Thursday, June 25, 2020

RIP Dr. Lester Grinspoon, Marijuana Reform Pioneer

Dr. Grinspoon's pioneering book, from
back when "marijuana" was spelled with an "h"
Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a pioneering advocate for marijuana reform, has passed away one day after his 92nd birthday, aka "Lester Grinspoon day."

A Harvard professor, Dr. Grinspoon "started out investigating what he expected to be the dangers of marijuana and ended up writing the classic Marihuana Reconsidered (1971), a scholarly debunking of then-current myths about the herb's supposed evils," writes Cal NORML's Dale Gieringer.  "Lester became an influential force for enlightenment in the 1970s decrim movement and was one of NORML's earliest supporters. Later, he published Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine, about the medical benefits of marijuana, which he had witnessed first hand through his son Danny's struggle with cancer chemotherapy."

As well as his many accomplishments, Dr. Grinspoon’s work inspired my VeryImportantPotheads website (which spun off into this blog), starting with a stirring speech he gave at the April 2001 NORML conference “outing” himself as a marijuana user, saying, "I was 44 years old in 1972 when I experienced my first marijuana high. Because I found it both useful and benign, I have used it ever since.” As High Times reported, "He called for people in the business, academic and professional worlds to come out of the closet regarding marijuana. To that end, he's pursuing what he calls the 'Uses of Marijuana Project' (, an ethnographic exercise on how pot has enhanced users' lives."

As told by Dr. Frank Lucido, after Lester's admission at the conference, he was reported to the Massachusetts Medical Board by Calvina Fay, a notorious anti-drug zealot, who headed the Drug Free America Foundation. Her letter to the Board asked, "Doesn’t Dr. Grinspoon's use of an illegal drug put his patients in danger and doesn't this in some manner violate the laws and code of ethics that govern the conduct of physicians in the state of Massachusetts?" Lester wrote back, saying the attack was merely political, and since the complaint had not come from a patient, the Board should dismiss it (and it did).

Sagan's 1985 book in which he
envisions a legal cannabis shop
A 2018 Boston Globe profile says that while teaching at Harvard, Grinspoon's anti–Vietnam war activism led to a lifelong friendship with fellow professor Carl Sagan, who would later become "perhaps the most popular scientist in the United States as the host of television shows such as 'Cosmos,'" and "was a prolific but closeted pot-smoker." 

“When I saw him smoking for the first time, I said, ‘Carl, you musn’t do that! That’s a very dangerous drug,’ ” Grinspoon recalled. “He took another puff and said, ‘Here, Lester, have some, you’ll love it and it’s harmless.’ I was absolutely astonished.

Grinspoon published Sagan's essay about his marijuana use under the pseudonym "Mr. X" in  Marihuana Reconsidered. In it, Sagan says marijuana inspired some of his intellectual work. "I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves,'' he wrote, adding that pot enhanced his experience of food, particularly potatoes, music and sex.

After Sagan's death, his identity was revealed and ultimately, Grinspoon's “Marijuana Uses” website published other first-hand accounts of marijuana use, plus articles about people like VIP Alan Ginsberg. In the introduction to the blog, Grinspoon wrote:

Every age has its peculiar folly, and if Charles Mackay, the author of the mid-19th century classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, were alive today he would surely see “canabinophobia” as a popular delusion along with the “tulipmania” and “witch hunts” of earlier ages. I believe that we are now at the cusp of this particular popular delusion which to date has been responsible for the arrest of about 20 million US citizens. I also believe that future historians will look at this epic and recognize it as another instance of the “madness of crowds.” Millions of marijuana users have already arrived at this understanding. 

Dr. Lester Grinspoon with his wife of 66 years, Betsy. 
Lester once miffed a Congressional questioner who wanted to know if he had ever smoked pot. He replied (something like), I will answer that, if first will you tell me whether answering in the affirmative will make me more or less of an expert in your eyes.

At the 2009 NORML conference via Skype, Grinspoon, then 81, was asked whether or not he had tried the strain of cannabis newly named for him. He replied that he hadn't, but would like to. He said his son flew to Amsterdam to try it and pronounced it great, and that he’s received emails from all over praising it, despite its high price ($17/gram). "If any of you have some..." he ventured.

Grinspoon spoke about what a "wonderful, safe, hangover-free recreational drug [cannabis] is." Not only can it enhance sexual and culinary experiences, it can "catalyze new ideas, insights, emotional intimacy, and spiritual depth," qualities more experienced users appreciate, while younger ones go for the sociability and fun cannabis provides. Grinspoon said his friend and VIP Carl Sagan was a daily smoker.

John Lennon during his deportation case over a hashish bust. 
Recalling being a witness at John Lennon's deportation trial—ostensibly over a hashish bust in England—Grinspoon said he got Lennon off by clarifying that hashish, which was illegal in England, was different than marijuana, which was illegal in the U.S. See Dr. Grinspoon on Meeting John Lennon and His First High at NORMLcon. 

In a 2007 article for the Boston Globe titled, “Marijuana Gains Wonder Drug Status,” Grinspoon wrote, "A new study in the journal Neurology is being hailed as unassailable proof that marijuana is a valuable medicine. It is a sad commentary on the state of modern medicine — and US drug policy — that we still need 'proof' of something that medicine has known for 5,000 years.”

The Australian rock band "Grinspoon" was named for Lester, and Oaksterdam University's logo (left) is based on Harvard's as an homage to him.

Researcher Sebastian Marincolo writes that Lester was the first doctor to recommend medical marijuana to parents of autistic children several years ago. Marincolo recounts visiting with the Grinspoons like this: "We then moved on and used his Volcano, and then Lester and Betsy invited me to a lovely dinner."

His son Peter Grinspoon MD tweeted today, "Word has it that he and Carl Sagan are already back at it, discussing & debating the role of cannabinoids in human consciousness…"

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