I decided to study and summarize Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire chapter three entitled “Desire: Intoxication Plant: Marijuana,” which deals with the history, culture, biology, and religion and cults of psychoactive drugs derived from marijuana as well as other plants and fungi.
The author writes in great detail about the history of pot and other psychoactive drugs. Columbus brought pot-smoking to his native land after colonizing the Americas, but the Scythians were the first to invent a special contraption to experience the full effects of the drug (Pollan 128). The Greeks participated in the harvest festival of Demeter where they drink a mixture that gave them illusions (Pollan 147).
In the 1990’s, Germany, Amsterdam was the place to grow and smoke marijuana (Pollan 129) and Mexico, before the 1970’s, were the suppliers to North America. Until the American war on drugs, before 1980’s, America enjoyed the gifts of hashish and grew it openly outside (Pollan 133).
The American drug-war was first fought with marijuana. The drug war began with Harry J. Anslinger in the 1930’s who was in charge of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He used the story of Hassan ibn al Sabbah who pillaged Persia with his pot-smoking followers (Pollan 173).
To early Christians, people who didn’t follow their religion were pagans. Those early pagans connected to the earth – not the Judeo-Christian god – by succumbing to the powers of psychoactive plants and fungi (Pollan 174). The corruption of pot’s image may have begun further in history than the beginnings of the American drug war. When the witch hysteria began, in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII made a papal stating that witches use Cannabis in their black mass (Pollan 173).
Pollan makes a connection between Judeo-Christian belief system and the Western capitalism saying that because these drugs gave the human brain the ability to live in the moment. Getting high, presumed by American culture, renders them from being an active society member thus not making them adequate candidates for Christianity and capitalism (Pollan 175).
As Pollan states, since the United States is a Judeo-Christian based culture, it is likely that marijuana, which makes the user perceive reality in the present and not the future, is a shunned drug.
According to Pollan, the user of psychoactive drugs in a Judeo-Christian world is the Other i.e. the witch, the pagan, or the hippie.
However, many religions use psychoactive plants and fungi and several cults came about because of these amazing organisms. Amanita muscaria, a fungus that was used by the cult of Soma to allow them to get divine knowledge (143). Peyote was used by the Native Americans, wine was drunk by the Greeks and early Christians, and Cannabis was smoked by the Hindus, Scythians, and Thracians (Pollan 144).
Pollan draws from several cultural sources. From the time so-called witches used their magic “broomsticks” to Allen Ginsberg who said that marijuana brings on paranoia and fear (Pollan 151). Human cultures except the Eskimo, according to Pollan, have dabbled in psychoactive drugs. He describes that each culture shows acceptance to one specific drug while shunning another (Pollan 140).
It’s not surprising that Pollan mentions that pot assisted artists, philosophers, poets, and musicians. Even though pot is illegal now in the United States, it’s not far-fetched to hear about a creative person using the drug to open the doors to originality.
Pollan mentions that Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Aeschylus, and Euripides were probably involved in the debauchery known as the Festival of Demeter too and that modernism, surrealism, cubism (Art), and Jazz were inspired by drugs made from plants and fungi (Pollan 147).
Pollan discusses the biological aspect of marijuana. The main ingredient of the Festival of Demeter potion (which may or may not have affected many Greek philosophers) was probably diseased grain laced with a fungus called Claviceps purpurea. This type of fungus has ergot – a kind of alkaloid that looks and acts like LSD (Pollan 147).
Pollan mentions that the pot smoked now might be a sample bred from two marijuana plants: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa giving the pot we know of today its ability to give a desirable high (Pollan 132).
Pollan makes an interesting statement on the use of pot. In this chapter, he said that marijuana may have intellectual uses, which are used by, what is assumed, a smart adult to give him/her the feeling of elation and happiness and to allow him/her to forget (Pollan 150 – 151). This is because of a single chemical compound in pot called THC or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. This compound allows the brain to forget (Pollan 152).
This plant is the only known plant that has this chemical compound, THC. Interestingly enough, human brain has a similar cannabinoid chemical used for forgetting (Pollan 153). The brain’s cannabinoid, like THC, dumps most stimuli out so people won’t recall every single memory (Pollan 155).
