Ben Williams with a coffee cup in front of his face

Ben I Williams

biwills.com

This Is Your Mind on Plants

By Michael Pollan

Introduction

Things become only slightly clearer when the modifier “illicit” is added: an illicit drug is whatever a government decides it is. It can be no accident that these are almost exclusively the ones with the power to change consciousness. Or, perhaps I should say, with the power to change consciousness in ways that run counter to the smooth operations of society and the interests of the powers that be. As an example, coffee and tea, which have amply demonstrated their value to capitalism in many ways, not least by making us more efficient workers, are in no danger of prohibition, while psychedelics—which are no more toxic than caffeine and considerably less addictive—have been regarded, at least in the West since the mid-1960s, as a threat to social norms and institutions
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At various times both in the Arab world and in Europe, authorities have outlawed coffee, because they regarded the people who gathered to drink it as politically threatening
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three broad categories of psychoactive compounds: the downer (opium); the upper (caffeine); and what I think of as the outer (mescaline). Or, to put it a bit more scientifically, I profile here a sedative, a stimulant, and a hallucinogen.
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“Entheogen,” from the Greek for “manifesting the god [divine] within,” is an alternative term for psychedelics, coined in 1979 by a group of religious scholars hoping to remove the counterculture taint from this class of drugs and underscore the spiritual use to which they have been put for thousands of years
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the Greeks understood the two-faced nature of drugs, an understanding reflected in the ambiguity of their term for them: pharmakon. A pharmakon can be either a medicine or a poison; it all depends—on use, dose, intention, and set and setting
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The word has a third meaning as well, one often relied on during the drug war: a pharmakon is also a scapegoat, something for a group to blame its problems on.) Drug abuse is certainly real, but it is less a matter of breaking the law than of falling into an unhealthy relationship with a substance, whether licit or illicit, one in which the ally, or medicine, has become an enemy. The same opiates that killed some fifty thousand Americans by overdose in 2019 also make surgery endurable and ease the passage out of this life. Surely that qualifies as a blessing.
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How amazing is it that so many kinds of plants have hit upon the precise recipes for molecules that fit snugly into receptors in human brains? And that by doing so these molecules can short-circuit our experience of pain, or rouse us, or obliterate the sense of being a separate self? You have to wonder: what’s in it for the plants to devise and manufacture molecules that can pass for human neurotransmitters and affect us in such profound ways?
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plants have evolved subtler and more devious strategies: chemicals that instead mess with the minds of animals, confusing or disorienting them or ruining their appetite—something that caffeine, mescaline, and morphine all reliably do.
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Scientists recently discovered a handful of species that produce caffeine in their nectar, which is the last place you would expect a plant to serve up a poisonous beverage. These plants have discovered that they can attract pollinators by offering them a small shot of caffeine
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caffeine has been shown to sharpen the memories of bees, making them more faithful, efficient, and hardworking pollinators. Pretty much what caffeine does for us.
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When you compare this desire to the other needs we turn to nature to gratify—for food, clothing, shelter, beauty, and so on—the drive to alter consciousness wouldn’t seem to contribute nearly as much, if anything, to our success or survival. In fact, the desire to change consciousness may be seen as maladaptive, since altered states can put us at risk for accidents or make us more vulnerable to attack. Also, many of these plant chemicals are toxic; others, like morphine, are highly addictive.
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Plants that change consciousness answer to other human needs as well. We shouldn’t underestimate the value, to people trapped in monotonous lives, of a substance that can relieve boredom and entertain by sponsoring novel sensations and thoughts in the mind. Some drugs can expand the contours of a world constrained by circumstance, as I discovered during the pandemic. Drugs that enhance sociability not only gratify us but presumably result in more offspring. Stimulants like caffeine improve concentration, making us better able to learn and work, and to think in rational, linear ways
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mushroom chemicals like psilocybin can nudge us out of those grooves, loosening stuck brains and making possible fresh patterns of thought.
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Psychedelic drugs can also benefit us—and occasionally our culture—by stimulating the imagination and nourishing creativity in the individuals who take them. This is not to suggest that all the ideas that occur to the altered mind are any good; most of them aren’t. But every now and then a tripping brain will hit upon a novel idea, a solution to a problem, or a new way of looking at things that will benefit the group and, possibly, change the course of history.
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Psychedelic compounds can promote experiences of awe and mystical connection that nurture the spiritual impulse of human beings—indeed, that might have given rise to it in the first place, according to some religious scholars
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We have much to learn from traditional Indigenous cultures that have made long use of psychedelics like mescaline or ayahuasca: as a rule, the substances are never used casually, but always with intention, surrounded by ritual and under the watchful eye of experienced elders. These people recognize that these plants can unleash Dionysian energies that can get out of control if not managed with care
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the blunt instrument of a drug war has kept us from reckoning with these ambiguities and the important questions about our nature that they raise. The drug war’s simplistic account of what drugs do and are, as well as its insistence on lumping them all together under a single meaningless rubric, has for too long prevented us from thinking clearly about the meaning and potential of these very different substances
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is not a thing—without a human brain, it is inert—so much as it is a relationship; it takes both a molecule and a mind to make anything happen
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Opium

Under President Clinton, the government was prosecuting the drug war with a vehemence never before seen in America. The year I planted my poppies, more than a million Americans were arrested for drug crimes. The penalties for many of those crimes had become draconian under Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which introduced new “three-strikes” sentencing provisions and led to mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug offenses
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Richard Nixon, who we now know viewed drug enforcement not as a matter of public health or safety but as a political tool to wield against his enemies
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Ehrlichman explained that the Nixon White House “had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. . . . 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
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Today, by comparison, deaths from overdose of opiates, both licit and illicit, approach fifty thousand a year, and an estimated 2 million Americans are addicted to opiates of one kind or another. (Another 10 million abuse opiates, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.) After the coronavirus, the opiate epidemic represents the biggest threat to public health since the AIDS/HIV epidemic
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OxyContin that would earn the company’s owners, the Sackler family,* more than $35 billion, while leading to more than 230,000 deaths by overdose. But that figure grossly understates the number of casualties from OxyContin: thousands of people who became addicted to legal painkillers eventually turned to the underground when they could no longer obtain or afford prescription opiates; four out of five new heroin users used prescription painkillers first.
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four out of five new heroin users used prescription painkillers first. At
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To both the Greeks and Romans, the poppy flower symbolized both the sweetness of sleep and the prospect of death. We’re evidently not as good as they were at holding two contradictory ideas in our heads, for today who has a good word to say about opiates or opium?
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all the medicines that plants have given us: they are both allies and poisons at once, which means it’s up to us to devise a healthy relationship with them.
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One flower was the cause: a tall, breathtaking poppy, with silky scarlet petals and a black heart, the growing of which, I discovered rather too late, is a felony under state and federal law
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Deep down I suspect that many gardeners regard themselves as minor-league alchemists, transforming the dross of compost (and water and sunlight) into substances of rare value and beauty and power. Also, one of the greatest satisfactions of gardening is the independence it can confer—from the greengrocer, the florist, the pharmacist, and, for some, the drug dealer
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he was arrested on charges of possessing the same flowers that countless thousands of Americans are right now growing in their gardens and keeping in vases in their living rooms. What appears to have set him apart was the fact that he had published a book about this flower in which he described a simple method for converting its seedpod into a narcotic—knowledge that the government has shown it will go to great lengths to keep quiet.
