Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon made a powerful enemy in 1971 when he published the groundbreaking book 'Marihuana Reconsidered.'
“[T]his clown is far on the left,” wrote President Richard Nixon, who allegedly launched the War on Drugs as a covert attempt to disrupt Grinspoon and other left-wingers. While few vilify marijuana advocates with the same fervor as Nixon did decades ago, Grinspoon is still enduring the backlash over the book that allegedly got him 'green listed' by the hiring committee at Harvard, who disapproved of his cannabis stance.
When applying to become a full professor in 1975, Grinspoon was denied without explanation, though one dean told him that the committee “hated” his marijuana book because it was “too controversial.”
A 'very dangerous drug'
Ironically, a younger Grinspoon would have agreed. The psychiatrist's first personal encounter with marijuana occurred in the 60s when his colleague and friend Carl Sagan offered to split a joint with him.
“When I saw him smoking for the first time, I said, ‘Carl, you musn’t do that! That’s a very dangerous drug,’ ” Grinspoon - now 89 - recalled in a recent interview with Dan Adams of the Boston Globe. “He took another puff and said, ‘Here, Lester, have some, you’ll love it and it’s harmless.’ I was absolutely astonished.”
He was also determined to prove Sagan wrong, so he hit the books to find proof that marijuana was a dangerous drug. Instead, he became a cannabis advocate after realizing that the stigmas around the plant were baseless.
“I have concluded that marijuana is a relatively safe intoxicant which is not addicting, does not in and of itself lead to the use of harder drugs, is not criminogenic, and does not lead to sexual excess,” he wrote shortly afterward. He added that the real danger with marijuana was “the way we as a society were dealing with people who use it” (i.e. incarcerating cannabis offenders).
And unlike Sagan - who puffed away in the cannabis closet for decades - Grinspoon went a step further and publicly admitted to smoking marijuana. A move that he hoped would break down stoner stereotypes.
“I have and I do smoke marijuana,” Grinspoon told Barbara Walters during a 'Today Show' interview in 1973. Two years later, he was denied the Harvard promotion amid rumors that his position on cannabis was being held against him.
But that didn't stop Grinspoon's fight against America's draconian drug laws. In the 80s, he worked with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) to advocate for sensible drug laws. In the 90s, he published another highly influential book on cannabis. Despite - or perhaps because of those efforts, Harvard again refused to offer him a promotion in 1997.
Advocates endorse Grinspoon
Now other cannabis advocates are speaking out on Grinspoon's behalf.
“He bore the academic torch through the dark years of the drug war when it was heresy to speak the truth about marijuana,” Dick Evans - an attorney and marijuana activist - told the Boston Globe. Recognizing Grinspoon's work "would not only be an act of supreme decency, but also an act of institutional humility — and I think Harvard’s capable of both,” Evans added.
“He’s one of the most important people in the history of marijuana reform,” Rick Cusick - former associate publisher of High Times- said. “His book started the movement.”
And it helped establish state-regulated industries, according to Massachusetts Marijuana Commissioner Shaleen Title. “I wouldn’t be a state marijuana regulator if people like Dr. Grinspoon hadn’t made sacrifices,” she told the Globe. “Harvard should recognize that he was right all along.”
Until they do, Grinspoon's efforts to destroy cannabis stigmas will remain unfinished.