The Doctor Is In – An Interview with Dr. Lester Grinspoon
Dr. Lester Grinspoon is a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Harvard School of Medicine, and since the late 1960s has been an advocate for the legalization of marijuana. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on marijuana. At Harvard during the 1960s Dr. Grinspoon became close friends with astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan’s circle of friends indulged in marijuana, and as a doctor, Grinspoon was concerned with his friends smoking of marijuana.
“In 1966 I was on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School, I was on the academic track, and I had just finished a book on schizophrenia. At that time I met, at a dinner party, a friend of mine, Carl Sagan, a man who became my closest friend. He and I were very much opposed to the Vietnam War, and at this dinner party, which was made up of lots of faculty from Harvard, it was a private dinner party, Professor Jacob Fine invited me to his Saturday night dinners. And when we got to talking about this, Sagan and I, I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, but we were the only 2 people who were opposed to this war at this dinner. And we were deeply opposed, it was a hot topic and we were sort of driven into a corner. And then we introduced ourselves to each other, and that developed into a friendship. Now in that friendship we did a lot of socializing with folks he was involved with. He and everybody else in that group smoked marijuana. I, for my part, had never even seen a marijuana cigarette, or joint, and I had never seen anybody smoke it. But I was sure I was correct in saying it was very harmful, and they should not be smoking this stuff. The first time I told Carl he said “Oh, Lester! Here have a puff, it’s harmless.”
“So I asked myself, what is the basis for my believing it’s harmful? Well, I really didn’t know what the basis was, it was just that was the general sense of it. So I decided to go to the Countway, the library of the Harvard Medical School, and see if I could write a short piece pulling together the medical and scientific evidence, which must admit the basis for this very serious prohibition. The year (1971) the book finally came out, over 300,000 young people were being arrested on marijuana charges. What happened in the library was that I had sort of an epiphany. I had come pretty quickly to appreciate that I had been brainwashed, like just about every other citizen in this country, and that the fact of the matter is, as I was reading the literature, it seemed to be a remarkably non-toxic drug, not a terribly harmful, toxic drug, but a non-toxic drug. I had it completely upside down, 180 degrees off. To make a long story short, I wrote an 80 page paper, which was too long, I wanted to write a short one. It was published in an international journal that nobody read, except apparently the editor at Scientific American. He gave me a call and asked me if I could cut it down to Scientific American size, which would be quite small. And he was so enthusiastic about it he said, “as soon as you get it in I’ll put it as the lead paper in the next issue I have a place for it, and sure enough it came out in November 1969, as the lead paper. And with that, there was an awful lot of attention paid to that.”
Changing Views on Marijuana
His 80 page paper was expanded into a book which was published by the Harvard University Press. The book was titled “Marihuana Reconsidered” to reflect how Lester’s views changed on the subject. The book included a chapter by his friend Carl Sagan, though Sagan was only credited as Mr. X to protect his anonymity. Grinspoon would later reveal Mr. X’s identity years after Sagan’s death. After the book was first published in 1971, it received updates in 1977 and 1994 when it was republished.
“Most importantly, this was the only work of mine that my son, Daniel, would ever get to see. I wrote 9 other books, Marihuana continued to be the one I was most fascinated with. And then after I saw what a remarkably salutary experience it was for my son to take it, it occurred to me there must be other kids who are having this kind of trouble. But I knew that there was no data, I’d have to collect a lot of clinical data, because you can’t study it, because it’s a schedule 1 drug. So that’s when I started to collect anecdotal evidence about its use as a medicine. And finally in 1992 I started to work with Dr. James B. Bakalar on the book Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine, that was published in ’93. With the publication of that book we were able to collect a lot of anecdotal data about this, people would get in touch with us. So in 1997 we published a more definitive version of that book, because we had so much more material.”
After receiving much praise for Marihuana Reconsidered, Dr. Grinspoon began testifying as an expert on marijuana in court cases. He even testified at John Lennon’s deportation hearing as an expert on marijuana. When Beatles fans heard Lennon was at the court-house, they rushed to get the chance to see him. “I knew what it was like to be a Beatle that day,” Grinspoon said. Lennon had arranged to give Grinspoon some signed Beatles records as a favor for his child. Later Grinspoon would go on to work with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark on international marijuana cases.
Grinspoon’s Son Finds Relief with Medical Marijuana
Dr. Grinspoon’s son Daniel was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. When his son started to get the chemotherapeutics he became afflicted with awful nausea and vomiting. “That drove it home to me how useful it was. He was free of this burden, just having to go the hospital for those injections, he would start to vomit, it was a race to get him home. We’d put a bucket by the side of his bed and he’d vomit for 8 hours, he’d have the dry heaves for 8 hours. It was just awful to see that.” After Danny started using marijuana “he never had to deal with that again as long as he lived.”
Dr. Grinspoon lives in Massachusetts, where marijuana has been decriminalized and medical marijuana was recently legalized through a ballot initiative. In the November 2012 General Election, the medical marijuana ballot initiative passed with 63% of voters approving the ballot question. According to Grinspoon, the Massachusetts medical marijuana program is off to a rocky start, with claims of corruption in the state’s approval and vetting process for opening medical marijuana dispensaries. The program was supposed to start providing patients access in May 2014, but according to Grinspoon, it now seems patients won’t be able to start getting medicine from dispensaries until autumn at the earliest.
A strain of marijuana, developed by Amsterdam marijuana breeders at Barney’s Farm, was named Dr. Grinspoon, in honor of Lester. The Dr. Grinspoon strain is an heirloom sativa with one of the highest THC contents in the world, at 25%. The highest percentage of THC recorded in a strain of cannabis is 28%.
Dr. Grinspoon runs two websites devoted to marijuana, www.Marijuana-Uses.com that covers the enhancement effects of marijuana, including essays from many people about how marijuana has given them new insights, ideas, creativity, and increased appreciation for the arts and nature. Grinspoon’s friend Carl Sagan often used marijuana because he felt it provided him with new insights and ideas. Grinspoon’s other website is Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine, which is located at www.rxmarijuana.com and contains thousands of anecdotal accounts of marijuana’s medical effects, as well as other info on the medical uses of marijuana.