Illustration by John Watson

Michael Pollan: Why MDMA could help your marriage

The author argues that we should eat less meat and take more drugs
October 6, 2022

Over vegetarian pasta at the Italian restaurant around the corner from Prospect, Michael Pollan tells me why we should be eating less meat and taking more drugs. Now 67, Pollan has had a lifelong interest in what we consume, but Putin’s weaponisation of food prices gives his prescriptions more weight. “Meat eating is incredibly inefficient,” he says, adding that 40 per cent of US grain feeds livestock rather than humans. His solution: eat more plants.

He doesn’t just want more lettuce on plates. His new book, This is Your Mind on Plants, and Netflix series, How to Change Your Mind, investigate mind-altering substances, from caffeine to magic mushrooms. “The human desire to change consciousness is really deep,” he tells me. “It seems to be a universal desire.” It’s harder to explain than our desire for food, given that it makes us more vulnerable to predators. “Lowering inhibitions,” though, “could help with reproduction.” 

Pain, boredom and depression could also be helped by psychotropic drugs, he says. Pollan is preaching what he has practised. In the mid-1990s, he made opium tea from poppies grown in his garden—a legally risky practice. The tea “tasted terrible” and gave him nausea at first. But then he was suffused with a “warm” and “aqueous” feeling, his daily aches dulled. 

Opium brings you down, but LSD takes you out of yourself. That’s why people fear it, I say. “Using drugs without ritual is probably a mistake,” Pollan acknowledges. He recommends a shaman or equivalent to answer the doorbell while you’re tripping.

When it arrived on the scene in the 1950s, LSD was regarded by scientists as a wonder cure for mental illness. “There were a thousand peer-reviewed papers involving 40,000 research subjects. It was a completely legitimate part of psychiatric research.” But then the counterculture adopted it and the authorities got worried that spaced-out young people would never turn up to work or fight wars. Research stopped. 

I wasn’t listening to a Bach cello suite; I was it

That’s changing now. There is a greater recognition that, in a controlled environment, LSD can help with psychological problems. Pollan tells me of one 30-year-old man with obsessive compulsive disorder who refused to leave the house. “It was like he was dragging this ball and chain around his whole life,” says Pollan, but the man was jolted out of a negative thought pattern by the drug. “Psychedelics appear to make the brain a lot more plastic.” 

Perhaps surprisingly, Pollan does not advocate drug legalisation. “I live in California, where cannabis is legal. And when I drive home from the airport, I’ll see billboards advertising cannabis delivered to your door… they even put it in gummy bears,” which I sense offends his palate as much as his ethics. He’s more enthusiastic about the “magic truffles” grown in the Netherlands to escape legislation forbidding magic mushrooms. 

But this is the question I really want answered: in taking LSD, are you changing the way that you perceive the world, or getting access to hidden aspects of it? Pollan says that people taking DMT, the chemical found in mushrooms, often report seeing fractal patterns or weird machine elves. Others feel like they’re merging with the cosmos or God. And Pollan himself? “In my case, it was a Bach cello suite. I wasn’t listening to it; I was it.” 

Does he still experiment? Pollan answers carefully. “If it were legal, I would have one MDMA session with my wife every year.” They would sort through their issues without defensiveness. Lowered boundaries make you more open. “Tolerance for authoritarianism goes down,” he adds. It’s often suggested that certain world leaders would benefit from a dose or two. “What if we gave it to Putin? Too dangerous, more research is needed, but interesting…” Our meal done, my mind expanded, we order more down-to-earth stimulants: two coffees.