Michael Pollan’s exploration of marijuana in The Botany of Desire is a lot of fun. He talks of the inexplicable pull that toxic substances have over people. The explanation is a bit predictable to me, as a long exponent of Hunter Thompson’s “I can’t say drugs are for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me” attitude. People just seem naturally impelled to change their view of the world, in some form or another, in all cultures. I suspect that the drug of choice has a great deal to do with what we perceive as the essential nature of a culture. Or, as Pollan argues, Marx got it backwards— “opiates are the religion of the people.” What we grow in our gardens affects our world view. Zappa’s hypothesis about beer and marching seems truer all the time. The Christian fascination with wine also seems to go hand in hand with their obsession with love. But of course, other poisons are what fascinate Pollan:
The medieval apothecary garden cared little for aesthetics, focusing instead on species which healed and intoxicated and occasionally poisoned. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells”— in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amantita muscaria), and the skins of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen).
These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the Middle Ages? After a long review of how the marijuana cultivation industry has changed over the last twenty years, Pollan offers an interesting slant on the persistence of cannabis. He ultimately ends up arguing that the effects of marijuana are primarily socially induced. People smoke dope and get paranoid not because there is anything in the drug that induces paranoia, but because the social construction of a marijuana high is governed by the law. Like so many gender theorists, Pollan argues that the juridical construction of the “evil weed” is what causes the bad side effects, and the congenial sociality and laughter is also largely socially induced. Placing all the typically acceptable drugs in the same category, he argues for drug use as a tool:
All these plants are, at least potentially, mental tools; people who know how to use them properly may be able to cope with everyday life better than those who don’t.
It’s the “properly” that troubles me here— the root of normative social behavior. While the beer-drinking marching crowd serves the great protestant work ethic, I find it hard to picture a time when smoking pot and watching brainless TV will be seen as a positive social force. However, I suspect that pot would be far more effective than a nation stoned on melloril or prozac. Personally though, I think the difference is fairly slight. I haven’t needed anything for anxiety control since I grew from adolescence, though I have sympathy for those who do.
Pollan argues for a universal desire to transcend ordinary existence. I remember a conversation I had with a professor a while ago— for a profound alteration of world view, there seem to be two great choices: psychedelic drugs and post-structuralist theory. As a kid, the former option seemed best. But now, I’m enjoying the more theoretical route. It’s much easier on the body for the long haul.