This chemical acts like THC by controlling the brain’s chemistry and controlling the dopamine, serotonin, and endorphin neurotransmitters (Pollan 154). Forgetting allows people to feel happy.
Pollan speculates that happiness is caused by this cannabinoid-like chemical in the brain by allowing the user to focus on the present as opposed to the past or future.
Like most plants such as the Colocasia esculenta and Olea europaea, marijuana deters herbivores from eating it by making animals and humans alike forget. The idioblasts in C. esculenta in are leaf and stem cells that have raphids. Raphids puncture the herbivore’s mouth and injects calcium oxalate to swell the tissues. Other plants have spines, thorns, or bristles to wound the eater. Some plants like Olea europaea have resistant sclerenchyma – very thick lignin made for support – that prevent animals from chomping on their leaves (Reece 758; 862-863).
Natural selection may or may not have come into play in the survival of marijuana. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, after consumption, animals may forget where the delicious plant was (Pollan 116). This chemical compound may or may not play a role in marijuana’s survival, but as Pollan himself concluded in his Ted-Talk “A Plant’s Eye-View” plants have a way of controlling us by so they can survive (Pollan 156). While looking out at his garden, Pollan talks about how he realized that plants wants us to grow them. With its special compound, THC, Cannabis is no different.
We’ve discovered the effects of THC on the brain – how the chemical compound interlocks with the brain’s neurons to promote happiness and forgetfulness.
Pollen mentions that marijuana produces THC, but he fails to extrapolate on the biology of the plant. According to the paper “Marijuana and Medicine,” the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol is made by the glands in the marijuana plant. Vascular plants such as marijuana, have a phloem that translocates photosynthetic products, macromolecules, and sugar, and a xylem that moves water and minerals from the roots of the vascular plant to its leaves (Reece 757).
There isn’t a viable source discussing the transportation of the THC chemical compound. However, since the phloem in vascular plants translocates plant hormones and macromolecules, THC might be translocated by the marijuana’s phloem too.
The phloem is a series of sieve tubes that have companion cells attached to them by the plasmodesmata (Joy 1999; Reece 624). This system takes nutrients provided by the plants to the where it’s needed. Unlike the xylem vascular system, the phloem system can transport fluid and molecules upward and downward. On the side of each tube, there is a companion cell that assists the sieve tubes in transporting sugars by readying the sugar for the sieve tube (Reece 759).
When the marijuana became illegal in the United States, growers realized that the plant grows better in a dark place. Like most plants such as chrysanthemums, poinsettias, and soybeans, marijuana is a short-day plant or a long-night plant. Long night plants need sustained darkness to flower. If red light is absorbed by the plant, it won’t bud (Reece 853). Since marijuana growers need the buds, this makes sense for them to use a dark room.
I found Pollan’s description of the book “A plant’s-eye view of the world” to be false advertisement. Pollan seems to focus more on the human side of the story than the plant’s. There is a good deal of information about the religion, culture, and history of marijuana less of the plant’s biology.
Michael Pollan’s piece about the history, culture, religion, and biology of marijuana and other psychoactive plants and fungi was interesting. I used to be against the use of pot-smoking thinking that someone who smokes this drug daily would have the inability to be an active member of society. At this point, I agree with Pollan in that our American culture is a Judeo-Christian based one as well as a capitalist society and that our culture despises anything that makes a person seemingly unfit to work, buy, or give to society. Perhaps that’s the reason coffee is accepted in our culture and marijuana isn’t.
Pollan, M. (Writer). (2007, March). Michael Pollan: A plant’s-eye view [TedTalk series episode]. In Ted Talk. Retrieved September 24, 2016, from http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_pollan_gives_a_plant_s_eye_view
Pollan, Michael. Botany of Desire (2001). “Desire: Intoxication Plant: Marijuana.” Random House, New York. Paperback.
Joy, Janet. Watson, Stanley J. Benson, John A. “Marijuana and Medicine.” Division of Neuroscience and Behavioral Health. Institute of Medicine. Retrieved Oct.4, 2016, http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/sourcefiles/IOM_Report.pdf
Reece, Jane B.; Urry, Lisa A.; Cain, Michael L.; Wasserman, Steven A.; Minorsky, Peter V.; Jackson, Robert B. (2013-10-18). Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.