Drugs and society: higher thinking on why we get high

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p. 113-179.

Drugs are, and have been a part of culture for centuries (p. 139). Yet with this desire to alter consciousness has come with a social taboo (p. 140). This taboo has inhibited modern western society from having many conversations about what drugs are doing and why we actually do them. In the chapter Intoxication, Pollan attempts to explore these very questions, leading us down an interesting path.

One part I didn’t like about this chapter was the end. I got quite bored and had to ask myself many times, “How high was this guy when he was writing this?”. Pollan gets very abstract and seems to be documenting his own experience with the drug. Generally, Pollan likes to personalize his stories by using other people. Perhaps this was an attempt to personalize the experience to the reader and because altering consciousness is such a personal experience in itself, he had no other way to do this. Unfortunately, I did not connect with this.

Pollan spends a portion of the chapter talking about the war on drugs in America. As Pollan mentions, America jailed absurdly high numbers of people, many for only being involved in marijuana (p. 126). This war on drugs forced the marijuana farmers inside. This move changed the way marijuana was grown and allowed many of the variables to be controlled. “To succeed in North Amierca, cannabis had to do two things: it had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment” (p. 130) I found this quote very powerful, and it was relatable to the introduction of this book where Pollan construes the lines between natural and artificial selection.

Clearly, artificial selection has taken place as cannabis plants are much more potent now than before the war on drugs. By moving these plants indoors and changing the growing conditions, it has produced numerous changes in the plant. The species Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica created hybrids with great vigor and allowed the plant to grow in higher latitudes and have higher THC content (p. 132). The artificial conditions created indoor also allowed growers to manipulate the reproduction and morphology of the plants. By using metal halide lights for 24 hours a day, and then abruptly switching to sodium lights for 12 hours a day, plants would cause blooms from very young plants (p. 135). “I don’t think I’ve ever seen plants that looked more enthusiastic, despite the fact that [the marijuana plants] were being forced to grow in an utterly unnatural [environment]… ‘Happy to oblige!’ the marijuana plants seemed to say (p. 137)”. While reading this, I saw similarities between the Control chapter of this book.

The other question that hasn’t been answered yet is why people would risk so much for a plant? The almighty dollar is one possibility. However, Pollan takes a different angle. He believes humans have an inherent drive to get high, the way by getting high seems secondary (p. 139). Pollan uses examples such as children choking one another, meditation and psychoactives as examples. Much of the rest of the chapter exploring why we have this inherent drive to alter our consciousness. The conclusion that he comes to is that we want to alter our consciousness to escape from the trials of daily life by immersing us in the present moment. Personally, I’m not convinced. I agree with his point that it is a fallacy to assume every behaviour has an evolutionary advantage (p. 141). As many biologists know, if a behaviour does not lead to a change in offspring produced, the behaviour will not be selected for or against. Humans (or animals) may use the drugs infrequently enough, that it does not produce a significant evolutionary loss. In today’s society, even frequent drug users still have kids. One must also take into consideration that we may still be in the process of evolving to psychoactives. The desire to get high may just be the product of us tricking our brain’s reward system (p. 141).

The end of the chapter takes quite a different turn. Pollan talks about how psychoactives work from a biochemical perspective. I really liked this section as it asked many questions I have myself. Why do drugs bring us into a world that we are often unable to access? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have these answers. We understand so little about consciousness from a scientific perspective that we really can’t answer why our consciousness is altered (p. 158).

One thought that I had while reading the end of this chapter is why we believe that a plant has the answers to life, god and the universe. For a long time humans used drugs in spiritual ceremonies, and everyone knows someone who had a “life changing” experience from drugs. I am not trying to belittle this experience as I’m sure it was. But why do we take these experiences as real? Drugs are most often the secondary metabolites of plants that have evolved some advantage to the plant (usually defense). The plant does not produce these compounds for our enjoyment as Mechoulam says (p. 156). So why do people believe that divine spirits lie within a molecule. As stated earlier we know very little about the biochemistry of consciousness. What stores a memory? What allows us to have abstract thought? Is it a molecule? A cell? The electricity produced by the brain? I have suspicions that like the discovery of the relatively simple structure of DNA (compared to proteins) holding our genetic information, what holds memory and thought will be something simple and overlooked. If a molecule or a cell can hold memory, it becomes more likely that plants may be able to store thoughts, memories etc. But wouldn’t that make them artificial? And if they were able to give us thoughts and memories, is this manipulation an advantage to the plant?

When we start to question why we have an innate desire to alter consciousness it becomes convoluted quite quickly. It is a fair assumption to assume that our level of consciousness while we’re sober is our optimal state to stay alive. So why is stepping out of that state so appealing? Is it an advantage to us? Is daily life in all cultures so hard that we must escape? Or do we do it to get the chemical reward without any of the work? My guess is the latter.

One thought on “Drugs and society: higher thinking on why we get high

  1. Hey Jay.

    I enjoyed reading your blog about Pollan’s intoxication reading. Your statement about wondering “How high was this guy when he was writing this?”-made me laugh, because I completely agree. Plus, this is something surely in the realm of possibility considering Pollan’s personal approach to writing too-the only thing that made me believe otherwise, was he probably would have explicitly said if he was. Surely, some of his ideas must have come from an altered conscious state though because I also agree it was getting rather philosophical into things we know very little about. You seemed to dislike this; however I did find it of interest. I thought his thoughts were just a means of attempting to find deeper meaning in our lives and attempting to greater connect us to the world we live in.

    I can appreciate your ability to successfully incorporate your own voice into your writing. I can basically hear you saying these thoughts out loud while I was reading your blog. I think this makes for a very genuine blog post which I enjoyed.


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