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Can Psychedelic Drugs Do Good?

Michael Pollan’s new book details the positive effects of LSD and magic mushrooms.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

On October 29, 1966, the Austin-based band 13th Floor Elevators performed their psych-rock hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” on American Bandstand. It’s an incredible song, but not one of the greatest performances. The band is lip-synching and obviously high off their asses. Singer Roky Erickson’s manic voice and demonic yelp don’t sound like what you’d hear on the radio in those days (or any day, really). What makes the clip memorable is when Dick Clark thrusts the microphone in the face of the band’s jug player, Tommy Hall. Clark, America’s preeminent cool old guy at the time, asks, “Who is the head of the group, gentlemen?” Hall replies: “We’re all heads.” 

Penguin Press, 480 pp., $28.00

Author Michael Pollan was eleven years old when that episode of Bandstand aired. It hit the airwaves just six months after Life magazine released an editorial boldly titled “LSD: Control, not Prohibition,” and two months after the Beatles released what was their most acid-inspired album to date, Revolver. But Pollan wasn’t paying much attention to any of that. As he writes in the prologue to his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, he was born “halfway through the decade that psychedelics first burst onto the scene,” but he considers himself “less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic psychedelics provoked.”

One of the aims of his book is to correct that sense of panic. It’s a rare take on psychedelics that does not come dressed up in a cheesy colorful montage and backed by the sounds of the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Pollan takes his time to show what LSD and 5-MeO-DMT (also known as “The toad,” smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad) can actually do: He reaches for enlightenment, and drags us along for the ride. He documents the positive effects of these drugs, from curing addiction to bringing relief to cancer patients, and shares some of his own experiences. As America struggles to help people who deal with addiction and mental health issues, Pollan supplies ample evidence that substances like LSD and psilocybin could actually help—if we’d just move past what we thought we knew.

Derived from the ergot fungi, Albert Hoffman accidentally created LSD in a Swiss lab in 1938. Within a decade, it was being used commercially in Europe for psychiatric use. By the time it made its way to the United States in 1949, scientists were split over the question of how it should be used. As Pollan lays out in his succinct history, some researchers believed that the drug originally known as psychotomimetic, “held promise as a tool for understanding psychosis.” Aldous Huxley famously tripped on his deathbed, while Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, believed that a hallucinogenic experience on the plant-derived alkaloid belladonna helped him become sober. 

In the mid-1950s, Wilson attempted to introduce LSD into AA treatment, but his colleagues felt that introducing a mind-altering substance into treatment went against the organization’s core mission. By that point, the drug was already gaining a bad reputation among some doctors, but mostly thanks to a misunderstanding of how to administer it. Some, like Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond considered psychedelic experience “a key factor in the therapy,” which could lead alcoholics to “something closer to transcendence, or spiritual epiphany.” But other trials put test subjects in constraints, blindfolded them or both. This, of course, led to more than a few bad trips, and, Pollan writes, “critics of treating alcoholics with LSD concluded that the treatment didn’t work as well under rigorously controlled conditions.”

Some groups actively looked to weaponize the drug. One popular myth throughout the ’60s was that terrorists were plotting to dump LSD into the water supplies of American and European cities. During the 1968 Democratic convention, rumors swirled that Yippie protesters, led by Abbie Hoffman, were conspiring to spike Chicago’s reservoir. Yet somewhat ironically, it was the CIA that came closest to using LSD for ill, when, starting in 1953 and only officially ending twenty years later in 1973, they carried out mind control experiments, secretly dosing subjects with the drug and observing their behavior.

Ultimately, prohibition won out. LSD was made illegal in 1968. Its connection to the growing counterculture made it appear more of a threat than a cure for anything. By the time the 1980s rolled around, psychedelic drugs had undergone an extensive smearing. Any discussion of possible medical benefit fell silent. From after-school specials dramatizing the devastating effects of drugs to the harsh law enforcement policies of the War on Drugs, the message was that if you took psychedelics, you could lose your mind and even your life. Pollan doesn’t review these psychedelic dark ages much, although he does devote a hefty page count to the work of underground scientists who kept researching these drugs through the 80s and 90s, believing that the maligned substances could be used for good. Those doctors and scientists helped inspire a new generation of researchers, some of whom are now funded by universities, while others still operate illegally and in secret.