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Pills-a-go-go printed inside news about the pharmaceutical industry alongside firsthand accounts of Hogshire’s own self-administered drug experiments—“pill-hacking,” he called it. The zine had a strong libertarian-populist bent, and was given to attacking the FDA, DEA, and AMA with gusto whenever those institutions stood between the American people and their pills—pills that Hogshire regarded with a reverence born of their astounding powers to heal as well as to alter the course of human history and, not incidentally, consciousness
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We may not hear as much now about the war on drugs as we did in the days of Nancy Reagan, William Bennett, and “Just Say No.” But in fact the drug war continues unabated; if anything, the Clinton administration is waging it even more intensely than its predecessors
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Whatever else it may be, recreational drug use is a leisure activity, and leisure is something in woefully short supply at this point in my life.
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Opium for the Masses, published in 1994 by an outfit in Port Townsend, Washington, called Loompanics Unlimited. The book’s astonishing premise is that anyone can obtain opiates cheaply and safely and maybe even legally—or at least beneath the radar of the authorities, who, if Hogshire was to be believed, were overlooking something rather significant in their pursuit of the war on drugs. According to Hogshire’s book, it is possible to grow opium from legally available seeds (he provided detailed horticultural instructions) or, to make matters even easier, to obtain it from poppy seedpods
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Whether grown or purchased, fresh or dried, these seedpods contain significant quantities of morphine, codeine, and thebaine, the principal alkaloids found in opium.
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Regarded as “God’s own medicine,” preparations of opium were as common in the Victorian medicine cabinet as aspirin is in ours.
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In the nineteenth century, especially, the poppy played as crucial a role in the course of events as petroleum has played in our own century: opium was the basis of national economies, a staple of medicine, an essential item of trade, a spur to the Romantic revolution in poetry, even a casus belli.
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One unintended consequence of the war on drugs has been to increase the potency of all illicit drugs: garden-variety marijuana has given way to powerful new strains of sinsemilla; and powdered cocaine, to crack.
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Gardening is, among other things, an exercise of the historical imagination, and I was by now eager to stare into the black heart of an opium poppy with my own eyes.
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C. Z. Guest in the New York Post that carried the headline just say no to poppies. Guest wrote that although opium poppy seeds are legal to possess and sell, “the live plants (or even dried, dead ones) fall into the same legal category as cocaine and heroin.
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the text of the Federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The language of the statute was distressingly clear. Not only opium but “opium poppy and poppy straw” are defined as Schedule II controlled substances, right alongside PCP and cocaine. The prohibited poppy is defined as a “plant of the species Papaver somniferum L., except the seed thereof,” and poppy straw is defined as “all parts, except the seeds, of the opium poppy, after mowing.” In other words, dried poppies.
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The second thing that struck me about the statute’s language was the fact that, in order for growing opium poppies to be a crime, it must be done “knowingly or intentionally.”
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He also confirmed (as did a botanist I spoke to later) that “breadseed poppies” as well as Papaver paeoniflorum and giganteum were botanically no different than Papaver somniferum. I’d planted a handful of paeoniflorum, and had had no idea what they were—until now.
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Yet this was a metamorphosis that required not only the physical seed and water and sunlight but, crucially, a certain metaphysical ingredient too: the knowledge that the poppies I beheld were, in fact, of the genus Papaver and the species somniferum
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; the tea will also relieve exogenously caused depression. That’s why poppy tea is served at funerals in the Middle East. It can make sadness go away.”
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He and his small-press book had punctured a set of myths that have served the government well since 1942, when Congress decided that the best way to control opiates was to ban domestic cultivation of Papaver somniferum and force pharmaceutical companies to import opium (which they use to produce morphine and other opiates) from a handful of designated Asian countries. Since then the perception has taken hold that this legislative stricture is actually a botanical one—that opium will grow only in these places
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As late as 1915, pamphlets issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture were still mentioning opium poppies as a good cash crop for northern farmers. A few decades before, the Shakers were growing opium commercially in upstate New York. Well into this century, Russian, Greek, and Arab immigrants in America have used poppy-head tea as a mild sedative and a remedy for headaches, muscle pain, cough, and diarrhea. During the Civil War, gardeners in the South were encouraged to plant opium for the war effort, in order to ensure a supply of painkillers for the Confederate Army. The descendants of these poppies are thriving to this day in southern gardens, but not the knowledge of their provenance or powers.
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when I pressed him about my hypothetical opium-poppy grower, he turned distinctly less amiable. “What if this poppy grower is also publishing articles about how to make poppy tea?” “Then his door is going to be kicked. Because he’s trying to promote something that’s illegal.”
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It’s as if they had on the books a twenty-miles-per-hour speed limit that was never posted, never enforced, never even talked about. There’s no way for you to know that this is the law. Then they pick someone out and say, Hey, you were going fifty. Don’t you know the speed limit is twenty? You broke the law—you’re going to jail! But nobody else is being stopped, you say. That doesn’t matter—this is the law and we have the discretion. The fact that your car is covered with political bumper stickers that we don’t like has nothing to do with it. This isn’t about free speech!” Whatever else they may be, the drug laws are a powerful weapon in the hands of an Agent Anonymous or, for that matter, a Bob Black. With the speed limit set so low, all it takes is an angry government agent or a “citizen informant” to get you pulled over—to get your door kicked.
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Why is it illegal to plant a seed, a gift from nature, when your only intention is to grow it for its physical beauty, yet at the same time it is perfectly legal to purchase an AK-47 when your only intention is gopher control?” True, the Founding Fathers had provided for a specific right to bear arms, but the only reason they’d had nothing to say “about the right to plant seeds [was] . . . because it never would have occurred to them that any state might care to abridge that right. After all, they were writing on hemp paper.”
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And why they might be inclined to lie. If opium is so easy to grow, and opium tea so easy to make, the best—perhaps the only—way for the government to stop people from growing and making their own is to convince them that it can’t be done.
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But after two decades of the war against drugs, the power of the government to move against its citizens has grown even greater than many of us realize. Apparently, a search warrant was the least of my worries. It is at least conceivable that a federal prosecutor could charge me with manufacturing a Schedule II controlled substance with little more evidence than the contents of the article I proposed to publish, which could be admitted into evidence
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If no poppies were found on the property, under the federal guidelines the government could estimate the amount that could be grown in a garden the size of mine and then charge me for growing that.
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For the poppy tea didn’t seem to add anything new to consciousness, in the way that smoking marijuana can produce novel and unexpected sensations and emotions; by comparison, the tea seemed to subtract things: anxiety, melancholy, worry, grief. Like the opiate it is, or consists of, poppy tea is a pain killer in every sense. In my notes I wrote “definitely lightens the existential load.”
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It’s worth noting that during the period of anti-alcohol hysteria that led to Prohibition, certain forms of opium were as legal and almost as widely available in this country as alcohol is today. It is said that members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union would relax at the end of a day spent crusading against alcohol with their cherished “women’s tonics,” preparations whose active ingredient was laudanum—opium. Such was the order of things less than a century ago.
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There is, for example, the desire to occasionally alter the textures of consciousness, though I wonder if that might not be universal. And then there’s this: the refusal to accept that what happens in our gardens, not to mention in our houses, our bodies, and our minds, is anyone’s business but our own.
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Opium, Made Easy,” as Harper’s called the version it published, did not launch a nationwide fad for DIY opium production, as far as I could tell.
