Drugs

Illegal-Psychiatric Drug Hypocrisy and Why Michael Pollan Is Smarter Than I Am

Before Pollan gained influence authoring books about food, he wrote articles about American psychotropic drug hypocrisy.

Photo Credit: paulista/Shutterstock.com

Before Michael Pollan gained well-deserved respect and influence authoring five bestselling books about food, he got my attention in the late 1990s writing articles about American illegal-legal psychotropic drug hypocrisy. For those of us who appreciate what Pollan later accomplished for the local food and real food movements, it’s probably been a good idea that since 1999 he has stopped writing articles about drug hypocrisy, otherwise he might never have become so well-received.

If Pollan had continued his assault on American drug hypocrisy, he likely would have been attacked by many psychiatric drug users who mistakenly believed he was challenging their decision to choose psychiatric drugs. At least that’s been my experience. 

I first got excited by Michael Pollan’s journalistic courage and great storytelling when I read his lengthy 1997Harper’s article “Opium Made Easy,” a wonderful piece about the legal ambiguities of growing the poppy plant. The gardener/journalist Pollan begins with, “So, yes, I was curious to know if I could make opium at home, especially if I could do so without making a single illicit purchase.” But his curiosity is transformed into paranoia about getting arrested for merely growing the poppy plant, and his paranoia is ultimately transformed into contempt for American drug hypocrisy:

The war on drugs is in truth a war on some drugs, their enemy status the result of historical accident, cultural prejudice, and institutional imperative.... Is it the quality of addictiveness that renders a substance illicit? Not in the case of tobacco, which I am free to grow in this garden. Curiously, the current campaign against tobacco dwells less on cigarettes’ addictiveness than on their threat to our health. So is it toxicity that renders a substance a public menace? Well, my garden is full of plants—datura and euphorbia, castor beans, and even the stems of my rhubarb—that would sicken and possibly kill me if I ingested them, but the government trusts me to be careful. Is it, then, the prospect of pleasure—of “recreational use”—that puts a substance beyond the pale? Not in the case of alcohol: I can legally produce wine or hard cider or beer from my garden for my personal use (though there are regulations governing its distribution to others). So could it be a drug’s “mind-altering” properties that make it evil? Certainly not in the case of Prozac, a drug that, much like opium, mimics chemical compounds manufactured in the brain.

In 1999, Pollan continued his criticism of psychotropic drug hypocrisy in a New York Times Magazine piece where he discusses the revolving door in our culture of “good” psychotropic drugs becoming “bad” ones, and vice versa. Pollan again brings up Prozac in the context of labeling other drugs as “bad” that similarly “alter the texture of consciousness, or even a human’s personality.”

Then Pollan stopped writing articles about psychotropic drug hypocrisy. In his 2001 book Botany of Desire, Pollan has a chapter about marijuana, but when checked the “Articles” section on his Website, that 1999 New York Times article was his most recent drugs piece. To Pollan’s credit, he has kept his drug articles on his Website for all the world to see.

I thought this drug hypocrisy issue was important enough for somebody to keep writing about it, and I naively believed that if I made it clear I was not opposing the informed choice to use psychiatric drugs—just confronting drug hypocrisy—then psychiatric drug users and prescribers would at least tolerate me. However, I’ve learned from experience that I upset many of these people, especially some psychiatrists who can get very upset with those who compare psychiatric drugs with illegal ones.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was in a studio taping an interview.On my way out, I saw on television the planes crash into the World Trade Center. In a glazed stupor that many Americans experienced that day, I went to my office and checked my messages. One was from a Cincinnati-area psychiatrist who said he wanted to talk to me about an article that had run that day in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

That article (“Different Antidotes to Depression”) quoted me from an interview with its reporter two weeks before in which I had detailed how illegal drugs such as cocaine affect the same neurotransmitters as psychiatric drugs. The reporter misquoted me in some specifics, especially about psychotherapy, but she got right my general point about psychiatric/illegal drug hypocrisy.

I returned the psychiatrist’s phone call, and he immediately launched into an attack, “My patients are coming into my office upset, saying that they just read in the newspaper that their medications are no different than street drugs." He said I was incredibly irresponsible and threatened to make sure I would lose my license..

I recoiled at the thought of him going after my license to practice psychology. But then I remembered what had just happened on that horrible morning, and I shot back at him: “Do you know what an ass you are making of yourself? The country is traumatized after watching people jump to their deaths a few hours ago, and you are narcissistically focused on your drug prescribing." 

As far as I know, he never did go after my license. 

A month earlier in August 2001, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the report “Pay Attention: Ritalin Acts Much Like Cocaine.” Ritalin is considered by chemists to be “amphetamine-like,” while other ADHD drugs such as Adderall, Vyvanse and Dexedrine are in fact amphetamines, which are essentially synthetic cocaine. Not only does cocaine affect the same neurotransmitters as do ADHD stimulant drugs, the clinical effects of these ADHD drugs are indistinguishable from cocaine if both are similarly administered. The textbook A Primer of Drug Action (1998) notes this about the ADHD drug Dexedrine: “Individuals who have used cocaine have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective effects of 8 to 10 milligrams of cocaine and 10 milligrams of dextroamphetamine [Dexedrine] when both are administered intravenously.” It is simply untrue that these ADHD drugs only work if you have ADHD, as many non-ADHD diagnosed college kids, truck drivers, and others effectively use these drug to pull all-nighters.

In 2008, I wrote an article for AlterNet in which I documented the similarity between illegal drugs and psychiatric drugs, the psychiatric/illegal drug revolving door, and American drug hypocrisy. I discussed how Sigmund Freud used cocaine as medication to treat depression, and how later, amphetamines were used. Alcohol was a recommended treatment for anxiety as late as the 1940s. In the 1950s and early 1960s, psychiatrist Oscar Janiger used LSD to treat the neuroses of Hollywood stars and other celebrities. In my 2007 book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, I discuss how Cary Grant described himself as a “horrendous” person who became a better one—“born again” in his words—by using LSD approximately 100 times, and I mention how ecstasy was used in marital counseling during the 1980s, and now researchers are studying it as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

I have compassion for people who choose psychotropic drugs—illegal or psychiatric ones— to take the edge off to help them function. I have worked with many people who believed that alcohol and illegal psychotropic drugs helped them function. They often used these substances as a sleep aid and to divert them from the unpleasantness of their jobs (a 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them).

Some psychiatry apologists attempt to discredit those of us who address psychiatry’s hypocrisies and deceptions by branding us Scientologists. As I made clear in a 2008 Huffington Post piece, not only am I not a Scientologist, but I am equally critical of both psychiatry and Scientology. Scientologists deride others for using psychiatric drugs. They don’t like to mention, however, that Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard had an anti-anxiety drug in his system at the time of his death, and several of Hubbard’s assistants later attested it was one of many psychiatric and pain medications Hubbard ingested over the years.

How best to explain American drug hypocrisy? Maybe Pollan got it right in his 1999 New York Times Magazine piece when he concluded: “We hate drugs. We love drugs. Or could it be that we hate the fact that we love drugs?” 

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