Before Michael Pollan gained well-deserved respect and influence authoring five bestselling books about food, he got my attention in the late 1990s writing articles about American illegal-legal psychotropic drug hypocrisy. For those of us who appreciate what Pollan later accomplished for the local food and real food movements, it’s probably been a good idea that since 1999 he has stopped writing articles about drug hypocrisy, otherwise he may never have become so well-received.
If Pollan had continued his assault on American drug hypocrisy, he likely would have been attacked by many psychiatric drug users, mistaking his confronting this hypocrisy as challenging their decision to choose psychiatric drugs. At least that’s been my experience. And he would have likely been assaulted by psychiatrists—more later on this, including one of the most bizarre phone calls I’ve ever had with an enraged psychiatrist just a couple hours after the World Trade Center came crashing down. But back to Pollan.
I first got excited by Michael Pollan’s journalistic courage and great story telling when I read his lengthy 1997 Harper’s article “Opium Made Easy,” a wonderful piece about the legal ambiguities of growing the poppy plant. The gardener/journalist Pollan begins with, “So, yes, I was curious to know if I could make opium at home, especially if I could do so without making a single illicit purchase.” But his curiosity is transformed into paranoia about getting arrested for merely growing the poppy plant, and his paranoia is ultimately transformed into contempt for American drug hypocrisy:
The war on drugs is in truth a war on some drugs, their enemy status the result of historical accident, cultural prejudice, and institutional imperative . . . Is it the quality of addictiveness that renders a substance illicit? Not in the case of tobacco, which I am free to grow in this garden. Curiously, the current campaign against tobacco dwells less on cigarettes’ addictiveness than on their threat to our health. So is it toxicity that renders a substance a public menace? Well, my garden is full of plants—datura and euphorbia, castor beans, and even the stems of my rhubarb—that would sicken and possibly kill me if I ingested them, but the government trusts me to be careful. Is it, then, the prospect of pleasure—of “recreational use”—that puts a substance beyond the pale? Not in the case of alcohol: I can legally produce wine or hard cider or beer from my garden for my personal use (though there are regulations governing its distribution to others). So could it be a drug’s “mind-altering” properties that make it evil? Certainly not in the case of Prozac, a drug that, much like opium, mimics chemical compounds manufactured in the brain.
In 1999, Pollan continued his criticism of psychotropic drug hypocrisy in a New York Times Magazine piece where he discusses the revolving door in our culture of “good” psychotropic drugs becoming “bad” ones, and vice versa. Pollan again brings up Prozac in the context of labeling other drugs as “bad” that similarly “alter the texture of consciousness, or even a human’s personality.”
Then Pollan stopped writing articles about psychotropic drug hypocrisy. In his 2001 book Botany of Desire, Pollan has a chapter about marijuana, but I checked the “Articles” section on his Web site which has a side bar “By Topic,” and that 1999 New York Times Magazine article was his most recent Drugs piece. To Pollan’s credit, he has kept his drug articles on his Web site for all the world to see.
I thought this drug hypocrisy issue was important enough for somebody to keep writing about it, and I naively believed that if I made it clear that I was not opposing the informed choice to use psychiatric drugs—just confronting drug hypocrisy—then psychiatric drug users and prescribers would at least tolerate me. However, I’ve learned from experience that I upset many of these people, especially some psychiatrists who can get fairly violent with those who compare psychiatric drugs with illegal ones.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had been in a studio taping an interview about my recently published book Commonsense Rebellion when, on my way out, I saw on television the planes crash into the World Trade Center. In a glazed stupor that many Americans experienced that day, I went to my office and checked my messages. One was from a Cincinnati area psychiatrist who said he wanted to talk to me about an article that had run that day in the Cincinnati Enquirer. I read the article and called him back.
That article (“Different Antidotes to Depression”) quoted me from an interview with its reporter two weeks before in which I had detailed how illegal drugs such as cocaine affect the same neurotransmitters as psychiatric drugs. The reporter misquoted me in some specifics, especially about psychotherapy, but she got right my general point about psychiatric/illegal drug hypocrisy.
