Dr. Lester Grinspoon encouraged America to ‘reconsider’ marijuana

Published on June 25, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Just a couple of scientists who changed the world: Astronomer Carl Sagan, left, and psychiatrist Dr. Lester Grinspoon, right, came from different academic fields but bonded over a shared fascination with the science of cannabis. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Peter Grinspoon)

Dr. Lester Grinspoon passed away peacefully this morning, just a day after celebrating his 92nd birthday.

As a physician, researcher, author, educator and activist, Grinspoon was a towering figure in both the medical marijuana movement and the grassroots campaign to legalize cannabis for all adults.

His book Marijuana Reconsidered (1971) is considered a foundational work on both the safety and efficacy of the drug, and for fifty years following its publication he continued to write on the subject, while speaking out at conferences and in the media, offering expert testimony in both criminal trials and at government hearings, and serving on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Grinspoon’s son Peter, who is also a doctor and a leader in the modern-day movement to legalize cannabis, announced his father’s death this morning.

He was concerned about Carl’s…uh…intake

Dr. Grinspoon’s initial interest in cannabis dated back to 1967, the year he endeavored to research the subject sufficiently enough to convince his best friend—who just happened to be the astronomer Carl Sagan—to stop consuming so much of it.

'As a physician, I saw all that smoking going on in the late 1960s, and I was really concerned about it.'

At the time, Grinspoon was an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, while Sagan was a rising young star among Harvard’s faculty.

Not yet a celebrity, Sagan would go on to become an internationally renowned astronomer, bestselling author, and host of the popular television series Cosmos. But at the time he was just another left-wing professor who happened to frequently and enthusiastically enjoy consuming cannabis along with a close-knit circle of like-minded academics.

“My wife Betsy and I went to a party with Carl not long after we met, and it quickly became clear that marijuana was a regular feature of social life within his little circle in Cambridge,” Grinspoon recalled to VICE in 2013. “As a physician, I saw all that smoking going on, and I was really concerned about it. Doctors are supposed to automatically be experts on drugs, and so I found myself spieling off the stuff that the government was saying, but Carl, would just wave a joint in front of me, and reply, “Oh Lester, have a puff, it’s not going to hurt you a bit and you’ll love it.”

He set out to prove prohibition was right

This good-natured stand-off would remain unresolved until the fateful day when Dr. Grinspoon endeavored to visit the Harvard Medical School Library, determined to compile an authoritatively researched argument against cannabis that would definitively demonstrate the medical and scientific basis for the plant’s prohibition.

But instead of encountering the hard data he’d expected, Grinspoon had an epiphany—he’d been “brainwashed about cannabis.”

But found the exact opposite was true

So for the next four years he would intensely research the subject, before finally publishing Marihuana Reconsidered (1971), a bestselling book that detailed a decades-long government propaganda campaign undertaken to keep marijuana illegal at all costs.

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Arriving at a time when only 15% of Americans supported cannabis legalization, and nearly 25 before the first US state would pass a medical cannabis law, Grinspoon’s book sparked a sensation upon publication, while beginning a long overdue reevaluation of cannabis among academics, the medical establishment, and the general public.

Even Nixon got riled up about the book

The book even caught the attention of then-President Richard Nixon, whose anti-Semitic rants about marijuana were caught on tape in the Oval Office.

“Every one of the bastards that are out for the legalization of marijuana is Jewish,” Nixon fumed after reading a review of Marijuana Revisited in his daily news summary. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews?”

Carl Sagan added an essay, as ‘Mr. X’

In addition to an authoritative, scientific refutation of the many myths then commonly accepted about cannabis, Marijuana Reconsidered also included an essay by Carl Sagan (writing under a pseudonym) that explained his support for ending marijuana prohibition was not just political, but also deeply personal.

“Cannabis,” Sagan wrote, “brings to us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds.”

Meanwhile, Grinspoon became an internationally recognized cannabis expert—without ever getting high himself, despite many, many offers. That was until, as he explained to VICE, he finally decided to conduct an N+1 experiment on himself:

As I researched and wrote about marijuana, I knew I wanted to have this experience, but I also knew that if the book was successful, I’d be called upon to appear before committees and testify in court, and I didn’t want to compromise my position. So I waited.

Ever since Marihuana Reconsidered came out people had been asking me: “Wait, you wrote a book about marijuana and you’ve never tried it?” And I’d reply, “Well, I wrote a book about schizophrenia too, and I haven’t tried that!”

On their first two attempts at getting high, Grinspoon and his wife Betsy didn’t feel the effects. But then, on their third try:

We smoked again, and I remember Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was on the hi-fi, a record I’d actually heard before many times before. My son would put it on and say, “Dad, you ought to get your head out of the Baroque and listen to the Beatles.” But I didn’t see the appeal. Until that night, under the influence of marijuana, when I truly heard the Beatles for the first time. And it was like an auditory implosion. I couldn’t believe it.

Testifying on John Lennon’s behalf

Grinspoon would have a chance to return the favor to John Lennon a few years later, when he provided expert testimony at his immigration hearing.

Alarmed by Lennon’s recent anti-Vietnam-war advocacy, the Nixon administration (via the Immigration and Naturalization Service) moved to deport the ex-Beatle based on an old drug bust back in England.

Called to testify on behalf of the defense, Grinspoon cleverly sowed doubt in the judge’s mind regarding whether US immigration laws pertaining to “marijuana” also pertained to “hashish.” That led to a key delay in the proceedings, which ultimately provided Lennon and his legal team with the time they needed to mount a winning defense.

In return, all Grinspoon asked for was a few signed albums and memorabilia to share with his teenage son Danny, a dedicated Beatles fan who at the time was suffering with what would prove to be a fatal case of leukemia.

One of the first medical marijuana patients

Danny had been diagnosed with leukemia in 1967, the same year his father began researching cannabis. Although far less was known at the time about the medical efficacy of cannabis, Grinspoon read literature suggesting it could help with pain and nausea, including anecdotal stories sent to him by healthcare workers and individual cancer patients around the country who’d read his book.

But it was his wife Betsy who ultimately made the decision to score a joint for their long-suffering son before one of his chemo sessions, with seemingly miraculous results.

“On a normal day of chemotherapy,” Grinspoon recalled many years later, “I hoped we could make it home from the hospital before Danny’s vomiting would start, and we always had to put a big bucket next to his bed. But the first time he tried taking a few puffs prior to a round of treatments, he got off the gurney and said, ‘Mom, there’s a sub shop in Brookline. Could we stop for a sub-sandwich on the way home?’ And all I thought was, ‘Wow.’”

By allowing certain of his colleagues to witness this phenomenon firsthand, Grinspoon eventually convinced the head of the oncology department at Boston Children’s Hospital to undertake a 1975 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That study demonstrated the efficacy of cannabinoids for nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

1993 book helped California legalize medical

Then, in 1993, Grinspoon wrote a book called Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine, which made the case for cannabis as the safest and most useful therapeutic substance known to man.

Three years later, California passed Prop 215, becoming the first state to legalize the use of medical cannabis.

Ironically, despite all he’d done to advance science, medicine and culture, Grinspoon was to his death denied a full professorship by Harvard Medical School as punishment for challenging the medical establishment’s misguided orthodoxy against what he came to call cannabinopathic medicine. His decision to challenged the conventional wisdom was one he never regretted.

As an emeritus associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he served as senior psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center for 40 years, as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychiatric Association, and as founding editor of The American Psychiatric Association Annual Review and Harvard Mental Health Letter.

But Lester Grinspoon’s true legacy will always be calculated in terms of the millions of people who have benefited from cannabis and the plant’s legalization.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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