In a chapter headed “The Trip Treatment,” Pollan observes the university-funded programs as he delves into psychedelic therapies for quitting smoking. The results are significant. As Pollan points out, giving up cigarettes is considered by some to be tougher than getting off heroin. Yet, after being administered a psychedelic, one patient finds that cigarettes simply “became irrelevant, so I stopped.” This patient participated in the Johns Hopkins smoking cessation pilot study that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with a compound containing psilocybin, the chemical that gives some mushrooms psychedelic properties. The reason this treatment is effective remains the subject of some debate. Pollan notes, “it may be that the loss of self leads to a gain in meaning,” and says explaining the change can’t be explained biologically “yet.”

Pollan compares the patient’s experience to the experience of astronauts who report that, having gone into space and looked down at the “pale blue dot” that is their home planet, their ego vanished. The idea is that taking psilocybin allows patients to confront “the immensity of the universe,” “making possible a shift in worldview and priorities that allowed them to let go of old habits.” Psychedelics can switch things in the brain around, in what amounts to a reorganization of the mental furniture. Pollan theorizes that psychedelics “relax the brain’s inhibition on visualizing our thoughts, thereby rendering them more authoritative, memorable, and sticky.”

These effects may also be therapeutic at the end of life. While some of the people Pollan talks with are trying to live longer and be healthier, some have decided to undergo testing with psychedelics as they come face to face with their own mortality. “I am the luckiest man on earth,” notes Patrick, a man dying of cancer, who participated in an NYU psilocybin trial. Throughout his sessions, he talks of “something beyond this physical body,” and the cancer as a “type of illusion.” For every report of a “bad trip,” there are a dozen stories of profound enlightenment and happiness experienced by people who have dropped acid or taken mushrooms.

Pollan had his whole life to try psychedelics, but for the baby boomer journalist, there was no dropping acid in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show in the 1970s or anything like that. Pollan, who says early in the book that he tried magic mushrooms “two or three times in my late twenties,” only started experimenting in earnest in his sixties. “I’m not sure what I was waiting for: courage, maybe, or the right opportunity, which a busy life lived on the right side of the law never quite seemed to afford.”

In the chapter entitled “Travelogue,” he goes on three different trips. The guide who gives him LSD for “Trip One,” is the son of a man who served in the SS during World War II. This gives Pollan some pause due to the fact, “I was a Jew from a family that had once been reluctant to buy a German car.” Anybody that has tried any of the drugs Pollan takes knows that even the slightest hint of anxiety going in can sometimes lead to troubling results. Yet the man, known as Fritz, puts those fears to rest with “a broad grin and a warm hug.”  

We soon find Pollan tripping, sitting in a yurt somewhere in the mountains, listening to a soundtrack of “New Age drivel,” revisiting each phase in his life, from falling in love with his wife Judith to his son Isaac’s birth and childhood. It’s told so matter-of-factly that it risks sucking the emotional air from the scene, but then we see Pollan with “warm tears ... sliding down my cheeks.” Even as he notes that “psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words,” he argues that it is worth trying. “It is all too easy to dismiss what unfolds in our minds during a psychedelic experience as simply a ‘drug experience,’ and that is precisely what our culture encourages us to do,” he writes. 

There are signs that this is changing. In the last few years, it is not uncommon to see articles on “What to Know About Ayahuasca, the Hallucinogen That Blows Your Mind and Makes You Puke Your Guts Out” in fitness magazines, or to hear of young entrepreneurs dropping acid to cope with the pressures of building a business. While it’s easy to sneer at rich and powerful wellness types and Silicon Valley billionaires trying to chase the magic of LSD, their support could also be viewed as an avenue toward cultural acceptability for these drugs, helping psychedelics filter into the mainstream. Pollan’s book, and television shows like Hamilton Morris’s Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, give the curious and open-minded plenty to read up on, if interested. 

Yet the most important thing Pollan does in this book is describe deeply his personal experiences of psychedelics in as relatable a way as possible. Ayelet Waldman also successfully did this with her 2017 memoir, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. Both authors offer an approach very different from earlier, sometimes offputting efforts to advocate for substances like LSD and mushrooms, which ranged from the message that the drugs could help people to calls for countercultural revolution or threats of mind control. Pollan opts to get personal. During his own psilocybin journey, he recounts a moment when nature called during his trip:

the bathroom was a riot of sparkling light. The arc of water I sent forth was truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, a waterfall of diamonds cascading into a pool, breaking its surface into a billion clattering fractals of light. 

How to Change Your Mind might not be a colorful, psychedelic mass love-in, in which we all become “heads,” but a psychedelic revolution could be closer than we think. And Pollan, a baby boomer who missed out on the first big attempt to enlighten the masses through LSD, might be one of the thinkers to help usher in this new era.