During the course of researching his latest book, "The Botany of Desire," Michael Pollan spent a delightful evening smoking pot in an Amsterdam cafe and made an important discovery about himself and America's $20 billion war on drugs: Marijuana didn't make him feel "stupid or paranoid" anymore.
The improvements in America's favorite controlled substance--a vast change from Pollan's hippie days at Bennington College in Vermont in the early 1970s--have come about, he concludes, for an important reason.
"Operating in the shadow of a ferocious drug war," global pot growers have literally been forced underground into modern, scientifically managed marijuana cellars, where cross-breeding and improved growing methods have turned pot into a more potent, benign high while removing the noxious side effects of old.
The result? Cannabis has been transformed into "what is today the most prized and expensive flower in the world."
"The drug war is great politics," Pollan said during a recent interview at his mountaintop home in Cornwall, Conn., an elaborate, 7-acre warren of gardens, ponds and elegant stone walls reclaimed from the site of a former dairy. "Declaring a war on drugs explains away a lot of crime and why we have problems with our kids. But like all societies, we're torn both by a desire to alter consciousness and then to control the consequences of that, and it's really the ambiguities of that behavior that drew me toward understanding the culture of growing marijuana."
The disappointing results of America's drug war are but one of many ironies in "The Botany of Desire," a whimsical, literary romp through man's perpetually frustrating and always unpredictable relationship with nature.
Pollan didn't set out to become a New Age critic of America's drug laws, and he seems an unlikely candidate for that kind of attention. In 1994, Pollan abandoned a successful career as an editor in New York to devote himself full time to writing. As the founding editor of the Harper's Magazine "Index" and later the magazine's executive editor, he was regarded as an up-and-coming star capable of taking over any number of high-profile editorial posts. But Pollan found himself increasingly drawn to the pleasures of gardening and writing about his experiences in nature.
"I found that nothing was more pleasurable than devoting a long evening to gardening after a day spent writing or guest-editing in New York," says Pollan, who had floodlights installed so he could garden after dark.
Pollan, 46, is often surprised by the impact of his quirky, discursive essays. In 1998, a long article of his, "Playing God in the Garden," described how Monsanto Co. had introduced a genetically engineered potato to kill off the Colorado beetle, largely without public notice. The article's appearance led to a wholesale review of genetically engineered potatoes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This spring, Monsanto quietly dropped the product.
Pollan's two previous books--"Second Nature," a critically acclaimed meditation on gardening, and "A Place of My Own," his lyrical account of spending a year designing and building a writer's cabin behind his home--established him as a sort of Emerson of the contemporary gardening and shelter boom.
In his new book, Pollan chose four common, commercially successful plants--the apple, the tulip, the potato and marijuana--to explore the connection between man's desire to alter nature and how the plant world responds. But Pollan's probing--and, at times, hilarious--journey through America's marijuana culture will provoke the most notice as he makes the rounds of television shows and a six-city book tour.
"The big lesson I took away from 'Second Nature' was that the garden is the place where we look to to answer our questions about nature," Pollan says. "But, in the end, I was interested in us, people. By looking at plants that have evolved to gratify the desires, maybe I could understand the nature of those desires themselves."
Modern society's official taboo on marijuana has led to contrarian results, Pollan concludes. He became interested in marijuana because it symbolizes every generation's tendency to select a single "forbidden plant" while ignoring others just as threatening or intoxicating. In the 1920s, alcoholic beverages were prohibited but opium and marijuana could be bought over the counter at drugstores. Today, the situation is reversed, but government prohibition efforts have proved just as ineffective.
"Americans just don't seem to realize that the $20 billion war on drugs is essentially a war on pot, a drug whose real threat to society is, at best, debatable," Pollan says. "If you take away all the people using pot, what do you have left? A couple of million users of hard-core drugs. I'm not sure most Americans would agree to spend this much money for a threat that small."
And few Americans realize the threat to basic freedoms raised by the war on drugs, Pollan says. "You can go down through the Bill of Rights--all 10 of them--and easily determine that freedoms have been eroded by decisions on drug cases--and most of these are pot cases," Pollan says.
In his book, he refuses to become a moral sourpuss about what he considers to be America's overzealous war on pot, and his journey through the marijuana culture reveals several fascinating nuggets of trivia and hilarious personal events. Pollan discovers, for example, that astronomer Carl Sagan avidly experimented with pot and even anonymously published an essay on the subject. Pollan's own brief career as a marijuana farmer almost ended in disaster when he accepted delivery of a cord of firewood from a man who turned out to be the chief of police from New Milford, Conn.
Pollan's odyssey through the world of marijuana reveals one final, perhaps critical, irony. The rapid spread of pot in the 1960s "and the attendant official worries" freed up generous government resources to study how marijuana affects the brain, and Israeli and American researchers soon discovered both the "psychoactive" agent and the receptor in the brain that creates a pot high. The resulting research has revolutionized science's understanding of how the brain works.
"People always thought that if they took mind-altering drugs, maybe they'd understand consciousness more," Pollan says. "Now we're realizing that studying pot and its effects are changing what we know about the brain, everything from memory, emotion, appetite and so forth. Scientifically, pot has literally unlocked the secrets of the brain."