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Why Scientist Carl Sagan Embraced Cannabis Throughout His Lifetime

(Lennox McLendon/AP)

“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”  —Carl Sagan


Undoubtedly one of the most prolific minds of the 20th century, Carl Sagan is known for his immense contributions to science, celebrated works of fiction, and his hit television show Cosmos, which to date has been viewed by at least 500 million people around the world. Less well-known is the fact that he was an avid cannabis user for almost his entire adulthood, and ardently believed the plant to be an overwhelmingly positive force for himself and for humanity.

Though forced to keep his opinions private for fear of legal and vocational repercussions, there is ample evidence collected throughout Sagan’s life which paints a detailed picture of his ongoing relationship with this forbidden plant.

Sagan was born at the peak of the “Reefer Madness” era, where sensationalist cannabis claims ran wild. It was commonly believed that even a few puffs of “marihuana” would cause violence, psychosis, and extreme addiction. As a 25-year-old PhD student at the University of Chicago, Sagan began to associate with a group of friends who smoked occasionally. Since none of them seemed to exhibit any addictive behavior, Sagan began to use it himself. He would continue to smoke regularly for the rest of his life.

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Carl Sagan, AKA “Mr. X”

In 1969, Sagan decided that it was time to speak out against the stigma attached to cannabis consumers. His career, however, balanced in precarious uncertainty – Harvard had denied him tenure the year before, and he wouldn’t become a full professor at Cornell until 1970. Admitting to partaking in such a powerful taboo could well have ended in an academic blacklist.

So, he penned an anonymous essay for the book Marihuana Reconsidered under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” in which he attested to the utility and heightened aesthetic appreciation granted to him by cannabis. In one paragraph, he recollected a series of revelations which dawned upon him while high:

“After about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.”

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Cannabis and Early Civilization

Sagan clearly had a deep fascination with both the personal effects and history of cannabis. In his 1977 book Dragons of Eden, he notes his admiration for Pygmy hunters who cultivated cannabis as their sole agricultural crop, and smoked it ritually before spear fishing. He even suggested, “It would be wryly interesting if in human history the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby to civilization.”

It’s difficult to tell whether Sagan was right about this grand claim, but cannabis has certainly impacted humans for at least a few thousand years. In 2008, a burial site was discovered in Northwest China which contained the oldest known evidence of psychoactive cannabis use in history. The 2,700-year-old plants (the seeds of which still contained THC!) were believed to be used as part of an ancient shamanic funeral ritual.

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Cannabis Advocacy in Sagan’s Lifetime

Thanks to the Library of Congress’ exhibit of Sagan’s personal correspondences, we now know that he privately expressed ample opposition towards the drug laws of his time. In fact, there were four boxes of his letters which focused on the topic of policy reform. Sagan expressed serious concern for the harmful repercussions of current laws, and asked provocative questions, like whether the vast amount of money annually spent on drugs (up to half a trillion dollars, according to his sources) were likely to corrupt police and intelligence services.

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“There’s no evidence whatever that it’s an addictive drug, but even if it were – these people are dying. What are we saving them from?“
Carl Sagan

Despite his passion for drug reform, Sagan was forced throughout his life to withhold his opinions from the public for the sake of his career. In 1989, for instance, NASA had its employees sign a contract stating that they would not use drugs. Sagan was incensed by this, and in a letter to the author of Marihuana Reconsidered, Dr. Lester Grinspoon of the Massachusetts Mental Health center, stated that it was “unsymmetrical with respect to other crimes — we are not obliged to sign an oath that we will not murder our fellow employees, for example.”

Carl Sagan’s Views on Medical Cannabis

Sagan deeply disliked the staunch and illogical policies which made it illegal for those living with terminal diseases to access medical cannabis. In a rare recorded interview, Sagan disclosed his disapproval of the “irrational official government position” that terminal patients should not be given cannabis because of the risk of addiction.

“There’s no evidence whatever that it’s an addictive drug, but even if it were – these people are dying. What are we saving them from?”

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Upon nearing the end of his fatal battle with cancer, Sagan himself used cannabis to ease his passing towards his final days. According to his wife, Ann Druyan, it helped him “refocus on the beauty of life in the midst of such torture.”

Ann Druyan and Sagan’s Legacy

In the last two decades since his death, Druyan has fastidiously continued to fight for cannabis advocacy. From 2006 to 2010, she served as president of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and still to this day maintains a place in the advisory board. Here’s a video of her talking about her family’s relationship with cannabis.

“For me it is a sacrament, something that should be used wisely in the context of a loving family existence.”

Sagan held the conviction that a population which took interest in science would strive to make intelligent policy choices. The incredible progress of the legalization movement, fueled by our desire to fully understand the effects of cannabis, stands a testament to this belief. Though it is deeply saddening to know that such a great man is no longer with us, we can continue to uphold his legacy by striving to improve our own scientific literacy in order to make the best possible decisions for the future.