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While we were caught up in this remote and ridiculous skirmish in the drug war, the drug in question was quietly and legally making its way into the bodies of millions of Americans, as Purdue Pharma pursued its marketing campaign, seeding the culture with seductive disinformation about the safety of OxyContin
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There’s a parable here somewhere, about the difference between journalism and history. What might appear to be “the story” in the present moment may actually be a distraction from it, a shiny object preventing us from seeing the truth of what is really going on beneath the surface of our attention, what will most deeply affect people’s lives in time. This also turns out to be a pretty good summary of the drug war
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But though it is now widely recognized that the drug war has been a failure, to judge by the number of arrests for violations of the drug laws, it might as well be 1997: 1,247,713 arrests then; 1,239,909 in 2019
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Caffeine

Roland Griffiths, one of the world’s leading researchers of mood-altering drugs, and the man most responsible for getting the diagnosis of “Caffeine Withdrawal” included in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or the DSM-5 for short), the bible of psychiatric diagnoses, told me he hadn’t begun to understand his own relationship to caffeine until he stopped using it and conducted a series of self-experiments
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Something like 90 percent of humans ingest caffeine regularly, making it the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, and the only one we routinely give to children (commonly in the form of soda). Few of us even think of it as a drug, much less our daily use of it as an addiction
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How can you possibly expect to write anything when you can’t concentrate? That’s pretty much all writers do: take the blooming multiplicity of the world and our experience of it, literally concentrate it down to manageable proportions, and then force it through the eye of a grammatical needle one word at a time
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depends in no small part on 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, the tiny organic molecule known to most of us as caffeine.
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futile. I had postponed the dark day as long as I could, concocting the kinds of excuses every addict does. “Stressful week coming up,” I would inform myself. “Probably not the best time to go cold turkey.” Of course, there was never a “good time” to do it
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This is part of the insidiousness of caffeine. Its mode of action, or “pharmacodynamics,” mesh so perfectly with the rhythms of the human body, so that the morning cup of coffee arrives just in time to head off the looming mental distress set in motion by yesterday’s cup of coffee
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I wrote in my notebook, “Consciousness feels less transparent than usual, as if the air is slightly thicker and seems to be slowing everything down, including perception.” I was able to do some work, but distractedly. “I feel like an unsharpened pencil,” I wrote. “Things on the periphery intrude, and won’t be ignored. I can’t focus for more than a minute. Is this what it’s like to have A.D.D.?”
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By the end of the week, I had gotten to the point where I didn’t think I could fairly blame caffeine withdrawal for my mental state (and disappointing output), and yet in this new normal the world seemed duller to me. I seemed duller, too. Mornings were the worst. I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep
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I began to think of caffeine as an essential ingredient for the construction of an ego. Mine was now deficient in that nutrient, which perhaps explains why the whole idea of writing this piece—indeed, of ever writing anything ever again—had come to seem insurmountable.
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One theory holds that the plant doesn’t necessarily want to kill its predator, only disarm it. As the long history of the plant defense chemical versus insect arms race demonstrates, killing your predator outright isn’t necessarily the best move, since the toxin selects for resistance, rendering it harmless. Whereas
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Most of the various plant chemicals, or alkaloids, that people have used to alter the textures of consciousness are chemicals originally selected for defense
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in the insect world, the dose makes the poison, and if the dose is low enough, a chemical made for defense can serve a very different purpose: to attract, and secure the enduring loyalty of, pollinators. This appears to be what’s going on between bees and certain caffeine-producing plants, in a symbiotic relationship that may have something important to tell us about our own relationship to caffeine.
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Wright discovered that her bees were more likely to remember the odor associated with the caffeinated nectar over the odor associated with sucrose only. (Her results appeared in an article published in Science in 2013 called “Caffeine in Floral Nectar Enhances a Pollinator’s Memory of Reward.”
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Hard as it is to imagine, Western civilization was innocent of coffee or tea until the 1600s; as it happens, coffee, tea, and chocolate (which also contains caffeine) arrived in England during the same decade—the 1650s—so we can gain some idea of the world before caffeine and after
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It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the arrival of caffeine in Europe changed . . . everything
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Coffeehouses were comparatively liberal institutions where the conversation often turned to politics, and at various times governmental and clerical powers-that-be attempted to close them down, but never for long or with much success
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A vat of coffee was put on trial in Mecca in 1511 for its dangerously intoxicating effects; however, its conviction, and subsequent banishment, was quickly overturned by the sultan of Cairo
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In China the popularity of tea during the Tang dynasty also coincided with a golden age
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The notion of drinking any beverage piping hot was itself exotic, and, in fact, this proved to be one of the most important gifts to humanity of both coffee and tea: the fact that you needed to boil water to make them meant that they were the safest things a person could drink. (Before that it had been alcohol, which was more sanitary than water, but not as safe as tea or coffee
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Coffeehouses became uniquely democratic public spaces; in England they were the only such spaces where men of different classes could mix. Anyone could sit anywhere. But only men, at least in England, a fact that led one wag to warn that the popularity of coffee “put the whole race in danger of extinction.” (Women were welcome in French coffeehouses.)
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You paid a penny for the coffee, but the information—in the form of newspapers, books, magazines, and conversation—was free. (Coffeehouses were often referred to as “penny universities.”
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Lloyd’s Coffee House eventually became the insurance brokerage Lloyd’s of London
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Similarly, the London Stock Exchange had its roots in the trades conducted at Jonathan’s Coffee-House
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The seventeenth-century war of the sexes over coffee led to the association of tea with femininity and domesticity that endures to this day in the West. A Londoner could get a cup of tea in the coffeehouse, but tea didn’t have its own dedicated public venue until 1717, when Thomas Twining opened a tea house
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Like so many other compounds that change the qualities of consciousness in individuals, caffeine was regarded as a threat to institutional power, which moved to suppress it, in a foreshadowing of the wars against drugs to come. But the king’s war against coffee lasted only eleven days. Charles discovered that it was too late to turn back the tide of caffeine
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In France, too, coffeehouses became synonymous with sedition, and would play a decisive role in the events of 1789. Jules Michelet wrote that those “who assembled day after day in the Café de Procope saw, with a penetrating glance, in the depths of their black drink, the illumination of the year of the revolution.” Perhaps for this reason, Paris’s coffeehouses were rife with intrigue
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It’s hard to imagine that the sort of political, cultural, and intellectual ferment that bubbled up in the coffeehouses of both France and England would ever have developed in a tavern. If alcohol fuels our Dionysian tendencies, caffeine nurtures the Apollonian. Early on, people recognized the link between the rising tide of rationalism and the fashionable new beverage. “Henceforth is the tavern dethroned,” Michelet wrote, surely overstating the case. Wine and beer did not go away, yet the European mind had been pried loose from alcohol’s grip, freeing it for the new kinds of thinking that caffeine helped to foster
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The enthusiasm for coffee among intellectuals in both England and France reflected, perhaps, its novelty as much as its power: new drugs always seem miraculous, and for that reason are often credited with astounding properties and consumed to excess. Voltaire was a fervent advocate for coffee, and supposedly drank as many as seventy-two cups a day. Coffee, and coffeehouses, fueled heroic labors in Enlightenment writers. Denis Diderot compiled his magnum opus while imbibing caffeine at the Café de Procope. It’s safe to say the Encyclopédie would never have gotten finished in a tavern
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it was Balzac who wrote one of the all-time best descriptions of how it feels to be overcaffeinated, a state that he said produces a kind of animation that looks like anger: one’s voice rises, one’s gestures suggest unhealthy impatience; one wants everything to proceed with the speed of ideas; one becomes brusque, ill-tempered, about nothing. One assumes that everyone else is equally lucid. A man of spirit must therefore avoid going out in public.
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When I turn down offers of coffee and explain my experiment in abstention, I find that people are keenly interested and, oddly, sort of impressed. It’s as though I’ve notched some kind of achievement. “I could never do that,” a friend will say, or, “I should really try that; I know it would help me sleep. But I can’t imagine getting through the morning.” Naturally, these reactions make me feel as though I’ve actually accomplished something worthy of admiration. I suspect I’m benefiting from the echoes of Puritanism still reverberating in our culture, which even now awards points for self-discipline and overcoming desire
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Roland Griffiths, the drug researcher, told me that he had been inspired to study caffeine after embarrassing himself with his own “revolting behavior.” In a hurry and in need of a caffeine fix, he had thrown some frozen coffee grounds into a cup, added hot tap water, swished it around, and downed it. “I recognize drug-seeking behavior when I see it!” Yet he agreed that there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with an addiction if you have a secure supply, no known health risk, and you’re not offended by the idea. But many of us can’t help moralizing addiction
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I found numerous studies conducted over the years reporting that caffeine improves performance on a range of cognitive measures—of memory, focus, alertness, vigilance, attention, and learning. An experiment done in the 1930s found that chess players on caffeine performed significantly better than players who abstained. In another study, caffeine users completed a variety of mental tasks more quickly, though they made more errors; as one paper put it in its title, people on caffeine are “faster, but not smarter.”
