Dr. Lester Grinspoon has been one of the most vocal and respected voices within the cannabis reform movement for years. A retired Harvard Psychiatry Professor and author, Dr. Grinspoon tends to turn heads when speaking about how adamantly he opposes our failed prohibition on cannabis. We had the honor of speaking with him recently to ask him a few questions.
What would you say is the number one reason for our country to end cannabis prohibition?
Freedom. We have a right to be able to put in our bodies what we want.
What caused you to start actively participating in ending cannabis prohibition?
It goes like this: In the early 1960’s, Carl Sagan and I were very close friends. We were for three decades. When I met him in the 60’s he was smoking marijuana and I, a young physician who of course knew “everything”, I told him that it was a dangerous, harmful thing to be doing.
I mention Carl because he was the only friend I had who smoked and I always told him he shouldn’t. When I started looking outside of my academic window after that point, I saw so many people smoking like he was. I felt I needed to do something about it. I went into the library where I was teaching and spent some time in the search for the medical and scientific basis for which this prohibition was built.
I had an epiphany very quickly that I had been brainwashed just like every other citizen in the United States and many parts of the world. I had started by trying to put together a paper to get published as a vehicle for young people to read, to make clear just what made it dangerous, but now, after the research, I was equally determined to publish it as a vehicle to show how the whole thing as a lie. There was no question in my mind that I had been wrong. There was no property of the drug that was nearly as dangerous or harmful as how we were treating people who were using it. At that time we were arresting 300,000 on marijuana charges, 90% just possessions and mostly young people. In 2010 we were at over 850,000 arrests. We haven’t accomplished much. Though in 2011 it did come down a little.
The point to this was that initially I began my look into this drug as a concerned citizen, concerned about the well being of young people, and concluded that it was just all false.
At that point I wrote an 80 page paper published in the Journal of Psychiatry. It wasn’t seen by many people, but not long after it became lead article in Scientific American. That caused a lot of interest, and got a lot of people looking. With that a number of book publishers approached me on publishing a book.
At first I said no, then the current Harvard director of publications came over to my office and said “Look, you already wrote an 80 page paper, expand it by three, and well make it into a book.” There were three reasons I decided to do it.
One, the library really aroused my interest in the subject, not because I was so misled, but because I wanted to represent everyone else who had been misled by government propaganda. It just had to be corrected.
Two, it also seemed to me that there were things about this experience I was personally interested in.
Three, my son who had developed leukemia at that time in 67′ when I was just starting my research. It was clear to me it was the only part of my work he expressed any interest in, so when Harvard approached me we struck a deal; if they would get it out by March 4th 1971, I would write it. The book was dedicated to my son. Publishing takes a long time, I wanted to be sure my son was around when it was published. That’s how I became interested in it.
Have your efforts towards cannabis law reform caused any conflicts in your professional career?
Many many…many! Including that it got in my way of getting full professorship at Harvard Medical School. They were quite open in their response, that they didn’t like my research on marijuana. When I asked them why, they said “Well, we though it was too controversial”. I said “Well I don’t understand that… I thought we were part of the academic world, if that’s true shouldn’t the major criteria be scholarly?”
That wasn’t the only manifestation. Harvard clearly doesn’t want to be associated with the work I’ve been doing. When I made television appearances they would want to film in Harvard’s Library, and they would say no. I told them before that I was going to wear my Harvard tie, and they asked me to go with something more “conservative.”
I said “Fine, but I’m going to wear my Harvard underpants!”
In recent years you’ve supported efforts to legalize cannabis for those 18 and older. Why is it important that we don’t maintain prohibition for the 18-21 age group?
Well, you see, I have no data to support the statement that marijuana is harmful to young people. It isn’t like alcohol where we know a pregnant women shouldn’t use it because of fetal alcohol syndrome. We know young people shouldn’t use alcohol because alcohol is neurotoxic, that’s why people who use a lot, whether they’re young or old, should be careful. It can destroy brain cells. Cannabis can not. It does troubles me that very young people use it because the brain is not fully mature until the early 20s. All the systems have not been developed until the early 20s which is why people should avoid psychoactive substances during this period. It’s important until we know for sure that a youngster isn’t paying a price.
That said, I know a lot of people who started smoking at 16, 17 or younger, and I’d be hard pressed to say they’ve suffered any damage. But maybe some growing brains are more sensitive than others. We’re protective over a wide range of things for young people, this in my book is protecting them from something we don’t know the answers to.
You’ve been in the reform movement for many years – does it ever grow tiresome that it’s taking so long for the public to understand the devastating effects of this prohibition?
Its funny, when I finished writing Marihuana Reconsidered, I added a last chapter and talked about how we should end this dastardly prohibition, and I predicted that it would be gone within 10 years. Carl Sagan and I use to read each others manuscript before they were published – he told me it was a great book but I made one big mistake, 10 years is wrong, it’ll be 2 years or so at most. We were optimistic that people would learn that it’s all a big populace delusion that marijuana is harmful. Those that overcame that delusion knew prohibition would be gone. It’s a great, no, the best, recreational drug. You don’t pay much of a price like you do with alcohol or any other.
