Michael Pollan’s new collection of journalism, This is Your Mind on Plants, recounts for the first time publicly the story of his decision to leave out key passages of his essay “Opium, Made Easy,” which was published in the April 1997 issue of Harper’s Magazine. While I’m delighted that Pollan has reversed his self-censorship and restored the missing material—about making opium tea from his home-grown poppies and drinking the tea—I take issue with parts of his narrative, especially concerning my efforts, as publisher of Harper’s, to persuade him not to give in to fear that the Drug Enforcement Administration would raid his house and seize his property if we published the “recipe” for the tea as well as Pollan’s experience after consuming it. I refer readers to the author’s explanatory text in his new book, but I urge them to be skeptical about his version of what happened.
Pollan suggests that he was acting largely on the advice of our lawyer, Victor A. Kovner, who still represents Harper’s Magazine: that by cutting the riskier passages he would “minimize” his risk of prosecution under the absurdly harsh drugs laws of the era. While it’s true that Kovner did discuss various tactical and legal options with Michael, my recollection is that Victor was strongly and consistently in favor of publishing the piece in its entirety, which was certainly what the editor, Lewis Lapham, and I preferred and were urging Michael to do. Both Victor and I believed Michael’s fear of prosecution and arrest were greatly exaggerated, being confident that as a reporter he was protected by First Amendment guarantees. Describing the making and consumption of the opium tea was clearly an act of journalistic research, not a gratuitous attempt to get high with a controlled substance in a way that could be viewed, in Pollan’s words, as “taunting the government.” Victor and I also felt that the federal government would never risk hauling a writer for a major national magazine into court on such a flimsy charge and thus invite ridicule and criticism. To buttress his version of Kovner’s legal analysis, Pollan claims that Kovner cited United States v. Progressive Inc., “a 1979 case in which the government had sought to stop The Progressive magazine from publishing an article containing instructions for making a hydrogen bomb, even though the instructions were based entirely on publicly available information.” This statement is disingenuous and incorrect. The two cases are not comparable: the government had sought and won an injunction against The Progressive to prevent publication of the piece, so that the Constitutional issue at stake was whether the government backed by a judge could impose “prior restraint” against a magazine as it did with the New York Times when the newspaper wanted to publish the Pentagon Papers. The government eventually dropped its case against The Progressive, and the article was published. With the Pollan article, there was never any question of pre-publication censorship by the government, only a concern about criminal prosecution. If we ever discussed the so-called H-bomb case, it was to reassure Michael that even reporting about something as sensitive and dangerous as nuclear weapons was protected by the First Amendment. No one would have argued—and no sane judge would have made the case—that building a hydrogen bomb and making opium tea were in any way equivalent.
Finally, there is the indemnification contract I signed on behalf of Harper’s that Pollan describes “as one of the most unusual contracts ever given to any writer by a publisher.” True, we promised to pay for just about everything bad that hypothetically might have befallen Michael and his family, including the value of his house and his legal defense. But I offered it with the goal of bucking him up so that we might publish the entire essay, uncensored. Evidently it had the opposite effect, since, as Pollan writes, “It was also frightening to read: All the contingencies could actually happen.” I didn’t think any of the contingencies would actually happen, and neither did Victor Kovner. We were just trying to calm a frightened writer.
Once he had the contract, Michael insisted on withdrawing the passages about making and drinking the tea. It was a bitter blow to me, because I have always put the freedom to publish in the forefront of my work, and I lost some respect for Pollan after that. His recent remarks on a radio podcast during which he laughingly speculates about my motives were simply not true: “My guess is he was hoping something would happen. He was hoping I would get arrested. This would put Harper’s on the map. This would be a giant case; he would take it in front of the Supreme Court, and he would. You know he has bottomless pockets.” But these nasty jibes also revealed a lack of seriousness and commitment about the very points he wanted to make in his Harper’s piece. “Opium Made Easy” was an excellent exegesis of the madness and hypocrisy of U.S. drug laws and the gratuitous viciousness of the government’s war against drug-users caught in the act of what are mostly victimless crimes. Since then, the statute of limitations has expired on Michael’s potential crime. But back then, Pollan took the easy way out. I don’t blame him for having been afraid. He just now shouldn’t try to lay responsibility for his decision on anyone but himself.