go to this one in Covent Garden. And if you were a scientist, there was one associated with the Royal Institution, the great scientific institution in London. And if you were in business, you might go to Lloyd’s, which became Lloyd’s of London, because you could actually write a policy on your ship and your cargo there. And then people would go from one to the other conveying news. So it was initially a coffee culture. But the English colonies weren’t good places to grow coffee. They didn’t have any coffee growing colonies. They had tea growing colonies like India, and they had a foothold in China. So beginning about a hundred years later, tea became so much cheaper and tea took over from coffee, by and large.
And it was about colonial politics and the nature of imperialism. Countries with good coffee-growing colonies like Amsterdam, like the Netherlands and France, they were much more coffee. And when America was started, we were a tea culture because we were getting all this tea that the British East India Company was bringing in. But of course, with the Revolution, we revolted against all things English. You’ll recall the Tea Party from your high school history textbooks. And the tax on tea was so offensive to the colonists that they threw a whole shipment of tea into Boston Harbor and switched to coffee. And we have been the coffee country ever since. Caffeine in general has been very important to capitalism in that it makes us better workers, makes us more efficient. So one of the stories I tell in the chapter on caffeine is just how important caffeine was to the rise of capitalism. It’s important to know just how drunk everybody was before caffeine came to Europe. People were drinking all day long. They drank for breakfast, they drank for lunch, they drank for dinner, there were alcohol breaks instead of coffee breaks on farms. And this was all fine when you’re doing physical labor, but once you start operating machines and you have to deal with double entry bookkeeping, a drunk workforce is a serious problem. So, enter coffee and caffeine, it didn’t completely displace alcohol, but it diminished the need for alcohol.
One of the reasons people were drinking so much was not just to change consciousness, but because alcohol was safer than the water then. When you ferment, you disinfect. But coffee and tea were even safer than that because you had to boil water; it was the first time there was any reason to boil water. And so the countries that adopted hot drinks were much healthier and had much better public health.
So caffeine’s this huge boon to the Industrial Revolution. People who can safely handle machines, and also you can’t have a night shift without caffeine, right? We were stuck with the circadian rhythms of the rhythms of the sun, and only when caffeine comes along could you extend the workday. And the best proof of this idea is if you think about it, the institution of the coffee break is like a wild idea. Your employer gives you time off to take a drug and provides the drug. Why do they do that? Well, it was discovered only in the 1900s that employees who got coffee breaks at mid-morning and mid-afternoon did more work, performed better. And I tell the story of the company where the first coffee break was instituted.
So caffeine has changed the course of civilization in many ways. It really contributed to the rise of rationalism in Europe too, a certain way of thinking that’s very linear, very rational, very logical, and I understood this in part when I got off coffee. The reason I got off coffee, I mentioned that challenge from Roland, but I also wanted to see if I could reacquaint myself with its power, because if we use it every day, basically it gives us a little lift and it stops the symptoms of withdrawal, which are really nasty. And every morning you’re starting to go through withdrawal until you have that first cup, and then it’s like, everything’s okay and you get back to baseline. But if you’ve been off it for a few months, that first cup is psychedelic. It is as powerful as any drug I’ve had, and was wonderful, and the only sad thing is you can’t hold on to that power.
Tim Ferriss: By the third day, “Oh, no!”
Michael Pollan: So anyway, I had quite a journey with caffeine as did our civilization, but it’s a wonderful substance, there are no good reasons not to consume it. Well, with one exception. I mean, I looked at all the health issues tied to it. Now you can abuse caffeine, you can have too much until you’re — and anxious people will get more jittery sometimes, but it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your blood pressure, it prevents certain kinds of cancer, or it’s associated with lower rates of certain kinds of cancer, dementia, it improves your memory, it improves people’s performance in athletics. It’s kind of amazing. The only negative is it messes with your sleep. And even if you stopped drinking coffee at noon, it has a quarter-life of 12 hours, so a quarter of the caffeine that you ingested will still be in your bloodstream at midnight, and what it robs you of, or can, is deep sleep, which is very important for our health.
Most of the sleep researchers I interviewed don’t consume caffeine. I was like, “Ugh!” But on balance we should count ourselves fortunate, and why did this plant produce this chemical that has this effect on us? Well, it began as a pesticide. It is a pesticide, but not in human brains.
Tim Ferriss: And one way it strikes me that caffeine has changed civilization is by fooling us into thinking, or what percentage of us, 90 percent of us?
Michael Pollan: 90 percent worldwide use it regularly. And by the way, it’s the only drug we give our children, if you think about it, in the form of soda.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s wild. It’s convinced 90 percent of people on the planet that their baseline, their so-called normal waking consciousness is actually sober, but it’s not, it’s infused with caffeine.
