Michael Pollan: What Do Marijuana and Catnip Have in Common?
The following is an excerpt from The Pot Book edited by Julie Holland, M.D. (Park Street Press, 2010)
Julie Holland: Can we start with the catnip story?
Michael Pollan: I always kept a little patch of catnip in my garden for my old tomcat, Frank, who really liked it. It's not a very difficult plant to grow. The patch was hard to miss, because it was so shrubby. But every evening around five or six o'clock, just around the time that I was going to the garden to harvest something for dinner, Frank would come down there and look at me. What he wanted to know was where that catnip was, because he managed to forget every single night. And I would point it out to him or sometimes bring him over to it, and then he would pull some leaves off, sniff them, eat them, and start rolling in the grass. He was clearly having a powerful drug experience. Then he would sneak away and sleep it off somewhere.
But the interesting thing was, as much as this became part of his daily routine, he could not remember where the catnip was. And it occurred to me that this might be a kind of evolutionary strategy on the part of the plant: instead of killing the pest, it would just really confuse it. Killing pests can be counterproductive, because they breed or select for resistance very quickly. This happens with a lot of poisonous types of plants, as it does with pesticides. But if the plant merely confuses the pests or disables their memory, it can defend itself against them overindulging. Pure speculation, as I say in the book. It occurred to me that it might help explain what's happening with cannabis, which of course also disables memory.
Holland: So THC could potentially protect the plant from pests by discombobulating them so they forget where they found it?
Pollan: It potentially is doing that. The big question is why plants would evolve very specific chemical compounds that have this strange effect on the mental processes of mammals, and that's one theory that I came up with to explain it. There is also, of course, the pure-chance theory. Maybe the THC is doing something else entirely, like protecting the plant from UV rays or performing some other function for the plant, or maybe it does indeed kill insects. But it just so happens that THC also unlocks this particular receptor network in humans.
Holland: I am very interested in the idea that we co-evolved with cannabis on the Earth for ten thousand years and that we've got receptors for this plant substance inside our brains, that we've got cannabinoids and anandamide inside us. You've written about cannabis helping you forget as sort of a helpful strategy or adaptation, and there's a line in Botany of Desire about forgetting as a prerequisite to human happiness and mental health. I guess anandamide is our brain's own drug for coping and enduring. It's not just the benefits of forgetting -- what's that line, "Do you really want to remember every face you saw on the subway this morning?"
Pollan: Yes, Raphael Mechoulam keyed me in to that idea. We understand the evolutionary utility of memory, but we don't often think about the utility of forgetting. And it was that comment by him that made me realize that it's almost as important to be able to forget as it is to remember. Forgetting, in this case, isn't just a fading of the memory, but an active process for editing, because we take in far more information than it would be useful to retain. There's just so much detail in our visual field (not to mention the other senses) at any given moment that a lot of what our brains are doing is figuring out what is worth remembering, what can be shucked, and what should just be remembered for a little while and then let go. So we need some sort of mechanism for doing it, and Mechoulam's speculation was that one of the functions of anandamide would be to help us prune the sensory data of everyday life, short-term memory in particular. I found that a very persuasive theory, and it certainly gels with the experience of a brain on marijuana, because things that happened just minutes ago are gone, and I think that has a lot to do with the texture of the experience.
Holland: There's no doubt that short-term working memory is temporarily diminished when somebody gets high. But what I think is enjoyable to people is this idea of dehabituation, that they're seeing things with fresh eyes. Memory is the enemy of wonder. When people get high, everything is new and intense because of this forgetting, because it's dehabituated.
Pollan: It's a childlike way of looking at the world -- Wordsworth's child. The child sees everything for the first time; and, of course, to see things for the first time, you have to have forgotten that you've seen them before. So forgetting is very important to the experience of awe or wonder.
Holland: It aesthetisizes commonplace things. When something is sort of distanced or estranged, it somehow becomes more beautiful.
Pollan: It italicizes it, in a way. You set it apart, and you actually see it. It gives a freshness to things that we take for granted all the time. I think it's definitely a part of all drug experiences in one way or another, but marijuana seems to have the ability to do this with ordinary things, putting them up on a pedestal.
