Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Randon House Trade Paperbacks, New York, New York. P113-179.
“I think people need to be educated to the fact that marijuana is not a drug. Marijuana is a flower. God put it here…” -Willie Nelson
One cannot write a book about plants that satisfy human desires without talking about the desire of intoxication. In this chapter of, “The Botany of Desire,” Pollan discusses the co-evolution between the cannabis plant’s desire to thrive and animal’s desire to alter consciousness.
After recently writing the outline for my essay on my local dish, I found I was especially aware of how well Pollan was able to include his own personal experiences, the stories of others, science and his own opinions to contribute to his “big idea.” I think Pollan’s big idea for this chapter was the co-evolution between marijuana plants and animals and how this has influenced human history. For in the eyes of Darwin, what would be the evolutionary advantage for animals to alter consciousness? And even more difficult to understand, what would be the benefit for cannabis plants to produce THC?
Pollan starts off his chapter by stating it is not only humans that desire to alter consciousness. He mentions cattle, bighorn sheep, goats, pigeons, cats and jaguars have all been shown to purposely eat plants in the wild to alter consciousness (pg. 116, 117). He also makes us remember when we were children and would spin as fast as we could until we were dizzy to experience the mind altering effects (pg. 139). Pollan suggests that there is a universal desire for animals to alter consciousness so there must be a reason we see this across the animal kingdom.
Pollan also uses several of his own experiences to contribute to his big idea. One of my favourite stories has to be when Pollan tries to grow his own marijuana plants from seed. In a series of very unfortunate events, Pollan unintentionally invites the chief of police to his house where he has a close call with the law. This story is funny but Pollan doesn’t include it strictly for humour. He uses the story to lead to his next point which is how much marijuana has shaped our law. “If the chief of police had spotted my plants, things would have gotten uncomfortable for me, but it was not as if I would have gone to jail. In 1982 a legal slap on the wrist, and perhaps a certain amount of personal embarrassment (pg. 124).” However, if Pollan had been caught with marijuana plants in 1988 or later, a mandatory five-year jail sentence would be the new standard.
This is one of many stories Pollan tells of how marijuana and the law have also been co-evolving together. For example, with these stricter penalties for growing marijuana, growth moved indoors. This opened a whole new world for ways to artificially encourage the marijuana plants to be more potent, grow bigger and mature faster. With such strict penalties for growing and possessing marijuana, why do people still bother growing and smoking it? At the end of this chapter Pollan attempts to answer this question.
The evolutionary advantage of cannabis plants having THC is still unknown. It could protect the plant from UV radiation, act as an antibiotic or maybe act as a defense for the plants, but all of these ideas don’t seem to be enough (pg. 156). As for the advantage for animals, “…scientists said that the THC in cannabis is only mimicking the actions of the brain’s own cannabinoids (pg. 157).” The function that this would serve would be the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters but also to forget and impair memory formation. So again, what is the evolutionary benefit of memory impairment?
“Some of our greatest happinesses arrive in such moments, during which we feel as though we’ve sprung free from the tyranny of time – clock time, of course, but also historical and psychological time, and sometimes mortality (pg. 164).” I believe what this means, and what Pollan also feels, is that we spend so much of our lives not living in the present moment. Don’t quote me on this, but I heard a statistic recently that a typical person spends 40% of their lives thinking of the past, future or daydreaming. Marijuana allows for us to simply be. When one is smoking cannabis they are not thinking about the parking ticket they got earlier that day or the big test they have next week but just enjoying the present moment. As for the evolutionary advantage of altering consciousness, I suppose there is no concrete answer. Perhaps it serves to help us forget useless memories, but maybe it has simply evolved because of it’s spiritual benefits. Intoxication in the story of cannabis is not as straight forward as the desire for sweetness of the apple and control of the potato, but it sure is an interesting one.
Anyone interested in this topic should check out this TED TALK called, “The War on Consciousness,” about the spiritual connection between marijuana and other mind altering drugs and consciousness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0c5nIvJH7w