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In a 2014 experiment, subjects given caffeine immediately after learning new material remembered it better than subjects who received a placebo. Tests of psychomotor abilities also suggest that caffeine gives us an edge: In simulated driving exercises, caffeine improves performance, especially when the subject is tired. It also enhances physical performance on such metrics as time trials, muscle strength, and endurance.
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The problem is finding a good control group in a society in which virtually everyone is addicted to caffeine. If you compare the performance of two groups, one to whom you’ve given a caffeine tablet and the other a placebo, the chances are strong that the placebo group is in the throes of caffeine withdrawal, and so at a distinct disadvantage performing any sort of cognitive or motor task. It could be that the caffeine is merely restoring volunteers to normal baseline mental function rather than enhancing it.
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Caffeine improves our focus and ability to concentrate, which surely enhances linear and abstract thinking, but creativity works very differently. It may depend on the loss of a certain kind of focus, and the freedom to let the mind off the leash of linear thought.
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By comparison, caffeine’s big contribution to human progress has been to intensify spotlight consciousness—the focused, linear, abstract, and efficient cognitive processing more closely associated with mental work than with play. This, more than anything else, is what made caffeine the perfect drug not only for the age of reason and the Enlightenment but for the rise of capitalism, too.
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Surely it is more than a coincidence that caffeine and the minute hand on clocks arrived at more or less the same historical moment
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Before caffeine, the whole idea of a late shift, let alone a night shift, was inconceivable—the human body simply would not permit it. But the power of caffeine to keep us awake and alert, to stem the natural tide of exhaustion, freed us from the circadian rhythms of our biology and so, along with the advent of artificial light, opened the frontier of night to the possibilities of work
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We think of England as a tea culture, but coffee, initially the cheaper beverage by far, dominated at first. It wasn’t until the British East India Company (which had limited access to coffee-producing regions) began trading regularly with China in the first part of the eighteenth century that tea could displace coffee as the principal medium for delivering caffeine to the English bloodstream
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Tea was used as a mouthwash in the East long before science discovered it contains fluoride (the English would negate this advantage by adding copious amounts of sugar to their tea)
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Soon after the British East India Company began trading with China, cheap tea flooded England, rapidly displacing coffee as the nation’s preferred caffeine delivery system. A beverage that only the well-to-do could afford to drink in 1700 was by 1800 consumed by virtually everyone
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The current scientific consensus is more than reassuring—in fact, the research suggests that coffee and tea, far from being deleterious to our health, may offer some important benefits, as long as they aren’t consumed to excess. Regular coffee consumption is associated with a decreased risk of several cancers (including breast, prostate, colorectal, and endometrial), cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and possibly depression and suicide. (Though high doses can produce nervousness and anxiety, and chances of committing suicide climb among those who drink eight or more cups a day.)
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Coffee and tea are also the leading source of antioxidants in the American diet, a fact that may by itself account for many of the health benefits of coffee and tea. (And you can get these antioxidants by drinking decaf.)*
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He is single-minded in his mission: to alert the world to an invisible public-health crisis, which is that we are not getting nearly enough sleep, the sleep we are getting stinks, and a principal culprit in this crime against body and mind is caffeine
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According to Walker, research suggests that insufficient sleep may be a key factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, arteriosclerosis, stroke, heart failure, depression, anxiety, suicide, and obesity. “The shorter you sleep,” he bluntly concludes, “the shorter your lifespan.”
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Matt Walker grew up in England drinking copious amounts of black tea, morning, noon, and night. He no longer consumes caffeine, save for the small amounts in his occasional cup of decaf. In fact, none of the sleep researchers or experts on circadian rhythms whom I interviewed for this story use caffeine.
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Caffeine is not the sole cause of our sleep crisis; screens, alcohol (which is as hard on REM sleep as caffeine is on deep sleep), pharmaceuticals, work schedules, noise and light pollution, and anxiety can all play a role in undermining
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It appears that there is no free lunch. The energy that cup of coffee or tea has given you has been borrowed, from the future, and must eventually be paid back. What’s more, there is interest to be paid on that loan, and it can be calculated in the quantity, and quality, of your sleep.
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By the end of the eighteenth century, tea was being consumed daily by just about everyone in England; it became the most important commodity traded by the British East India Company, accounting for an estimated 5 percent of the nation’s gross national product
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product. “It appears a very strange thing,” David Davies, an English cleric, observed in the late 1700s, “that the common people of any European nation should be obliged to use, as part of their daily diet, two articles imported from opposite sides of the earth.” The two articles Davies had in mind were tea and sugar, which became paired in England soon after tea’s introduction
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In fact, one of the principal uses of sugar in Britain was as a sweetener of tea, and the custom drove a substantial increase in sugar consumption—which in turn drove an expansion of slavery to run the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. (An estimated 70 percent of the slave trade supported sugar production.) Coffee was even more directly implicated in the institution of slavery, especially in Brazil, where coffee growers imported large numbers of slaves from Africa to work on their plantations. How many tea and coffee drinkers in Europe had any idea that their sober and civilized habit rested on the back of such brutality?
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After the Chinese emperor ordered the seizure of all stores of opium in 1839, Britain declared war to keep the opium flowing. Owing to the Royal Navy’s vastly superior firepower, the British quickly prevailed, forcing open five “treaty ports” and taking possession of Hong Kong, in a crushing blow to China’s sovereignty and economy.
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So here was another moral cost of caffeine: in order for the English mind to be sharpened with tea, the Chinese mind had to be clouded with opium.
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Prices now are set by futures markets in London and New York, and move up and down dramatically and unpredictably. In many years, farmers are forced to sell their beans for less than it cost to grow them. Of the ten dollars you may pay for a pound of coffee, only about one dollar reaches the farmer who grew it. At the higher end of the market, a handful of companies like Starbucks and certification schemes like Fairtrade International are seeking to improve the lot of coffee farmers by paying them a guaranteed price
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Whatever the reason, the differences are striking. In The World of Caffeine, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer neatly contrast the rival cultures by proposing a series of sharp dualities. These are so obvious that I don’t need to tell you which term applies to which beverage: male/female boisterous/decorous bohemian/conventional
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obvious/subtle indulgence/temperance vice/virtue passion/spirituality casual/ceremonial down-to-earth/elevated American/English the frontier/the drawing room excitement/tranquility demimonde/society extroverted/introverted full-blooded/effete Occidental/Oriental work/contemplation tension/relaxation spontaneity/deliberation
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Beethoven/Mozart Balzac/Proust And so on. The various delivery systems for alcohol exhibit a similar degree of elaboration—just think of the cultural signifiers that go with wine versus those belonging to beer or hard liquor.
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Does anyone think this deeply—this metaphorically—about the psychosensory qualities of orange juice, or milk? No, tea and coffee are special in this regard. Consider this list of descriptors used for “cupping,” or tasting, coffee I stumbled on online. It was compiled by Counter Culture Coffee.
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These flavor and aroma molecules are present in your cup, but how much would that matter if not for that one other molecule, 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine? Would people have ever discovered coffee or tea, let alone continued to drink them for hundreds of years, if not for caffeine? There are countless other seeds and leaves that can be steeped in hot water to make a beverage, and some number of them surely taste better than coffee or tea, but where are the shrines to those plants in our homes and offices and shops?