Michael Pollan: We are, we are creatures of caffeine now. And it’s so transparent in its effects, it doesn’t feel like you’re high, certainly, but this way we operate, our ability to focus — when I was writing How to Change Your Mind, I learned that there are these two different kinds of consciousness, there’s lantern consciousness and spotlight consciousness. Lantern consciousness, you’re taking in information from all sides, it’s kind of a little ADD-ish. Kids have lantern consciousness. The ability to narrow your focus and block out everything else is really critical to adult life, to work, to scientific discovery, to writing books, to so many things that we do, fixing cars, that spotlight consciousness is nurtured by caffeine, and that’s a huge gift.
It’s interesting, I asked Roland Griffiths, “So is this a boon or a bane to our species?” And he said, “Well, it’s definitely a boon to our civilization because now we have to get up at a certain time and be somewhere at a certain time and perform certain functions. But that’s not the same as saying it’s a boon to our species. We may have been better off and healthier when we were on the cycles of the sun, when we did have a broader expanse of information.” So I thought that was a very good cautionary note that he sounded; he’s a very wise man, as you well know.
Tim Ferriss: He is a very wise man. This might seem like a non-sequitur, but have you ever explored coffee culture in Japan? Have you looked at all at their coffee culture?
Michael Pollan: No, tell me about it.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really fascinating, which is a lazy adjective, but you see a lot of the sort of meticulous attention to detail that you might associate with a tea ceremony brought into these elaborate rituals in some places around coffee. Now, of course you can get your dimestore, shitty coffee first thing in the morning to go to your job, but there are also these good bespoke, hole-in-the-wall places where you can get a 45-minute pour over and they have lots of rules around what you can do or can’t do with their coffee, they might give you a piece of toast. There’s a place called Inokashira Park, Inokashira-koen, where I remember going to this coffee shop, which, it was fancy, but it wasn’t expensive, if that makes any sense?
Michael Pollan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: They took it very seriously and they sold two things, they sold coffee and they sold toast that had the face of a panda bear burned into the side, and those were the two things that you could purchase.
Michael Pollan: How was the coffee?
Tim Ferriss: The coffee was great, the coffee was fantastic, and for those people interested there’s a term, it’s kissaten, or kissa sometimes, K-I-S-S-A, there are a number of videos that you can find on YouTube looking at this sort of kissa culture, K-I-S-S-A. And actually I’ve been meaning to ask you, have you done anything in video or television related to How to Change Your Mind?
Michael Pollan: Funny you should ask. Yesterday, I was shooting for a documentary series that we’re doing on How to Change Your Mind, and I’ve been working on it for the last several months, and it’s going to be a four-part Netflix series looking at four different substances. We’re going to look at LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and mescaline, and do an hour on each. So I’m very excited by it. I’ve done this with previous books, Cooked was a four-part Netflix series and Botany of Desire was on public television, and I’m very interested in how you translate one medium into another, but also you just reach people you don’t reach, not everybody reads books and books are the germ, but it’s really important to reach people where they are.
Tim Ferriss: That’s exciting.
Michael Pollan: So I’m hoping by the end of the year or early next year, it’ll drop.
Tim Ferriss: That’s super exciting. The visual medium also is a great gateway drug, pun intended, for the longer form writing also, I would imagine a lot of people will discover your writing and have discovered your writing through —
Michael Pollan: Without question, they watched it on television and then they realized there was a book, and that’s definitely a part of it. Our challenge though, in doing this, is how do you recreate the psychedelic experience?
Tim Ferriss: Not using paisley, tie-dye visuals.
Michael Pollan: Exactly, and the instructions to the special effects people that we interviewed, and we found a fantastic firm that’s doing some amazing sequences, is no ’60s references, no paisley, no kaleidoscopes, because that was never right anyway.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Michael Pollan: That was the technology they had to make things look weird. And so they’re coming up with some very new ways to imagine the psychedelic experience for the screen, and that’s what I’m most excited about.
Tim Ferriss: Can’t wait to see it. So, my last question, I guess, is in a way also related to gateway drugs, metaphorically speaking. Gardening, if I’m going to step into the world of gardening and recognizing that I’m prone to starting many things but I don’t continue many things.
Michael Pollan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: So, if I want to start off on the right foot and not read any textbooks or anything to begin with, are there any resources, any suggested starting points, things to do, maybe first projects? How do I even begin to approach this? Because gardening is so broad a term, it just includes so much, and I will have some property on the East Coast, I can kind of do whatever I want. I could also do something in Texas, so I have options available. Where would you suggest that I start?
