Book Discussion: Botany of Desire: Marijuana

Updated on April 2, 2013

Michael Pollan: Marijuana

Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, A book claiming to be a plant’s-eye view of the world, covers four major, overarching human desires. In Pollan’s chapter focused on intoxication, he describes the ways in which marijuana has evolved to become much more intoxicating than could ever have been possible without humanity. I have had no personal experience with marijuana or any other consciousness-altering drugs and, thus, will be viewing Pollan’s conclusions from the standpoint of one who does not personally know the direct effects of smoking marijuana. Pollan, in his distinct style, gets to the nitty-gritty of intoxication and its history for humanity and across the animal kingdom right up to today and how one culture’s drug of choice is another culture’s taboo.

Pollan begins his discourse on intoxication noting that from the very beginning, there was a forbidden fruit. Yes, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, introduced in the book of Genesis, though it may be just a metaphor, certainly it is evidence that even in early human history, there were certain herbs that were taboo. Of course, as Pollan bears out, there are certain plants that can heal us, and there are certain plants that can kill us. More interesting than both of those, however, is that there are plants that can change our viewpoint of reality altogether. Generally, according to unwritten rules of botany, sweet is usually good, and bitter is usually bad. It is the bitter, bad, plants that have the most drastic effects on our mind. According to Pollan, “The bright line between food and poison might hold, but not the one between poison and desire”. Pollan points out that right in the middle of the word intoxication is the word toxic. Why, then, is it that humans, and so many other creatures, seek out these intoxicating herbs?

Pollan details that plants have the ability to, more than just heal or kill, repel, disable or confound their prey. Nicotine paralyzes the muscles of those who ingest it, while caffeine “unhinge[s] an insect’s nervous system” to kill its appetite. There are even plants which cause the unwary eater to become photosensitive and unknowingly bake themselves in what would otherwise be normal sunlight. How have we learned to avoid those plants which debilitate and stick with those with only positive effects, or no extraneous effects at all? Pollen states that it is solely by trial and error. We learn, most importantly, by the trial and error of other people, as if we try the wrong thing, we’re out of a job on this earth and leave this body behind whether we like it or not. That is another reason to be especially careful. One camping in the forests of California (if there are those that do that anymore) and wanting to live off of the land might be in a bit of a bind if they decided to try the “California Parsley Surprise”. It grows in California, and looks a lot like parsley, but the surprise is that it’s actually hemlock, which is very deadly, even in very small amounts; 100mg is enough to kill an adult human being. However, as Pollan notes, a few animals have a certain proclivity for using consciousness-altering drugs at their own expense, humans aside. Certain sheep scrape their teeth against rocks to scrape off hallucinogenic lichen from rocks and, in fact, many animals are to be credited for the discovery of many of the herbs we use today such as coffee, cannabis, quinine and cinchona bark.

The next subject that Pollan takes on is the idea of a garden being less concerned with the beauty of the plants planted therein, and more concerned with the abilities those plants possessed. He alludes to the idea that shamans of the old days were merely using psychoactive mushrooms as well as witches and sorcerers of days past which had plants that poisoned, healed or intoxicated. In fact, Pollan believes that most of these ancient truths have been “uprooted and forgotten (or at least euphemized beyond recognition)”, such as the witch’s broomstick, which was likely to be merely a special dildo which would administer “flying ointment” vaginally, producing a psychoactive effect.

Pollan recounts a part of his life when he was compelled to grow marijuana in his garden. He continued growing them until they were at least eight feet tall and would have grown taller if he hadn’t unknowingly bought a cord of wood from the chief of police. The chief of police offered to help him load the cord of wood into his barn, behind which the marijuana was growing. As soon as he found out that the person from whom he bought the cord of wood was the chief of police, he asked for the whole cord to be dumped in the middle of his driveway (which was a bit ridiculous), but while the chief was getting the second half of that cord of wood, Pollan hastily cut down the marijuana trees and stored the harvest in a trash bag which he quickly put in his attic. According to Pollan, “[s]omething happened when you smoked them, but the effect had less in common with a high than with a sinus headache”. The interesting part, however, is  that back in 1982, when he had experimented with growing marijuana, would not even have landed him in jail, whereas today, he would certainly have at least five years of jail time, and the property whereon the drug grew would become property of the entity that brought the charges to Pollan.