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Let’s face it: The rococo structures of meaning we’ve erected atop those psychoactive molecules are just culture’s way of dressing up our desire to change consciousness in the finery of metaphor and association.
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People are badly deceived when it comes to taste,” Roland Griffiths, the Johns Hopkins drug researcher, explained. “It’s like saying ‘I like the taste of Scotch.’ No! This is an acquired, conditioned taste preference. When you pair a taste with a reinforcer like alcohol or caffeine, you will confer a specific preference for that taste.”
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Caffeine is naturally present in coffee and tea, but typically is added to sodas—so why would soda makers do that? Especially in a beverage marketed to children? The industry has claimed (to the FDA and other regulators) that the caffeine is there as a flavoring, and that they add it for the note of bitterness the alkaloid provides. They actually say this with a straight face. In 2000 Griffiths’s lab easily undermined the claim with a double-blind taste test in which cola drinkers were asked to detect differences in colas, some caffeinated and some uncaffeinated. Most couldn’t taste the difference. And yet the six top-selling soda brands in the U.S. all contain caffeine (typically about as much as in a cup of tea).
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Griffiths says that if you pair caffeine with any flavor, people will express a preference for that flavor. “Just like when I say ‘I love the way Scotch tastes.’”
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Peet’s in my neighborhood, which happens to be the original Peet’s, founded in 1966. On the corner of Walnut and Vine in North Berkeley, Peet’s is now something of a landmark, the site of a watershed moment in coffee history. It was Alfred Peet, the émigré son of a Dutch coffee roaster, who almost single-handedly introduced America to good coffee. Before Peet opened his shop, Americans mostly drank instant or diner coffee from blue-and-white cardboard cups or percolated coffee made from cans of Folgers or Maxwell House grounds. At the time, most of this coffee was made from inferior Robusta beans, which are high in caffeine but bitter
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Peet, who had tasted better in the Netherlands, insisted on sourcing Arabica beans exclusively, and roasting them slowly, until they were quite dark. His exacting standards and Old World aesthetic did much to create the coffee culture in which we now live. A generous man, Peet mentored a whole generation of American coffee importers and roasters, including the founders of Starbucks, who worked for him at the Berkeley shop, learning how to select beans and roast them. Peet also taught Americans to pay a few dollars, rather than a quarter or two, for a cup of coffee, transforming it into a new kind of everyday luxury good. So there would be a certain poetic logic to having my first cup at this local shrine to good coffee.
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a “special” at the Cheese Board, the shop down on Shattuck Avenue
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I was like a horse wearing blinders; the periphery and its distractions had completely vanished from my field of awareness. I could sink myself into a task and easily fail to notice that an hour had passed.
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had only had a single cup of coffee after three months of abstinence, and already the insidious tentacles of dependence were wrapping themselves around me! What had happened to my hours-old resolution to drink coffee only on Saturday? Then I heard a voice say, But it is still Saturday! I knew immediately who it was: the clever and sinuous voice of the addict. It took all the willpower I could muster to resist
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Growing at higher elevations—Café de la Cima is perched sixteen hundred meters above sea level—also allows coffee to escape one of its most destructive pests, the fungus that causes coffee leaf rust.
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Climate change is already pushing coffee production higher up the mountain and making life difficult for farmers. Coffee plants are notoriously picky about rainfall, temperature, and sunlight, all of which are changing in Colombia, rendering lands that had always been good for coffee production no longer viable. Worldwide, the prospects for coffee production in a changing climate are, according to the agronomists, dismal. By one estimate, roughly half the world’s coffee-growing acreage—and an even greater proportion in Latin America—will be unable to support the plant by 2050, making coffee one of the crops most immediately endangered by climate change. Capitalism, having benefited enormously from its symbiotic relationship with coffee, now threatens to kill the golden goose.
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coffee was still picked by hand, bean by bean—that so little has changed over the centuries
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course, this all began strictly as an accident of history and biology—remember the goats that were said to have inspired that curious herder to taste his first coffee berry? But that’s how evolution works: nature’s most propitious accidents become evolutionary strategies for world domination. Who could have guessed that a secondary metabolite produced by plants to poison insects would also deliver an energizing bolt of pleasure to a human brain, and then turn out to alter that brain’s neurochemistry in a way that made those plants indispensable?
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We’re in charge, we tell ourselves. But isn’t that exactly what you would expect an addict to say? Sure you are. Bear in mind that caffeine has been known to produce delusions of power in the humans who consume it, and that this story of world-conquering success would read very differently had the plants themselves been able to write it.
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Mescaline

I would fly to Laredo and drive out to the Peyote Gardens, the strip of thornscrub running along either side of the Rio Grande, and the only place in the world where the peyote cactus grows wild
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San Pedro being the other mescaline-producing cactus, this one from the Andes, where it has been used by Indigenous peoples for centuries before the Spanish conquest.
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Aspirin is a drug,” the shaman replied. “Peyote is sacred.”
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then, in mid-March, the pandemic burst upon the world, upending all our plans
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Maybe things would be better by November—everyone involved hoped so—but as spring turned into summer and the virus failed to loosen its grip, I began to lose hope that I could travel or do any reporting that wasn’t confined to Zoom. The whole idea of travel, of expanding one’s knowledge—one’s mind!—with new sights and experiences, had suddenly become unthinkable. It felt as though one’s mental horizon had suddenly and dramatically been foreshortened, that the possibilities of experience, at least those that depend on movement and human contact, were contracting. For how long, nobody knew
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But after several borderline blissful weeks of what we began to refer to as “the pause,” a low-grade claustrophobia began to set in
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plus. Or I could choose to regard this obstruction that history and life had placed in my way as a spur to think harder or more inventively, as something to be surmounted or circumnavigated or somehow passed through. Somehow.
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The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s classic account of his first experience with mescaline in 1953. Huxley describes a “principal appetite of the soul” for a means of transcending the limitations of circumstance, the various walls—whether of habit or convention or selfhood—that confine us. For him, it was mescaline that had shown him a “door in the wall.”
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But this hopeful if possibly crackpot idea had taken root: maybe mescaline was not merely the subject of the story, but also, somehow, the tool that would allow me to tell it without going anywhere. Along, that is, with Zoom.
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In 1954, when The Doors of Perception was published, LSD had only recently been introduced (by Sandoz Laboratories in the late 1940s), and it would be another few years before the West learned about psilocybin, with the 1957 publication of Gordon Wasson’s account of the “mushrooms that cause strange visions” in Life magazine. Though the word “psychedelic” wouldn’t be coined until 1956,
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“This is how one ought to see,” I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers or glanced at the jeweled books in the shelves, at the legs of my infinitely more than Van-Goghian chair. “This is how one ought to see, how things really are.”
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Huxley suggests ordinary consciousness evolved to keep this information from us for a good reason: to prevent us from being continuously astonished, so that we might get up from our chair now and again and go about the business of living. Huxley recognized the danger of being constantly thunderstruck by reality: “For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else.”
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art and thought from the East, the set and setting of his experience could hardly be more Western, or more white.
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Although it was a German chemist who, in 1897, first isolated the psychoactive molecule in Lophophora williamsii, the peyote cactus, and in 1919 an Austrian chemist who first synthesized mescaline, the cactus itself has been used by the Indigenous peoples of North America for at least six thousand years, making it the oldest-known psychedelic, as well as the first to be studied by Science and ingested by curious Westerners.
