Brian O’Donnell: Psychoactive Drugs, the Mind, and Society

Expanded Description:  The United States has experienced a long and polarizing debate regarding the harms vs. benefits of psychoactive drug use.  Additionally, criminalization of the use of some drugs has resulted in a staggering increase in incarceration, coupled with a paradoxical increase in illicit drug use. We will examine the complex issues involved in drug use with fresh eyes and base our discussions on evidence from historical, scientific, legal and clinical sources. 

No text is required for the course.  Readings, podcasts and videos will be distributed electronically as pdf documents or as links.  There will be about 25 to 75 pages of reading for each class meeting.  We will also examine the effects of cannabis-related compounds.  Readings will be adjusted depending on specific interests of students in the class.

Course Schedule:

Pre-course meeting (week prior to start of course): Brief introductions and a few ground rules for successfully communicating in a Zoom environment. Expect an invitation as soon as the class list is available.

Week 1 – Overview:  I was so high: Prologue, Act One, Act Two.  This American Life, May 2, 2014.  Podcast at:  Pleasure, poison, prescription, prayer: The worlds of mind-altering substances.  Exhibit brochure, Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley, 2019.; Porter, E.  Numbers Tell of Failure in Drug War.  New York Times, July 3, 2012.

Week 2 – Cannabis Overview:  Pollan, M.  Cannabis, forgetting and the botany of desire. UC Berkeley: Townsend Center for the Humanities. 2003, pp. 1-19 at; If you prefer an audio experience, a recording of Pollan’s lecture is at:; Sohn E.  Balancing act: Weighing the dangers of cannabis.  Nature 2019: 572, S16-S18 (2019).; Rosalsky, Greg.  The Data On Legalizing Weed.  NPR: Planet Money.March 16, 2021

Week 3 – Cannabis as Medicine:  Summary: The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research.  The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2017, Summary, 4-33,34.  Caron C.  Cannabis for Better Sex? Hereʼs What the Science Says.  New York Times 4/01/22.  PBS video report on cannabidiol for seizure disorders (7 minutes) How Some Parents Brought CBD to Market to Treat Epilepsy,; Anahita Bassir Nia, MD, Cannabidiol as an Adjunctive Treatment for Schizophrenia

Psychiatric Times, Psychiatric Times Vol 36, Issue 4, Volume 36, Issue 4; April 15, 2019

Week 4 – Stimulants:  Michael Pollan, The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine?  The Guardian, July 6, 2021.; Proctor RN. The cigarette catastrophe continues. Lancet. 2015 Mar 14;385(9972):938-9.; Fast Times: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Amphetamine by Jesse Hicks | April 14, 2012

Science History Institute

Week 5 – Psychedelics:  Sam S.B. Shonkoff, SB. What the Study of Religion Can Teach Us About Psychedelics.  Harvard Law School, Petrie-Flom Center, Bill of Health, Nov 4, 2020 at Pollan, M.  My adventures with the trip doctors.  New York Times, May 15, 2018. Alvord, L. ‘The Healing Properties of Navajo Ceremonies’  Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community, Arizona State University, Oct. 22, 2015.  Video (begin at 12 minutes into the recording)  at:    

Week 6 – Psychedelics:  Paul Tullis.  How ecstasy and psilocybin are shaking up psychiatry, Nature, Vol 58.  28 January 2021;

Emily Witt. Ketamine Therapy Is Going Mainstream. Are We Ready?  The New Yorker, December 29, 2021; Zoe Cormier.  MDMA Shows New Promise for Trauma, but the Drug Alone Is Not a Cure, Scientific American. May 12, 2021

Week 7 – Opioids:  DeWeerdt, S. Tracing the US opioid crisis to its roots.  Nature, 2019: 573, S10-S12; at  Moore MH & Kleiman AR The Police and Drugs.  Perspectives on Policing, No. 11, publication of the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, and the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, September, 1989

Week 8 – Opioid addictions and drug policy:  Rich et al.  Medicine and the Epidemic of Incarceration in the United StatesNew England Journal of Medicine, 2011: 2081-2083. 

Hart, C.  Viewing addiction as a brain disease promotes social injustice. Nature Human Behavior, 2017: 1(3), 0055 at    

Michael Pollan.  How should we do drugs now?  New York Times Magazine, July 9, 2021

Lopez G.  The perils of legalization.  New York Times, April 24, 2022.