To some, Michael Pollan is the game changer of the psychedelic conversation; to others, who have concerns, the gatekeeper.
The journalist’s sixth book, How to Change Your Mind, topped the New York Times bestseller list and took a broad view of the history, culture and scientific research around psychedelics.
Time magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world and on Friday night his Wheeler Centre-presented talk at Melbourne Town Hall is sold out. Without wanting to perpetuate stereotypes, the audience is more conservatively attired than you might imagine of a psychedelic-friendly crowd. Many might have had their interest in psychedelics sparked by the blockbuster podcasts of Tim Ferris and Joe Rogan, or media articles on the progress of psychedelic psychotherapy trials – as Guardian Australia recently reported, such therapy will likely be approved here within five years.
Ash Blackwell is a bit annoyed with himself that he’s here, but curiosity got the better of him. He’s the co-founder of Students for Sensible Drug Policy Australia and he was disappointed with an op-ed that Pollan wrote for the New York Times in May, in response to Denver decriminalising psilocybin.
Pollan wrote: “As much as the supporters of legal psilocybin hope to follow the political playbook that has rapidly changed the status of cannabis in recent years, they need to bear in mind that psilocybin is a very different drug, and it is not for everyone.” And later: “It would be a shame if the public is pushed to make premature decisions about psychedelics before the researchers have completed their work.” His words were given the headline “Not so fast on psychedelic mushrooms”.
To some, that seemed like a betrayal. Waiting for the event to start, Blackwell tells Guardian Australia that he found the article patronising. The psychedelic movement – like any social movement – has its rebels and reformers, he says. “I feel like Michael took the position of the reformers and didn’t acknowledge the work and knowledge of the other side.”
He’s not the only one to feel that way.
I just don’t think we know enough to legalise these [psychedelic] drugs. We should decriminalise them.Michael Pollan
Psymposia, a site covering psychedelic research and drug law reform, made a podcast episode, We Hope Michael Pollan Changes His Mind, about what they saw as the op-ed’s urging to slow down decriminalisation.
So when Pollan gets asked about his views on decriminalisation and legalisation at Melbourne Town Hall, he’s ready.
In person, he’s a warm and entertaining storyteller, ably corralled by journalist Christine Kenneally. He reflects on becoming a reluctant psychonaut at the age of 58, in the name of research. “I talked to my cardiologist about it in advance,” he says. “I had a cardiologist.” At the side of the stage there’s an Auslan interpreter who has their work cut out describing a terrifying 5-MeO-DMT trip that Pollan likens at length to the Big Bang.
Then comes the viewpoint from the audience that: “You’ve said we’re not ready for legalisation – and that’s quite a concerning view to have.”
Pollan responds with a hint of irritation. “We disagree on the question of legalisation right now … I support decriminalisation,” he says.
He argues that legalising a substance also means commercialising it. “I see cannabis being promoted and pushed to people, as capitalism will do,” he says. “When I come home from this trip on Monday and I cross through Bay Ridge from the airport to Berkeley, I’ll see three or four billboards for companies that can deliver cannabis to my home in two hours, and I just don’t think we know enough to legalise these [psychedelic] drugs. We should decriminalise them.”
In an ideal world, he adds, sanctioned psychedelic experiences should also be available to people who are not “sick”. “We are all on a continuum of addiction, we all have periods of depression and anxiety, and we’re all going to die,” he says. “So these drugs do have value for well people.”
His concern is that North America does not yet have a cultural understanding of psychedelic use.
“We should take lessons from cultures that have been using psychedelics for thousands of years,” he says. “They’re always used in a very careful cultural container. They’re never used casually, people don’t take them alone, there’s always an elder involved and there’s always an intention involved … We haven’t devised that proper container and I think we need to do that before we legalise it.”
There could be a counterargument that the many psychedelic societies around the western world, like the Australian Psychedelic Society that Ash Blackwell plays a major role in, already provide rigorous structures, guidelines, processes and ways to minimise harm – including lists of therapists who can help a person integrate their experience after a trip. And that this is knowledge ready to be tapped.
After the event ends and the audience files out of Melbourne Town Hall, Blackwell says his view has softened. “He’s definitively said that he supports decriminalisation and that’s my main concern addressed. All the rest is fiddling around the edges.”