Pollan decided that he would research the history of marijuana as we know it today, and attended the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, which is sort of a marijuana convention. He discovered that the thing which helped marijuana evolve into what it is today was not the superior gardening techniques of a gardener trying to improve the crop, but, rather, the American “war on drugs” which forced marijuana growers inside. Pollan makes note of two species of marijuana which, when combined, create what is widely smoked throughout the world today. Cannabis Sativa produced a very mild high when smoked, with little ill effects. Cannabis Indica, on the other hand led to a very strong high, but its smoke was incredibly potent. By crossbreeding the two varieties, the smokers would get the smooth taste and “clear, bell-like high” as Pollan puts it, which was the key to allowing illegal marijuana growers to take their crops indoors.

Pollan details the historical process over the course of nearly forty pages, but following is a brief summary of how Cannabis Sativa × Indica came to be what it is today. The growers, during the 1980s, discovered that they could give plants as many nutrients, as much carbon dioxide and as much light as they felt like, for twenty-four hours per day, and the plants would still produce a good harvest. By cutting the light down to twelve-hour increments, the plants would be shocked into flowering before eight-weeks. Growers eventually realized that only the female plants produced sinsemilla, the potent part of marijuana, and if the female plants were not pollinated, it would continue to produce THC-rich resins, which make the sinsemilla potent, and calyxes, which grow sinsemilla. Growers spent much time during the initial phases weeding out the male plants, but this was a time-consuming process wherein a single male plant would ruin the whole crop. The resolution was to simply clone the female plants which guaranteed the femininity of the plants in question. More than that, the plants would be biologically mature from the start, so “even a six- or eight-inch plant could…flower”.

delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol
delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol

Pollan then looks to the psychological effects of marijuana. In short, marijuana produces delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, which conveniently fits into a specific nerve cell in the human brain which is activated by THC and THC alone. That nerve cell tells the other cells in the brain to begin removing all new memories from the brain. In computer terms, it’s as if the brain is sending out the command to “Delete! Delete! We need more room, Delete it all!”, and the brain obliges. The major effect, then, of marijuana is forgetfulness. The reason that this is such a desirable trait is the effect of such forgetfulness. Without our immediate past in an easily retrievable state, we are left living in the present moment, with no references to anything else. We are still the same person, and we still have access to memories from before we experienced the high, but during the high, the smoker is forced into a never-ending present moment. With nothing else to reference, the present moment is all that exists. The implications for science, needless to say, were huge. Finally there was proof of a chemical which had a most deleterious effect on the brain. Pollan also alludes to the fact that the smoking of hashish has the exact opposite effect. That is, a chemical in hashish turns off the brain’s ability to delete that which it deems unimportant. This may not sound like much, but if one takes time to think about all of the things the human body has the capability to perceive – taste, smell, touch, the kinesthetic sense, sight, sound, and other senses which contribute to our awareness of the world – and would be completely lost in every detail. As it turns out, the brain’s automatic deletion of superfluous or unnecessary information is not at all useless, but, rather, absolutely required for life as we know it.

To conclude, Michael Pollan shows us exactly what it means to be human and that humanity would be hardly recognizable if we could see where we’d be without plants such as hashish and marijuana. Definitely, humans and plants are on a coevolutionary path which leaves us permanently intertwined with the herbs that some frown upon, some require, and some ignore completely. One thing is for certain, however, there is much more that goes into desire than initially meets the lungs.

Works Cited

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: a Plant's Eye View of the World. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

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