Michael Pollan on the value of the hallucinogens

Michael (Botany of Desire) Pollan has a breathtaking piece in the current New Yorker on the current wave of scientific research on the benefits – and not merely the medical benefits – of mindful and well-directed use of psilocybin and other chemicals classified as “hallucinogens” or “psychedelics” or (in some uses) “entheogens.” It’s as good an introduction to the field as one could ask for. Well-written, of course: what else, from Pollan? More than that, it catches all the right nuances of a technically, socially, and even metaphysically hairy field of inquiry.

The central idea is that the mystiform experiences that psilocybin and other drugs can trigger under the right circumstances can be beneficial, not only in treating specific problems – end-of-life anxiety, for example, or nicotine dependence – but by enriching lives: making some people “better than well.” So far the studies are small, but the results are impressive.

It’s encouraging to see the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health taking a scientific attitude: cautious but interested. It’s discouraging, though – alas! – not at all surprising to see the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse responding to exciting research results by worrying about what might happen if someone tells the children.

Among the central characters in Pollan’s narrative is Robert Jesse, among the most impressive – I might even say “saintly” – people have I ever encountered. Bob doesn’t push for credit; it’s nice when someone like that gets credit just the same.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

5 thoughts on “Michael Pollan on the value of the hallucinogens”

  1. IME the people that have experienced such hallucinations are the ones who think out of the box anyway. There likely are some out-of-the-box thinkers who have been afraid to try it and I'm glad that actual work is being done on it. 'Mind expansion' is not a bad thing, but safety is key.



  2. Given the almost complete lack of treatments for autism first diagnosed in adults, it makes me pretty angry that it's so difficult to do this research.

  3. Hi Mark! I've been a fan ever since you appeared in that Peter Jennings (RIP) piece on Ecstacy way back in 2004. I really like the work you've done on marijuana policy in the last couple of years. I've always wanted to see you expound a little more on issues relating to psychedelics and MDMA. The debate around them is at least as riddled with zealotry as the one around marijuana. I think it could benefit from your public voice, especially with everything happening now at Hopkins and NYU, and the ongoing projects sponsored by MAPS.

    I also really liked Pollan's piece, although he seemed to fall prey to the reflex of throwing "non-clinical" psychedelic users under the bus to buttress his credibility. "Apart from the molecules involved, a psychedelic therapy session and a recreational psychedelic experience have very little in common." That's an extraordinary claim for which he doesn't present very compelling evidence.

    I understand that Griffiths, Ross et al need to perform the usual song-and-dance routine to convince the DEA to approve their research. I'm willing to give Pollan the benefit of the doubt, and assume he's toeing the party line in deference to them. I just hope the underground culture gets its due at some point – I'm convinced these studies would not be taking place now if interest in these compounds hadn't been nurtured by people keeping them available through the long years of legal and academic exile.

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