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Though the same chemistry is in play, the uses and meanings of synthetic mescaline for Westerners and the peyote cactus for Indigenous peoples could scarcely be more different. The importance of Timothy Leary’s notion of set and setting as shapers of the psychedelic experience surely applies at the level of cultures as well as individuals. The use of the word “chemistry” in the sentence above betrays my own orientation
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I was struck by the timing of their embrace of peyote, just when their world was being radically circumscribed—to the tightly bounded dimensions, you might say, of a nutshell. It was in the 1880s, soon after the Plains Indians, kings of infinite space, had lost their freedom to roam the West, and been confined to reservations, that they turned to peyote in order to achieve or recover . . . what exactly?
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Everybody loved mescaline! A thirtysomething psychonaut of wide experience told me that when he had finally gotten ahold of some synthetic mescaline recently, he could hardly believe what he’d been missing. “Why have you been keeping this from us?!” he wondered, referring to his psychedelic elders. “All this time, the hippies were hiding the best drug!” He spoke of the “warmth,” “gentleness,” and “lucidity” of mescaline, qualities he compared favorably to the hard-edged “jangliness” of LSD and the more-than-occasional terrors of ayahuasca
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One of those psychedelic elders is a woman in her sixties I spoke to by Zoom. Evelyn, as I’ll call her, has been leading a mescaline circle—an all-night ceremony very loosely based on Indigenous peyote rituals—in Northern California since the 1980s.
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People can stay attuned to one another on mescaline,” Evelyn explained. “It doesn’t send you to Alpha Centauri, so you’re less likely to become an embarrassment to the psyche.
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Shulgin, who had worked as a chemist at Dupont before he discovered his vocation in the course of a mescaline trip in the late fifties, synthesized hundreds of new psychedelic compounds, working in his backyard laboratory in Lafayette, California. Many of them involved tweaking the chemical structure of mescaline, which he declared his favorite. (The DEA so respected Shulgin’s expertise that they turned to him whenever they seized a drug they couldn’t identify; in exchange, they granted Shulgin a DEA license allowing him to work with Schedule I compounds.)
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More than anything else,” he wrote years later, “the world amazed me, in that I saw it as I had when I was a child.
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“The most compelling insight of that day was that this awesome recall had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid.” Rather, they came from the psyche, he realized, which, whether we realize it or not, contains an “entire universe,” and there “are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.”*
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The thought might arise,” he suggested, referring to someone in the midst of a mescaline experience, “When is this going to end?” A mescaline trip can last fourteen hours. “It’s a commitment,” he said. This probably explains its absence from scientific research—psilocybin, the psychedelic typically used in experiments and drug trials, lasts less than half as long, allowing everyone involved to get home in time for dinner
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Another strike against mescaline is that a dose requires up to half a gram of the chemical; compare that to LSD, doses of which are measured in micrograms—millionths of a gram. In the illicit drug trade, more material means more risk. Which probably explains why LSD, virtually weightless and easy to hide, came to eclipse mescaline, rendering it, by the mid-1960s, an orphan psychedelic.
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Then there is the San Pedro cactus, which also produces mescaline, albeit at lower concentrations. No, I had never heard of it, either. But it turns out that San Pedro, which is native to the Andes, has become commonplace in California, where it is planted as an ornamental and, unlike the peyote cactus, is perfectly legal to grow
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as it happens, not only does San Pedro grow all over Berkeley, but a specimen of the cactus has been happily growing in my own garden for several years now, without the gardener quite knowing it. That’s because the person who gave me a cutting of it several years ago didn’t call it San Pedro. He called it by its Quechua name, Wachuma
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San Pedro, I learned later, is the Christian name for the Wachuma cactus, named for the saint who held the keys to the gates of heaven. The name at once hinted at the power of the plant and served to mollify the Spanish, who as Catholics had a problem with the idea of an alternative sacrament, and a plant sacrament at that.
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That night Trout emailed me a recipe for preparing San Pedro. It called for a chunk of San Pedro the length and girth of one’s forearm for each person planning to drink. Since only one of my candles had attained those dimensions, I decided to hold off on cooking my cactus until it had developed two hefty-enough forearms.
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It probably goes without saying that San Pedro and synthetic mescaline are nonstarters for members of the Native American Church.
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Peyote has been used by Indigenous peoples of North America for at least six thousand years (and possibly much longer), but its use by American Indians goes back only a century or two
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The Native American Church wasn’t officially established until 1918, and the religious use of peyote by American Indians wasn’t documented until the 1880s—suggesting that the modern peyote ceremony is a revival of an ancient practice that had been lost, or suppressed.
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These findings suggest that mescaline is the most ancient psychedelic in use
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Zip ahead to the Spanish conquest and we find the first written accounts of the ceremonial use of both plants, much to the consternation of the colonial authorities. “This is the plant with which the devil deceived the Indians of Peru in their paganism,” wrote the Spanish priest Bernabé Cobo, referring to San Pedro
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The sacramental use of these cacti posed a stiff challenge to the Christian missionary’s work
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Church’s dilemma: “The white man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tepee and talks to Jesus.
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How could the bread and wine of the eucharist possibly compete with a plant sacrament that allowed the worshipper to make direct contact with the divine?
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In 1620 the Mexican Inquisition declared peyote a “heretical perversity . . . opposed to the purity and integrity of our Holy Catholic faith,” making it the first drug ever to be outlawed in the Americas—thereby launching the first battle in the war against certain plants that continues to this day
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Between 1620 and 1779, the Inquisition brought ninety cases against users of peyote in forty-five locations in the New World. The records of those cases suggest that raíz diabólica, the “diabolic root,” was used in one of two ways. In the first, a curandero, or shaman, would use peyote for the purpose of healing or divination.
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The second use was collective and ceremonial: missionaries reported scenes in which whole villages would sing and dance all night long under the influence of peyote. “To the hostile eyes of priests and missionaries these ‘feasts’ were no more than drunken orgies,”
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At dawn the ritual concludes with an animal sacrifice and a feast—blood is believed to nourish the peyote cactus. This last practice turns out to have some basis in fact: Keeper Trout told me that a good way to boost the mescaline content of peyote or San Pedro is to fertilize the plants with bloodmeal.
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At the time, any Native religious practices deemed contrary to Christianity were outlawed in the United States. (Some of these prohibitions on American Indian ceremonies stood until the Carter administration.)
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When the federal government sought to crack down on peyote in 1888, threatening to withhold rations from anyone found using it, Parker successfully defended the practice before the authorities, arguing, with some success, that the peyote religion should be regarded as a complement to Protestantism rather than a challenge. It was no accident that he would talk about seeing Jesus under the influence of peyote rather than the Great Spirit.
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The new religion might not be as threatening as the Ghost Dance, but Christian missionaries determined to stamp out peyotism, which they regarded as heathen and no different than alcohol. At the missionaries’ behest, Oklahoma passed the first law banning peyote in 1899, though within a decade it had been repealed, largely as a result of Quanah Parker’s lobbying efforts. Soon after, however, peyote got tangled in the politics of Prohibition; William “Pussyfoot” Johnson, a notorious Prohibitionist who called peyote “dry whiskey,” took it upon himself to raid peyote meetings in Indian Country
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“I seemed incapable of having base thoughts. . . . I do not believe that any person under the influence of this drug could possibly be induced to commit a crime.”
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Hoping to gain the protection of the First Amendment, representatives of several tribes came together in El Reno, Oklahoma, in August 1918 to sign the articles of incorporation of the Native American Church—marking the first time that Indians officially referred to themselves as Native Americans
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Civil liberties organizations like the ACLU took up the American Indians’ cause, and a body of law gradually developed affirming the Native American Church’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. It was in pursuit of precisely this freedom, of course, that the American colonialists originally fled Europe, coming to the Indian lands they rechristened New England. That their descendants would now seek to suppress the Indians’ own religious freedom was an irony apparently lost on most Americans, including the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a shocking 1990 decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Native American Church lost its right to practice its religion
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But in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (Alfred Leo Smith was a member of the Klamath Nation who was fired from his job when he refused to stop attending Native American Church meetings), Scalia threw out the compelling state interest standard. Calling America’s religious pluralism “a luxury,” he held that the criminal law and the police power must take precedence over the free exercise of religion. (As the attorneys for the Church commented, the decision, in effect, “rewrote the First Amendment to read, ‘Congress shall make no laws except criminal laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion.