I returned the psychiatrist’s phone call, and he immediately launched into an attack, “My patients are coming into my office upset, saying that they just read in the newspaper that their medications are no different than street drugs. It’s your fault. How incredibly irresponsible on your part. I have psychologists who work in my office, and they are going to help me make sure that you lose your license.”
My first reaction was to recoil at the thought of him going after my license to practice psychology. But then I thought about his assault in the context of the tragic events of that day, and I shot back at him: “Do you know what an ass you are making of yourself. Damn near all of America is shaken and traumatized after having watched people jump to their deaths a few hours ago, and you are narcissistically focused on your drug prescribing. Go after my license, you asshole. But I don’t think you have the balls to do it.”
As far as I know, he never did go after my license. Perhaps somebody told him how bad he was making himself look assaulting me on this particular morning. Or maybe a psychologist in his office had the courage to inform him that I wasn’t going to lose my license for stating facts that could be backed up in journal articles and textbooks.
A month earlier, in August 2001, the Journal of the American Medical Association had published the report “Pay Attention: Ritalin Acts Much Like Cocaine.” Ritalin is considered by chemists to be “amphetamine-like,” while other ADHD drugs such as Adderall, Vyvanse, and Dexedrine are in fact amphetamines, which are essentially synthetic cocaine. Not only does cocaine affect the same neurotransmitters as do ADHD stimulant drugs, the clinical effects of these ADHD drugs are indistinguishable from cocaine if both are similarly administered. The textbook A Primer of Drug Action (1998) notes this about the ADHD drug Dexedrine: “Individuals who have used cocaine have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective effects of 8 to 10 milligrams of cocaine and 10 milligrams of dextroamphetamine [Dexedrine] when both are administered intravenously.” It is simply untrue that these ADHD drugs only work if you have ADHD, as many non-ADHD diagnosed college kids, truck drivers, and others effectively use these drug to pull all-nighters.
In 2008, I wrote an article for AlterNet, America’s Love-Hate Relationship with Drugs, in which I documented the similarity between illegal drugs and psychiatric drugs, the psychiatric/illegal drug revolving door, and American drug hypocrisy. I discussed how Sigmund Freud used cocaine as medication to treat depression and how, later, amphetamines were used. Alcohol was a recommended treatment for anxiety as late as the 1940s. In the 1950s and early 1960s, psychiatrist Oscar Janiger used LSD to treat the neuroses of Hollywood stars and other celebrities. In my 2007 book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, I discuss how Cary Grant described himself as a “horrendous” person who became a better one—“born again” in his words—by using LSD approximately one hundred times; and I mention how Ecstasy was used in marital counseling during the 1980s, and now researchers are studying it as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Let me repeat that I have compassion for people who choose psychotropic drugs—illegal or psychiatric ones— to take the edge off to help them function. I have worked with many people who believed their alcohol and illegal psychotropic drugs helped them function. They often used them as a sleep aid and to divert them from the unpleasantness of their jobs (a 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them). I remember one factory worker telling me, “Yeah, I know I am an alcoholic, but I’ve got less of a problem than most everybody else working the floor. You try working for those bastards without using something. I went to rehab for alcohol and pot, and the first thing they do is give me some Valium and then Prozac. I know I was doing some bad shit, but they put me on some worse shit, so when I got out, I just went back to my old shit.”
Similar to “red-baiting” (in which critics of the U.S. military industrial complex are called communists), those of us who address psychiatry’s hypocrisies and deceptions are “Scientology-baited,” as some psychiatry apologists attempt to discredit critics by associating them with this religion. I made clear in a 2008 Huffington Post piece “Thinking Critically About Scientology, Psychiatry, and Their Feud” that not only am I not a Scientologist but that I am equally critical of both psychiatry and Scientology. Scientologists deride others for using psychiatric drugs, but don’t like to mention that Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard had an anti-anxiety drug in his system at the time of his death, and several of Hubbard’s assistants later attested it was one of many psychiatric and pain medications that Hubbard ingested over the years (see Rolling Stone’s 2011 “Inside Scientology”).
How best to explain American drug hypocrisy? Maybe Pollan got it right in his 1999 New York Times Magazine piece when he concluded: “We hate drugs. We love drugs. Or could it be that we hate the fact that we love drugs?”
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.