Holland: That sort of perception provides breaks in your mental habits, provides the power to alter mental constructs, and offers new ways of looking at things, so drugs can then function as "cultural mutagens," a phrase you use.
Pollan: Looking at the whole history of drugs and culture -- whether you're talking about music, or art, or writing -- there's this very rich tradition of artists who have availed themselves of various drugs and have attributed great insight or creativity to their experience with those drugs. And one of the mechanisms that might explain this is that the drugs shift ordinary perception, allowing you to see things from a new perspective, and that is kind of mutagenic; it triggers change.
I used that metaphor with some care because, obviously, 99.9 percent of the time, drug experiences are not making any contribution to culture whatsoever, and they're usually a complete waste of time and can also lead to all sorts of problems. So I liken them to mutations: you put out enough novelty in the world in the form of insider experience, and some of it is bound to be really productive, in the same way that if you put enough mutations into a gene or an organism, some of them are going to produce incredible advances, but most of them will be maladaptive. That's the other reason why I thought mutagenicity was the right term. It's not as if there's a one-to-one relationship -- you try this, and you're going to have an amazing artistic experience. I think the odds are probably the other way.
Holland: So speaking of metaphors, you describe cannabis buds as perpetually sexually frustrated, ever-lengthening flowers. I feel like our culture is so separated from nature now that it's a big part of our problem. This striving flower is a great metaphor for our reaching out, wanting more -- more meaning, searching for spirituality, though half the time we settle for materialism or consumerism. What do you think we can do to reconnect more with nature? Do you see plant-based medicines being helpful?
Pollan: I think they are. We have this inbred idea of nature and culture as opposed to each other, with mind and body on opposite sides of the big divide. One of the things that's really striking to me about all plant mood-changing substances is that idea. If things out in the natural world can change the content of your thoughts, can you really say that matter is on one side and this thing called spirit on the other? It really suggests that the categories are messier and more intertwined than we'd like to think.
There's a whole tradition in the West of suppressing plant-based drugs and plant-based knowledge. That's what the story of the Garden of Eden is all about. It wasn't the content of the knowledge that Eve got in the garden that was the problem; it was that she got it from a plant. A big part of earlier religions, which often had a drug component to them, was that there was wisdom in nature, and consuming natural substances was how you acquired wisdom. That was a very threatening idea to monotheism, which wanted to have this one God up in the sky; it wanted to take our eyes off of nature as a place where we might find wisdom, comfort, and so forth.
The whole Judeo-Christian tradition has a history of a strong antinature component. Nature is to be subdued, nature is what we are different from: we distinguish ourselves from animals. It's always about inserting that distance between us and the other animals, or us and the trees, because people used to worship trees. So, to the extent that you wanted to establish this new kind of God, you had to reject nature and natural experiences of all different kinds. So I do think there is potential in returning to this appreciation of the fact that our consciousnesses can be affected by the plant world, not to mention the fungal world.
Holland: I love the idea of a garden being a place of sacraments. In Botany of Desire, you wrote, "Letting nature have her way with us now and again brings our upward gaze back down to earth." This idea of nature as teacher and as healer, of a plant as medicine, is so basic to our culture, but we've gotten away from that to a large extent.
Pollan: Yes, and there are many reasons for that. One is the religious tradition and another is the patent laws.
Holland: You can't help but blame Big Pharma to some extent.
Pollan: Well, the fact is that the drugs that are nearest at hand and most common, the plant drugs, can't get past Big Pharma. There is an investment that goes into studying their value, and it is always the same -- the synthetic drug is better, newer, and fresher. People forget that LSD is synthesized from a mold that grows on rye, and a great many drugs have been created in that way. Opium is another great example. So we denigrate those drugs by saying they're not as pure; we don't know exactly what's in them. There's a profit motive in belittling what the plant world gives us.
Holland: It reminds me of In Defense of Food, where you talk about food being reduced to its building blocks.
Pollan: It's a reductive approach.
Holland: And Big Pharma chooses to be reductive over something more complex and whole, like a plant.
Pollan: That's the real issue with THC and cannabinol, and there are others too.
Holland: Well, anybody who has taken a pharmaceutical THC pill will tell you, it doesn't really feel like that experience is similar to smoking pot.
