U.S.: Carl Sagan Smoked Lots of Weed With Dr. Lester Grinspoon
By Steve Elliott
While internationally renowned astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan never publicly acknowledged his use of marijuana during his lifetime, the bestselling author and host of the popular TV series "Cosmos" did enjoy cannabis frequently and enthusiastically in private -- and he eventually convinced his straight-laced friend, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Lester Grinspoon, to join in.
This happened, mind you, after Dr. Grinspoon, in 1967, had decided to research this marijuana stuff thoroughly enough to convince his best friend -- who was, you guessed it, Sagan -- to stop using the stuff, reported David Bienenstock of Motherboard in 2013. But what happened when Grinspoon visited the Harvard Medical School library, preparing to put together well-referenced argument against marijuana, was that he discovered he'd been brainwashed on the subject, as had just about everyone else in the United States.
Dr. Grinspoon encountered considerable pressure at Harvard to leave the subject of cannabis alone, but he didn't yield in his quest. In 1971, he published Marihuana Reconsidered to document his findings. The book, which described a decades-long government propaganda campaign to keep marijuana illegal, became a bestseller.
In addition to the scientific rebuttal of the many myths then accepted about marijuana, the book included a remarkable essay from a man identified only as "Mr. X." In this essay, writing under a pseudonym, Carl Sagan explained his support for ending cannabis prohibition for not just political, but for deeply personal reasons.
"I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs," Dr. Sagan wrote. "The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate.
"Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrises and posturing of myself and my fellow men," Sagan wrote. "And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a playful and whimsical awareness.
"Both of these senses of the absurd can be communicated, and some of the most rewarding highs I’ve had have been in sharing talk and perceptions and humor," Sagan wrote. "Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds."
Dr. Sagan vigorously defended the validity of cannabis-induced epiphanies, and maintained they helped him with some of his scientific insights.
"There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning," Sagan wrote. "I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we're down the next day.
"Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing," Sagan wrote. "The problem is that 10 even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one."
Sagan, toward the end of his life and without disclosing his own use, began advocating for medicinal cannabis. Three years after his death, Dr. Grinspoon posthumously revealed the identity of Mr. X in interviews with William Poundstone for Poundstone's book Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos . Grinspoon's decision, he said, was based on Sagan's often expressed wish to help the movement to end marijuana prohibition.
Dr. Grinspoon Tries It For Himself
About a year and a half after Marihuana Reconsidered came out, Grinspoon had to testify before a state senate committee in Massachusetts. "And one of the senators, who was clearly hostile to my position, asked, 'Have you, Dr. Grinspoon, ever used marijuana yourself?' To which, without planning it, I replied, 'Senator, I'll be glad to answer that question if you can tell me whether if I answer in the affirmative, that would make me a more or less credible witness.'
"Well, the senator stood up on the dais, pointed an accusing finger at me and declared, 'Sir, you are being impertinent.' Then he stormed off. So I went home to my wife and said, 'Betsy, the time has come. We're going to smoke.'”
Grinspoon and his wife had to try three times, but the third time was the charm. He "really" heard The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" for the first time, "And it was like an auditory implosion. I couldn't believe it," Dr. Grinspoon told Motherboard.
Photo of Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Lester Grinspoon: Florida Marijuana Info