Cannabis crusader Dr. Lester Grinspoon on his 40+ years of marijuana reform (and meeting a Beatle)


Dr. Lester Grinspoon.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon is easily one of the most prominent, and influential voices within the cannabis reform movement, and he has been for decades. A retired Harvard Psychiatry Professor, Grinspoon is the author of numerous books, including the popular Marihuana Reconsidered and Marihuana The Forbidden Medicine. He’s also on the Board of Directors for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and has appeared in several television shows and movies, including The Union: The Business Behind Getting High. We caught up with Grinspoon recently, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for Toke of the Town.

What is your opinion of the current state of affairs of cannabis law reform?
I wrote an essay a while ago titled “Marijuana’s here to stay”, and there’s no question about it: Prohibition is through, it’s ended. What we’re seeing now is a culture scrambling to figure out how to accommodate to this new fact. Both the government and the culture. The rest of it as far as I can see is playing out the end game in this.
Like your state [Washington] with Initiative 502: The 5 nanogram DUI test is silly. It’s going to have to be revised. It can’t be done by any type of blood test. Not to mention who’s going to take it; the police are going to take our blood? If you smoke it over the evening you can drive perfectly well the next morning.
The point is I applaud Washington, and I supported it, even though I had a problem with the DUI thing. A major part in moving forward is figuring out what to do about it. Ultimately it’s going to have to be some sort of behavioral test. I’m not confident you can measure something in someone’s body fluid and figure out if they’re impaired or not.
At any rate, I wrote Marihuana Reconsidered in 1971; at the time Carl Sagan and I who were close friends for three decades would read each others manuscripts, and he read Marihuana Reconsidered. He said “Lester this is an excellent book, but you made one big mistake!” I said what’s that? He said “you predicted prohibition will be gone in ten years”
I said, how long do you think it’ll take? He said, “2-3 years!”
And I’ve been waiting far beyond that ten years for this to happen. But I see it now, it’s virtually happened. We have to get everything lined up right, but that’s how I see the situation now. There will be a lot more activity now through the states, both making it medical and making it legal.
I do believe the end of this dastardly prohibition is upon us. We’re on the cusp of victory.
In your opinion, what would be the ideal cannabis policy?
I think a good cannabis policy would treat it like alcohol and tax it. This means if your’e going to use it irresponsibly like driving drunk, and you get caught, you get penalized. It means there’s an age limit below which people can’t get it. I think this is the best possible way to do it, because I’m concerned about youngsters using it too soon: Not because there is convincing data, mostly because the brain doesn’t achieve ful development until they’re in their early 20s.
I would say it’s going to be treated that way [like alcohol], or since it’s also a medicine, it could be treated like aspirin. I’m convinced we will not realize the full potential of this substance as a medicine until the prohibition is gone and people can get it as easy as they can for aspirin. No need to talk with a doctor and get a prescription for aspirin despite the fact that between 1,000-2,000 people in the United State die yearly from aspirin. Cannabis is non-lethal.
It has to be somewhere in the aspirin or the liquor model, It seems to me these are the only models that will free it to be used as both a medicine as for recreation.
Page down for more of our interview with Dr. Lester Grinspoon.

In the past few decades cannabis legalization has gone from something with an incredibly small amount of support, to something the majority of Americans believe should happen. What do you feel is the largest contributing factor to this change?

No question, medical marijuana. You know, I’ll tell you something: When I published Marihuana Reconsidered, the first letter I got was from somebody who didn’t sign his name; it said, “you dirty Harvard Jew, you wrote it for the money!” I could scarcely believe it.
When it came to Marijuana the Forbidden Medicine, the first letter I remember was a longer letter. It wasn’t nasty; it said “you wrote this book Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine because you want to use it as a Trojan horse to bring about the legalization of marijuana”.
He was analyzing my motivation: He took me to be much more Machiavellian then I ever believed I was.
The fact of the matter is, it’s medical marijuana that’s made a lot of this possible. It started to really take off in the mid 90s, or thereabouts, when proposition 215 came out in ’96. My book came out in ’93.
That I think was the real key here. It’s just like global warming, people aren’t going to take it seriously until they can see it for themselves. They’re beginning to see all these storms, droughts, and noting the change climate scientists predicted years ago. It seems to me that’s what’s happened with medical marijuana.
For example, I’ll give you an anecdote: An associate dean of Harvard Medical School called me one day: I was Editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, so I knew him pretty well. He called and said “Lester I just read Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine and I want to ask your advice: My mother-in-law is 67 and has pancreatic cancer”.

