Marihuana Reconsidered Reconsidered

As Rachel Carson's Silent Spring launched the environmental movement, so too did Grinspoon's Marihuana Reconsidered inspire cannabis reform

The beginning of the end of the prohibition of marijuana started quietly fifty years ago this month with the publication of a near-forgotten article in a long-defunct scholarly journal that set in motion a chain of events that led to the legalized cannabis laws emerging today. It is a cautionary tale about the values of patience and persistence even as it reminds us how much more remains to be done.

This story actually starts fifty-one years ago – in the spring of 1967 – when Carl Sagan was smoking a lot of pot. How much pot? Well, maybe not a lot weed for you and me, but a lot of weed for Sagan – He was smoking it almost every day and his best friend, Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School, was growing concerned.

“Carl,” he cautioned, “I think you’re smoking too much cannabis. That can’t be good for you.”

“Lester,” the young astronomer said, “I think you should reconsider.” Or words to that effect.

Dr. Grinspoon had recently finished his part of a big book on schizophrenia, a peer-reviewed resource based on the results of a seven-year study. While waiting for an overdue co-author to complete his chapter, Grinspoon had a little time on his hands. “I decided to use the time to review the medical literature so that I could write a reasonably objective and scientifically sound paper on the harmfulness of this substance,” he told me during our first interview. Fortunately for future generations, Grinspoon did his research at the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard. Had he cracked the books anywhere else he might have hit a brick wall of a suppression that successfully purged the true history of cannabis from American universities and research libraries for over thirty years. But the Countway was then – and remains today – one of the largest and most expansive medical libraries in the world. When Grinspoon poured through the stacks he found the source materials to a world of forgotten knowledge: the discoveries of Drs. O’Shaunessesy in India and Gautier in France, the 3,000-plus page Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1893-94, which heard the testimony of almost 1,200 “doctors, coolies, yogis, and fakirs, the heads of lunatic asylums, bhang peasants, tax gatherers,  smugglers, army officers, hemp dealers, ganja kings and the clergy” and found after all that, “the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all.”

Grinspoon uncovered the final report of the LaGuardia Committee, 1944, which was the first in-depth study into the effects of smoking marijuana in the United States. It contradicted every claim made by the U.S. Government that smoking marijuana results in insanity, is physically addictive, and is a “gateway” drug to all the rest.

“It soon dawned on me,” Grinspoon recalled, ” that I, like most other Americans, had been brainwashed,”

A scholar by temperament, Lester took his research and packed it into a dry 80-page article for the obscure International Journal of Psychiatry, published fifty years ago this month. No one read it.

Well, one person read it. Murray Chestick, the editor of Scientific American knew a sexy science cover story when he saw one. He asked Lester to write a shorter version of Marihuana Reconsidered for the educated reader, and that concise rewrite graced the December 1969 cover and garnered a lot of attention. Beautifully written, elegant in its simplicity, it was also unapologetic for its controversy. Offers to publish a general interest book immediately followed, but Lester held out for the imprimatur (and tacit endorsement) of the Harvard University Press. The final book is considered today to be a modern classic and legendary for its anonymous interview with a mysterious Mister X – “a respected scientist” – on the benefits of cannabis. Mr. X was Carl Sagan.

Lester was the Best Man at Sagan’s first wedding in 1968

Marihuana Reconsidered was released in late-May 1971 just as President Nixon was making plans to announce the name of the first drug czar. The Watergate tapes from that week clearly show that Nixon noted the publication of Grinspoon’s book. Speaking about cracking down on weed, the President said, “I see another thing in the news summary this morning about it. You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them?”

Not surprisingly, this exchange became infamous during the 1970s because of Nixon’s unambiguous comments concerning Jews, and marijuana advocates like myself have known for decades that the president was talking about weed during that conversation. But it took almost fifty years to figure out that Nixon was talking about Lester Grinspoon when, continuing where we just left off, he said, “I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists. You know, there’s so many. All the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish.”

I had a hunch, and I revealed it earlier this year during an interview with a reporter for the Boston Globe who was working on a story about Lester.  I told my suspicions to the Dan Adams – Ace reporter! The intrepid Mr. Adams contacted the Nixon Library and came back with a copy of the presidential news summary that Nixon referenced above. Grinspoon’s name and the title of his troublesome book is circled in red by Nixon himself:  “I sure this clown is far on the left!” he quiped in the margins about Lester, underscoring the word “far” for emphasis.

There were a few revisionist books on cannabis before Marihuana Reconsidered, but none of them had the clarity and heft of Grinspoon’s tome. There were important marijuana law reform advocates and organizations before 1969, but their dissent was swallowed up within the anti-war movement and their initial advocacy was repeated in an echo chamber. When an associate professor from Harvard Medical school clocked in to say that grass was no big deal… Well, that was a very big deal indeed. The mainstream took notice, and the New York Times Book Review gave Marihuana Reconsidered a front-page review: “The Best Dope On Pot So Far” the Book Review blared, and that was true. The advocates who followed Grinspoon stood on more solid ground. Before Grinspoon we were seen as a bunch of potheads; after Grinspoon we could begin to argue that we were citizens and patients whose rights were implied if we only stood up to claim them.

I asked Lester what Sagan thought of the book. “When he read the manuscript for Marihuana Reconsidered he said, ‘The book is terrific but why are you being so conservative in saying it may take us ten years to get rid of this prohibition?'” Sagan predicted that pot would be legal in “a few years.”

That was fifty years ago. In 2018 thirty states and the District of Columbia currently have laws broadly legalizing marijuana in some form. Over sixty percent of Americans want marijuana permitted for adult use and over 80% want medical cannabis back in the pharmacopoeia. None of that would have happened without Marihuana Reconsidered. As Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring launched the environmental movement, so too did Marihuana Reconsidered inspire the specific variety of cannabis law reform that flowers today. Nobody – not even Grinspoon – could have predicted the extraordinary advances in medicalized cannabis nor the breathtaking innovations brought on by legalized weed, The vast potentials of cannabis were doomed to remain untapped until the doctor had a surprising encounter with the truth and simply reconsidered.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon (photo by Freedom Leaf)