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that. In 1993 Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored the compelling state interest standard
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Members of the Native American Church I spoke to credit peyotism with revitalizing and sustaining traditional Indian culture; promoting sobriety; healing diseases of both the body and mind; and creating bonds among Indian tribes who have often found themselves at odds.
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Decrim Nature has done a brilliant job of naturalizing psychedelics; in effect, reframing them as an age-old pillar of the human relationship with the natural world, a relationship in which the government simply has no legitimate role
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To those who believe adults should be able to use plant medicines without fear of the police, the early success of the movement seemed like unalloyed good news. But the Native American Church saw things differently. Worried that the decriminalization of peyote would fire demand, drawing fresh hordes of psychonauts to the peyote gardens, the Church requested that Decrim remove peyote from its list of approved plant medicines and images of the cactus from its website
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But this medicine is a mirror that allows you to see inside yourself, into the core of your heart and spirit. The peyote knows you.
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In the West, our understanding of drugs is organized around ideas of hedonism, the wish for escape, and the desire to dull the senses. Early white observers of peyotism often assumed Indians used the drug as a painkiller, Calabrese writes, when in fact “it tends to increase the intensity of sensations rather than deaden them.”
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A psychedelic experience can be hard work, the very opposite of what most people expect from illicit drugs.
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Westerners also tend to put medicine and religion in separate boxes, but for Native Americans (as for many traditional cultures), religion is foremost about healing. The conflation of the two has been formally recognized by the Indian Health Service, which now covers the cost of peyote meetings (and sweat lodges) for the treatment of certain illnesses. Hard to imagine, but there is a “client service code” for a religious ceremony with a psychedelic sacrament!
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peyotism “focused on personal transformation that would allow one to survive in the post-conquest situation, build a stronger community, and avoid forms of postcolonial disorder like addiction to the White Man’s alcohol.”
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Like other psychedelic compounds, the mescaline in peyote induces a state of mental plasticity, one in which you are highly suggestible and therefore open to learning new patterns of thought and behavior. While in this trance state, rigid narratives about yourself (“I can’t get through the day without a drink”; “I am worthless”; and so on) tend to soften until it becomes possible to construct new ones, typically narratives of transformation or rebirth. Apart from the group setting, this model closely resembles “psychedelic therapy” as it is being practiced today in the West.
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It sounds a bit like a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, where stories of transformation and rebirth are crafted and then cemented by the approbation of the community. Except in this case the power of the ritual is immeasurably enhanced by the altered state of consciousness all share.
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he asked a young Navajo for an explanation. “That is the problem with you whites. You always want to know everything. We just experience it.”
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impatient. “Good mescaline comes on slow,” Hunter Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “The first hour is all waiting, then about halfway through the second hour you start cursing the creep who burned you, because nothing is happening . . . and then ZANG!”
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I had glanced up from my book when I suddenly felt a wave of revulsion, almost a nausea, for print. Why would anyone ever want to read?
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No, what I wanted and needed to do now was not to read but to look—at the dark blue water, at the yellow heads carving lines through it, at the grain and the stains in the cedar boards cladding the house. It was incredible how much there was to see! The pelicans lumbering over the water before slowly climbing into the sky. The diamond reflections of sunlight glancing off the ripples in the bay. The crazy shade of chartreuse in Judith’s socks. I was captivated by it all, and could not imagine ever wanting to do anything but devour with my eyes all that there was to see.
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To say mescaline immersed me in the present moment doesn’t quite do it. No, I was a helpless captive of the present moment, my mind having completely lost its ability to go where it normally goes, which is either back in time, following threads of memory and association to past moments, or forward, into the anxious country of anticipation. I was firmly planted on the frontier of the present and, though this would soon change, there was nowhere else I wanted to be, or anything else I needed from life in order to be content. Whatever was in my field of awareness—this sumptuous feast of reality!—was sufficient.
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I wondered if perhaps I had found a hidden path out of the labyrinth of anxiety in which the virus and the fires had trapped us, that simply by lowering the horizon of my attention from the future—for the virus and the fires existed mostly there for us—I had recovered some of the beauty and pleasure in living that had been lost since the pandemic. There was a spaciousness to this present that felt like the perfect antidote to the shrunken-world claustrophobia of lockdown
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I drank in the objects of my attention like a person who had suddenly developed an unquenchable thirst for reality. I couldn’t get enough of the herringbone pattern of the water as the tide turned; the dinghies and shorebirds diligently plying the bay; the fantastic multiplicity of greens forming the far shore, sandwiched between these two great slabs of blue, one sea, the other sky.
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this is what all psychedelics do—not so much change how we feel inside (as stimulants or depressants reliably do) as imbue the world around us with never-before-appreciated qualities. On psilocybin or LSD, the objects of our attention are liable to come to life and transform before our eyes: a garden plant, suddenly sentient, might return our gaze, or a chair might take on a personality and turn malevolent. Very often on psychedelics, objects become something much more than themselves. They point, often to somewhere beyond the known world, to another plane of existence. And, sometimes, we can follow them there.
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It was this—the immensity of existing things—that began to overwhelm me during the next phase of the day, as peak intensity approached and things took a darker turn. I neglected to mention that Hamlet’s claim to be king of infinite space was conditional: the very next line is “were it not that I have bad dreams.” Here they came. Now it felt like this was more reality than I could handle. Wide open, my senses were admitting to awareness exponentially more of everything—more color, more outline, more texture, more light. It was, to quote from Huxley, “wonderful to the point, almost, of being terrifying.”
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Huxley’s trip had convinced him that the function of ordinary consciousness is to protect us from reality by a process of reduction or filtration
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When I then tried to empty my mind by meditating, the “I” that was meditating wasn’t recognizable as my own—it kept changing, one stranger after another taking turns meditating in my mind. The one I remember most clearly was a young Latin American woman
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According to this theory, our brain admits the minimum amount of information needed to confirm or correct its best guesses as to what is out there or, in the case of our unconscious feelings, in here. These top-down predictions of reality and prior beliefs are a bit like maps to sensory and psychological experience, and as long as they represent the actual territory well enough for us to navigate it successfully, there’s no need to flood the system with lots of unnecessary detail. Natural selection has shaped human consciousness not necessarily to scrupulously represent reality but to maximize our survival, admitting only the “measly trickle”—Huxley’s phrase—of information needed for us to get by rather than the full spectrum of what there is to perceive and think.
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Psychedelics seem to mess with this system in one of two ways: In some cases, the brain’s predictions about reality go haywire, as when you see faces in the clouds or musical notes leap to life or something happens to convince you you’re being followed
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Ordinary consciousness probably didn’t evolve to foster this kind of perception, focused as it is on being—contemplation—at the expense of doing. But that, it seems to me, is the blessing of this molecule—of these remarkable cacti!—that it can somehow crack open the doors of perception and recall us to this truth, obvious but seldom registered: that this is exactly where we live, amid these precious gifts in the shadow of that oncoming moment.