Michael Pollan: Well, are you interested in growing food or growing ornamentals or growing psychoactives? Because that’s an option.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I mean, I would be open to all of them. I think I’m interested in food, it kind of depends on the turnaround time on the food since I am not in one place all year round and I know nothing about harvesting schedules and so on, I’m very interested in growing culinary herbs, for instance, I could see growing tobacco possibly if that is kosher, your book scared the living shit out of me when it came to growing.
Michael Pollan: Oh, no, I grow tobacco too and it’s a beautiful plant and an unjustly maligned plant I would argue.
Tim Ferriss: Beautiful plant that I’ve seen in travels through Mexico and elsewhere.
Michael Pollan: It takes a lot of space, it’s a biggie.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so I think what would be interesting to me is having a few plants or a few projects that teach me a lot about different principles of gardening, if that makes any sense? Without biting more off than I can chew.
Michael Pollan: Yeah, well one way to start, I mean, not having seen your property or know that much, I know it gets very hot in Austin in the summer, is to build a raised bed, start with one raised bed, which you buy some wood that doesn’t decay easily, like cedar or redwood, and you make a box, essentially, that’s about a foot high and it can be any length you want, but it shouldn’t be so wide that you can’t reach every point in it. And fill it with soil, which you can either get at the garden center or have a dump truck come over.
The advantage of a raised bed is it’s kind of idyllic circumstances for the plants, whatever the local issues are with your soil, and if you have an old house, there may be lead in your soil, so you want to test your soil if you’re going to use local soil food or herbs, and it gives you this ideal growing medium because the land is never stepped on so it doesn’t get compressed, so the roots can really travel, and you can plant more densely in a raised bed because the roots can go down rather than sideways.
There’s a book called Square Foot Gardening, that’s really good, John Jeavons, who’s an Englishman who really was one of the pioneers of organic gardening and he was a great believer in raised beds. And in that you can experiment and you could take one end and do all herbs, and herbs are wonderful in that they don’t need a lot of attention, most of them are pretty tough. Summer annuals will die every year, like basil you have to replant every year, but many of them will reseed or just come up on their own again.
And I have a house that I don’t visit that often. And all I plant now there, this is the house where the opium story took place, I mean, I still own it, and I only plant herbs and garlic now because they can do very well without me. Garlic is the best crop because you plant it in the fall and ignore it, and whether it’s dry or wet it will come up, and no pests bother it, and it’s absolutely foolproof. And they’re very easy to plant, you just buy big cloves of garlic in the market in the fall and divide them up into single cloves and stick them in the ground and they’ll do their thing. But you need a house call, I have to come visit and look at the situation.
Tim Ferriss: You do need to come visit, I endorse that suggestion.
Michael Pollan: Yeah, start with John Jeavons though, that was a big influence on me when I started gardening. And watch out for those woodchucks.
Tim Ferriss: There are no woodchucks that I’m aware of here in Austin, but we do have armadillos. I imagine they’re pretty enthusiastic about eating anything and everything they can get their prehistoric paws on.
Michael Pollan: And deer? Do you have deer?
Tim Ferriss: There are deer here, not nearly as many as you would find certainly in a rural part of the East Coast.
Michael Pollan: So you’ll learn pretty quickly what your pests are.
Tim Ferriss: I bet.
Michael Pollan: Because when the news gets around the neighborhood that there’s some good vittles, everybody shows up and then you have to start thinking in terms of fences and things like that.
Tim Ferriss: Just a quick interruption and we’ll be right back to the show. The book suggested and referenced by Michael from John Jeavons is actually titled How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land with Less Water Than You Can Imagine, and there’s a foreword by Alice Waters.
Michael, it’s always so much fun. People can find you online at michaelpollan.com, @michaelpollan on Twitter, @michael.pollan on Instagram. The new book is This Is Your Mind On Plants. It’s just a fascinating romp through history, your own personal adventures and fear and loathing in Connecticut, of course, in one portion. And I always enjoy your writing and also our time in conversation. Is there anything else that you would like to say, any closing comments, any requests of people listening, anything at all that you’d like to add before we wind down this conversation?
Michael Pollan: I don’t think so. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground as usual. It’s always a pleasure talking to you and we have so many interests in common, so this is always a labor of love. So, anyway, thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, Michael, to be continued, I’m going to take you up on that house call offer. And for everybody listening, as mentioned earlier, we will have show notes, copious show notes for everything that we discussed, you can find links to everything, descriptions and so on at tim.blog/podcast, just search Michael Pollan and look for the most recent episode. And until next time, thank you for tuning in.
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