Pollan: Yes, that's right, and it's different in important ways. It probably has to do with various energies between the different compounds or just simply various combinations, but our science has trouble embracing that kind of complexity. It really needs to break things down into molecules for the purpose of a study, but plants really are more than the sum of their chemical parts. And our efforts to tease out the single active ingredient, whether it's a vitamin in carrots, or a drug in leaves, usually don't work out, because these things are really complicated. Reductiveness also has a negative effect when you look at the white-powder drugs. Cultures in South America have a very healthy relationship to the coca leaves.
Holland: They will just chew a whole leaf.
Pollan: Or they will make tea. From the reductive perspective, that is the same thing as smoking crack, but, of course, it isn't. There are other things going on in the leaves: the psychoactive compounds are diluted in various ways with other compounds. It's a very different thing, and to say we're talking about the same molecule in all instances is probably false.
Holland: I can think of one example where just giving a single molecule did seem to create a good experience: in the Johns Hopkins study, where they administered psilocybin, as opposed to whole mushrooms, to healthy subjects who had rich spiritual lives. They were able to show that they could engender a mystical state with psilocybin.
When you mentioned fungus before, there are certainly plenty of plants that are able to change our consciousness, like mushrooms or cannabis.
Many people think of plants as spiritual teachers, and as healers, which naturally leads us into the whole medical marijuana issue.
Pollan: I think in a metaphorical way, they do teach us, but I don't think they set out to teach us. There's a lot we can learn from them, and whether it's spiritual, again that goes to the separation of spirit and matter, which I don't buy. People mean many different things when they talk about spirit. I get really uncomfortable around terms like spiritual, because I'm not sure what it means.
Holland: Well, one aspect of spirituality is to be present, to focus on the here and now, which I think cannabis can help people do. So this idea of "here and now" taking us away from the "then and there" of Christian salvation, the transcendence and the Power of Now -- I don't know if you are interested in any of that.
Pollan: I've written about that idea of "here and now" a lot, and, in fact, in my architecture book I did that too. I wrote a book called A Place of My Own, and there was a chapter about foundations in which I talked a lot about that idea of here and now, and how there's a tension between those two sets of values. Both of them are present, usually.
Holland: Do you think it's safe to say that cannabis can sometimes help place you in the "now"?
Pollan: Yes, I think it has the effect of absorbing you in the here and now -- partly by increasing this forgetting function we were talking about, and also by creating a really single-minded focus on whatever is in front of you. I think that is a very powerful thing. Also, it's not a desiring drug, it's a satisfying drug, and I really believe in that distinction. Have you ever read David Lenson's books?
Holland: Sure, On Drugs.
Pollan: I think it's just full of brilliant ideas. It's a terrific book and really has never gotten the recognition it deserved. He compares marijuana to cocaine. Cocaine is a desiring drug, always about the next high; it really is the consumer-culture drug, where satisfaction is just over the next horizon. One more purchase, one more snort. And marijuana is like, "Hey, whatever's here is fine."
Holland: And also, "No, thanks, I'm good. I've had enough."
Pollan: Exactly. And it's part of the reason why the go-getter culture frowns on potheads: they don't want enough, they don't buy enough.
Holland: Pot ends up being subversive because it doesn't move that agenda forward.
So, what do you think of the California medical marijuana situation?
Pollan: It's a mixed bag. It's wonderful to see it normalized and regularized for a lot of people. I know many people who have their couple of plants, and it's not a big deal. It gives you a taste of what a sane drug policy might look like. On the other hand, there is incredible abuse. A great number of people are pretending to be medical marijuana growers or sellers when they're not. And they're abusing the system in a way that I think may lead to the collapse of this whole regime, and the blame will be on them. It won't be on the DEA.
Holland: I totally agree. I hope that California understands that the rest of the country is watching them to see how they do. This is a big experiment, and they're bushwhacking and leading the way, and I really don't want them to screw up.
Pollan: There's so much money in this, and the temptation is so great. I just worry that they're going to ruin this experiment, and California's failure will be used to keep it from happening anywhere else.*
Holland: I want to talk to you about the politics of gardening. You wrote about victory gardens in the October 9, 2008, issue of the New York Times magazine. There's a real grow revolution happening now, with people growing their own pot, partly because these hybrids are so easy to grow indoors. I think it helps people feel self-sufficient and self-determined.