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I’ve connected to Wachuma because of its indomitable will to survive.” It’s true! Chop off a piece of Wachuma cactus, leave it anywhere—on the ground or on pavement, in the sun or darkness—and it will soon sprout a new cactus from the amputated limb. As long as it doesn’t freeze hard, the plant will grow anywhere: city or country, in the mountains or at sea level, indoors or out; is happy to be watered but will go months without a drop; will send up new growth from any cut or injury and, for a cactus, grows fast—easily a foot a year. Though it flowers spectacularly and can produce seed, its principal reproductive strategy would seem to depend on disaster: getting whacked by machetes or toppled by the wind. Whatever befalls this plant it takes in stride, just another opportunity to send up new life
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And then, on the Saturday night the week before the scheduled ceremony, an immense lightning storm swept across Northern California. A spidery tangle of bolts completely filled the western sky, startling millions of people awake, all of them with the same terrifying thought: fire. In the space of an hour, more than a thousand strikes had hit the parched late-summer landscape, igniting hundreds of fires. Within days the smoke had dimmed the sun and yellowed the sky, and on Wednesday morning, Taloma sent around a long email calling off the ceremony.
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Somehow, I had managed to keep my spirits up through the first six months of the pandemic. But now the invisible threat had been reinforced by a second threat you could see and feel: a fine ash was falling from the sky, dusting plant leaves and cars and entering our bodies. COVID had rendered the outdoors the safe place; now the fires were forcing us back indoors, to compulsively check websites that assessed the degree of peril it had become to breathe. Our world, already made small by the pandemic, now contracted still further.
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These words—indeed the whole contemporary vocabulary of healing—sit awkwardly on my tongue. But after the fires came, I lost some of the mental energies and momentum that had propelled me through the first months of the pandemic without the friction of despair I now began to feel. I started to wonder: Could Taloma possibly be right? Could this plant help us find a path through the serial catastrophes of this terrible year? “Trauma” is a word in heavy rotation these days. Taloma talked endlessly about it, how trauma “settles in your body” and “blocks energy” and, if it’s not addressed or acknowledged, can fester, leading to physical illnesses such as cancer, as “dis-ease” turns into disease. An unrecognized trauma can also lead to addictions
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Healers talk about how plant medicines often “surface hidden trauma” so that they can be “worked through.” How often? I wondered. Wasn’t trauma by definition an exceptional event? Now it seemed like everyone suffered from some trauma; they just didn’t know it yet.
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Here in the midst of the pandemic, the fires, and the darkening political season, I began to think that my skepticism might not be supportable. I had stumbled across a psychologist quoted in the newspaper explaining that trauma is not necessarily a discrete, dramatic event. What trauma is really about, she said, is the sense of helplessness we feel when we’re assailed by unpredictable forces beyond our control
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It’s like we’re in an endless car ride with a drunk at the wheel. No one knows when the pain will stop.” Thousands of readers must have recognized themselves in that image, white-knuckled in the back seat of that careening car. I know I did. Just when Taloma’s email canceling the ceremony popped up in my in-box, I had been trying to write a new prayer, this one asking frankly for help.
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Wachuma doesn’t heal you by itself,” Taloma said. “Its power is in its subtlety. Unlike ayahuasca, which will grab hold of you and take you on a journey whether you want to go or not, this medicine doesn’t put anything inside of you
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To start, I asked Don Victor what he calls himself—a healer, a shaman, a medicine man? “I’m not a shaman, that is not an Andean word. I’m not a healer because I don’t heal anyone of anything.” He called himself a chakaruna—a human bridge for people to walk across to get where they need to be. “But a name is just a name,” and he suggested the time for names and categories—indeed, for rational thought of any kind—was past. “In these times people don’t need to reason or ask questions so much. That is not the best way to understand the cosmic mind and Mother-Father Earth, which has become so tired from bearing the heavy, dense weight of human thinking,
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Don Victor said the plant itself is no more a healer than he is; rather, it is a teacher. We have three bodies, he explained, the physical, the mental, and the spiritual—what he calls “the trinity.” (He called each of them a pacha—“a world.”) “The plant allows all three bodies, little by little, to vibrate at a higher frequency until it is only light, pure light. That is what is meant by illumination.
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For me, the whole experience was at once more and less powerful than I anticipated. Less powerful because I found the medicine to be remarkably gentle—it never completely took hold of my mind the way the pure mescaline had done, even after I had ingested four cups. There were no visions. What it did was loosen all the cords that anchored me to place and time, freeing me to drift along aimlessly on the currents of the evening. But these currents were set in motion less by my own thoughts and emotions than by what was happening in the room: the vibrations of Taloma’s singing and Sam’s reedy flute; the spooky beating of an owl’s wing flapping around my head; the flicker of candlelight on the curved ceiling; and, especially, the shifting emotional register of the audible exhalations, which comprised our sole connection to one another in the dark.
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“I no longer had time for all that shit, so I let it go.”
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It’s your choice. We make the world with our words. Say it. Say the words right now.”
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Westerners today bring a lot of negative attitudes to tobacco, regarding the plant as irredeemably evil, but, as Taloma explained, that is only because white people had abused and exploited this sacred plant when they arrived in the Americas, transforming it from a sacred medicine into a lethal and addictive habit. There are a few different ways tobacco is used in Indigenous ceremonies, but usually as a means of purging evil or destructive energies. In Taloma’s version, the recipient stands before her and closes one nostril while she offers a brief prayer that ends with the words “body, mind, and spirit.” On the word “spirit,” you inhale deeply while Taloma, using a syringe, shoots tobacco juice deep into your sinus
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Taloma had told us, “we cut our cords to the discordant or destructive energies that connect us to others in the past.” Next we offer forgiveness to those who have caused us to suffer.
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What follows forgiveness is gratitude, which I now felt break over me in a warm wave of tears—gratitude for the gift of having these people in my life, for having this life and however many more years of it remained, and for having been introduced to a plant with the power to summon these tears and help me to see, even in this bleak, bleak season of loss, just how much I had to be grateful for
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How saccharine these words must sound! I can only imagine. I’m afraid banality is an unavoidable hazard of working with psychedelics; they are profound teachers of the obvious. But sometimes those are exactly the lessons we need
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Yet she did it in the future tense. When Taloma pointed this out, reminding her that “the future doesn’t exist,” Judith repeated them, now in the present tense, and smiled.
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About the Author

Set and setting” is the term Timothy Leary introduced to underscore the powerful influence of one’s mind-set and physical setting in shaping a psychedelic experience.
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The idea that psychedelics have played a foundational role in religion has been floating around the fringes of religious studies since at least the 1970s, when R. Gordon Wasson (the man who rediscovered psilocybin) collaborated with Albert Hofmann (the inventor of lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD) and a young classicist named Carl A. P. Ruck to write The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978; reprint, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2008). See also John M. Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton; New York: Doubleday, 1970). An excellent recent exploration of the role of psychedelics in early religion is found in Brian C. Muraresku’s The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020).
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shield laws offer no protection to a journalist engaged in a criminal activity.
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After the Boston Tea Party, the patriotic beverage became coffee, which ever since has been more popular than tea in the United States.
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For future readers, “Fauci” is the man everyone in America once knew as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and an adviser to the U.S. government on the novel coronavirus. At the time of this writing, he needed no introduction or first name.
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I’ve since learned of mescaline research projects in the planning stages, one at the University of Alabama and the other at a psychedelic pharmaceutical start-up in the Bay Area called Journey Colab.
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The use of the term “Native American” became widespread during this period, thought to be more respectful than “Indian,” a post-colonial term based on Columbus’s epically faulty sense of direction. But “Native American” has its own origins problem, since the name “American” is also a European construct, and a ridiculous one at that—based on Amerigo Vespucci’s bogus claim to have discovered the continent. Ralph Waldo Emerson called Vespucci a “thief” and a “pickle-dealer at Seville” who “managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus, and baptize half the earth with his dishonest name.” According to the Census Bureau, in recent years more Indigenous respondents identify as “Indian” than as “Native American.” I use both terms here, depending on context, but acknowledge there is no satisfactory solution. (The Canadians have finessed these problems with the terms “First Nations” and “First Peoples.”)
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