Michael Pollan on the Value of the Hallucinogens

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

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

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

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

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.