Pollan: And it's safer in various ways. They aren't having to transport things in public conveyances. In a way, this is how it should work. It also takes cannabis out of commerce in very healthy manner, given the drug laws we have. So I do think there's something very satisfactory about growing it yourself, growing your own drugs and enlisting yourself in your care and not depending on other people.
Holland: When I'm weeding my garden, it makes me feel powerful: this plant can stay, this weed has to go. I'm in charge, like a bouncer. And when the government steps in and tells us what we can grow in our gardens and what we can put in our bodies, it just seems to me that it's out of their jurisdiction. And having our own gardens helps us take some responsibility for the climate crisis.
Pollan: There is a literal value in terms of helping the climate. But part of this situation is the specialist mindset, depending on others to take care of your problems. To the extent that gardens teach that you can do things on your own, that the real prerequisite for solving this climate problem is figuring out a different way to live, taking up gardening is a valuable skill we're going to need when things get bad.
Holland: Where do you see hemp fitting into this? Not only is hemp-seed oil good for your body, but hemp as fuel could be very good for the environment.
Pollan: I don't know that much about it, but I think it's a shame that we haven't researched what this very unusual and useful fiber can do. I think for paper it's got good potential. I have no idea if there is a potential for ethanol.
Holland: It seems that it does have the potential to be used as fuel. We are using corn now as an energy source for everything; hemp could be an upgrade from corn.
Pollan: Yes and no. You still need agricultural land to do it, and I think one of the issues with ethanol is that we are using some of our best agricultural land to feed our cars rather than our people. It may be that hemp could grow in places where corn can't grow, in marshy lands. But in general, it has the same problems: it needs tilled land to grow in. It's not like grass, which can grow anywhere.
Holland: Where do you see cannabis and hemp fitting into "going green"? Doesn't it fit an organic model more than an industrial model?
Pollan: There's nothing inherently green about it; look at all the technology and fertilizers used to grow it right now in a lot of places. So I don't see it fitting one model more than the other. I'm sure there are contributions that hemp could make, and I think the universities should be paying attention, studying and analyzing it. I think the lack of research on both hemp and marijuana, given their potential, is criminal.
Holland: When you tried sativa in Amsterdam, you said that you felt "neither stupid nor paranoid."
Pollan: Yes, but I don't know how much of that was due to the chemistry versus the context. You're smoking in a place where it's legal, so if there were any paranoia, it would likely be diminished. Research has talked about setting, and I think people underestimate just how important it is. But it also seems likely to me that there are real differences in the nature of the experience between the two strains, indica and sativa, and depending on the kind of work people do, they tend to like one more than the other. They may have physical aches and pains that they are trying to relieve. And indica, I think, has more CBD in it, and maybe that would explain why it helps. But of course, expectation plays a part in this too, because when people come to expect something from a drug, they're going to get it.
Holland: Can you talk a little bit about our government's drug policy, especially in terms of intervening with our gardening?
Pollan: I think as an adult, you should be free to grow anything you want on your own property as long as you're not taking it other places. The idea that the government can tell you what you can grow in your garden, strikes me in a visceral way as wrong. Our right to privacy should include that.
Holland: I wanted to thank you for mentioning asset forfeiture and the prisoners of the drug war in Botany of Desire. I know it was an aside, but it's an important issue. If you grow cannabis, can you lose your house?
Pollan: Yes, you can, and people don't realize that. The kind of seeds that you choose to plant in your garden could result in the complete loss of your house and your property. And you don't even have to plant it; someone else could plant it on your property. They don't even have to tie the plant to you to seek forfeiture of the asset. So a stranger could plant it, or your kid could plant it, and you could lose your house.
Holland: You talked about Frank waiting until five o'clock to find the catnip. There's something ritualized in that. He could control himself and wait. He could keep it in check.
Pollan: Well, yes. He had other work to do during the day. He wasn't getting high at breakfast.
Excerpt from The Pot Book edited by Julie Holland, M.D., © 2010 Park Street Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher Inner Traditions / Bear & Co., Rochester, VT 05767; InnerTraditions.com