It’s also a great medical drug. One day it’ll be recognized as a wonder drug, like penicillin before it. It’s so effective and can be so inexpensive, and it has so much diversity and can cure so much. It’s a wonder drug. It’s remarkably non-toxic. When freed of prohibition it’ll be quite inexpensive when compared to the pharmaceuticals it’ll take the place of, and again, it’s remarkably versatile, useful in the treatment of everything from migraines to Crohn’s Disease. We’ve learned of many ways in which cannabis is useful as a medicine. It’s mentally the best recreational drug, it’s a lot of fun and remarkably non-toxic, and also a marvelous medicine for a whole variety of symptoms. The three besides recreation and medicine, and it’s overlapping, is what I call enhancement. It enhances many human capacities to some extent. I have a website on it, marijuana-uses.com. This webpage has a lot of people who think marijuana has played a significant role in their life.
Why do you think it’s taking so long for the public to understand?
We’ve been dealing with 75 years of intense propaganda on part of the government. I was one of the subjects of this propaganda in 1967; I talked like the drug czar. But it’s not just the propaganda. When Eisenhower left office he spoke of the danger of the military industrial complex. It cost a huge amount of money and became a complex, it seems to be this situation is analogous. The reason the Obama administration is having a hard time living up to its word on medical marijuana is that we have a huge number of DEA agents in this country. Their budget is $2 billion. That’s a lot of people who would be out of a job, and want to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is combined with many people who still have a lot of negative feelings on marijuana based on very little information. Based on a lie, frankly.
The other side is that so many opposed before are so vehemently saying “Hey, you’ve been right all along!”
In your work towards reform, what have you found works best in persuading people to support an end to cannabis prohibition?
Well I’ll tell you what, I think medical marijuana is what has happened here to make this sudden change. See I published Marihuana the Forbidden Medicine in 1993 and it was the first book to say to people “Look, this can be very useful as a medicine. It’s non-toxic and will be very inexpensive, and you can grow your own.”
Point is, a lot of people already knew people were using it, you just had to look for them, like in Playboy; you would see people state how they suffer terribly from migraines or Crohn’s and that the best thing for them is marijuana. I started looking into all this, which is how I got into this book. Polling in the mid 90’s moving forward grew exponentially until right now, where over 50% support legalization, over 70% for medical. The key thing is that as people have been able to have the experience of having a relative or friend find that marijuana was useful in chemotherapy or whatever, they have had the opportunity to see them use it and they say “Hey, this seems perfectly harmless., what’s all the fuss about?”
It’s funny because when Marihuana Reconsider came out in the 70’s, the first letter was a very nasty letter, that said simply “Dirty Harvard Jew, you did it for the money!”
The first communication I got with the 2nd book was a letter which was also negative, but in a way that I thought was interesting. He said “You must be very interest in getting rid of prohibition and I believe you wrote this book as the Trojan horse towards that.” He must have thought I was very Machiavellian, but it turns out that’s exactly what medical marijuana did.
There was a dean at Harvard, Steve, who had read my 2nd book and was very negative about marijuana in general, but I know he read it because he called me one day. I worked with him in the publications department. He called and said “I saw your book Lester, and that there’s a drug called Marinol, and I was thinking if it’s appropriate for my mother-in-law with pancreatic cancer to use it”. He said she’s handling the cancer well but has constant nausea. I said “Well, it would probably work some, but it would be much better if she smoked it. He said “No, my mother-in-law would never smoke marijuana”, so I told him how she should dose and how he should instruct her doctor to dose the Marinol. When I concluded I said if she has any trouble, give her my number.
Two weeks later I get a call from her from Miami. She told me that the Marinol worked at the beginning, but doesn’t work anymore, and asked if I had any suggestions. I asked if she had a grandchild who could roll a joint. She said she had a granddaughter who was trying to get her to smoke for months. I told her to have her teach her all about rolling a joint, but to have her stay with her during the first few times she tries it. I told her to start by taking one puff at a time, waiting 2-3 minutes, lighting it again and take another puff, so that she wouldn’t get an anxiety reaction. I said to her you just keep doing that, until one of two things happens; you get relief of the nausea, or feel anxious, and to stop at either one, and told her to call me with any difficulties.
I never heard from her again, but the next time talking with Steve he said “Lester, I can’t tell you how happy we are. The whole family is so pleased at what happened to my mother-in-law.” What happened after was that she started to smoke, got complete relief, but develeoped another medical problem and was sent to a general hospital. I heard that she died several months later. When we arrived back at his house that year, his wife said that they were so indebted to me. She went on to describe how her three boys, now out of college and working as a doctor, lawyer and landscape architect, would sit down and roll joints with their grandma, having a wonderful time together. She went on to say that she so regrets that when she heard her boys were smoking in college, she was like a banshee with them, and was so upset, she couldn’t believe it, that there was nothing to it.
To me those two parents typify whats happened to a lot of people. They might not have had anyone as close as a mom, but other friends and acquaintances, they come to have a first or close to first hand experience, and realizes, what was all the fuss about?
Which state do you predict will be next to legalize cannabis?
There are six that are now working on it, and it’s awfully hard to say, but it wont be long before there’s many more. At a luncheon in my honor recently in Massachusetts, I said that people should have waited a little bit and instead of going for medical, should have gone for the whole thing, as more than 50% are ready for it. I think Massachusetts wont be long catching up.
The federal government can do what they want, but it’s coming.