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Harvard Medical School.

Now, with pancreatic cancer there’s nothing anybody can do. The doctor’s obligation is to just make the patient as comfortable as possible. He told me “You know, she’d be okay and having a good life if it weren’t for the constant nausea.” He said “I read in your book about this drug called Marinol, do you think it would help here?” I said “Well it’s synthetic THC. It’s the same 21 carbon molecule. It’s THC, but it doesn’t work as well as smoked or ingested marijuana. Would your mom be willing to smoke marijuana?” He said absolutely not, almost indignantly. I told him alright, and gave him what her Marinol dosing schedule would be and said “If she has any difficulty, have her call me.”
Two weeks later I got a call from this woman and she told me the Marinol worked pretty well for a while, but that she had to keep increasing the dose and it wasn’t quite as effective. She was wondering what else she could do. I asked if she had a grandchild who could teach her how to use marijuana. She said that she had a granddaughter who’s been dying to teach her how to use marijuana. I told her to have her granddaughter teach her how to roll a joint, and to have her with her the first few times. I told her what she wants to do is light this joint, take a puff, breath it in deeply and let it out, then wait 2-3 minutes, and relight and repeat, always leaving a few minutes between puffs. I told her to stop when one of two things happen; either she get anxious, or her nausea disappears, which ever comes first. After that I didn’t hear anything more from her.
When I next went to a meeting at the dean’s office, he asked me to stay after the others had left, because he wanted to chat with me for a minute. He said to me, “I can’t tell you how indebted our whole family is to you. My boys [he had three boys, a doctor, lawyer and landscape architect], they’d sit around the table when they visited and rolled enough of those cigarettes for granny until they were going to be back again; and then they’d have such a great time; and we are so indebted to you. She’s really back to her old self.”
And then I heard that she had passed away. The next thing that happened is the associate dean and his wife always gave a Christmas party for the editors, and so when my wife and I walked in, there was his wife at the door, saying “Oh Lester, we are so indebted to you!”. She used almost the same words as her husband; “We are so indebted to you, you can’t imagine what it meant to my mother.” This was now a couple of months after her mother had died. She went on to tell about how they’d sit around the table when they visited and have a wonderful time talking, and she said “You know what happened to me? It made me feel like a perfect damn fool, because when the boys were in college and I heard they were using marijuana, I came onto them like a banshee. I said they were just harming themselves so badly”, and she said to me “Now I have to look back on it and say what was all the fuss?”.
She and her husband, who were so anti-marijuana before, once they had a close-up look at somebody using it, they could see for themselves that this was not something they should be getting so excited about, at least negatively. And I think that’s actually what’s happening around the country, is that people see a relative or a friend who uses marijuana, and this is what happens to them; they come to revise their understanding of it.
So I think that the letter writer was right; medical marijuana has been a Trojan horse for legalization.
How did your colleagues react when you first begin to speak out in favor of ending this prohibition?
They reacted badly. When I was put up for a full professorship I was told that they liked my first book about schizophrenia very much, but they really didn’t like my book about marijuana. Since my chief was on the board of promotion I asked him “What didn’t they like about it?” He said “Too controversial.” I said “Controversial? What’s that got to do with anything? I mean we’re in the academy. What do they think of the scholarship?” He said, “Don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger here.” And that was that.
Five years before I retired, I announced in 1995 that I would be going emeritus in 2000, somebody on the promotions committee brought the whole situation up again, years later, because he had felt that they were wrong about my work on marijuana, and indeed, the committee agreed with him, and they passed it. It had to be signed by the new chief, and long story short, he got together with the dean and it was vetoed. On the other hand, last year, or the year before, I got a short note, with this little scratchy handwriting on it, from a man who was 101 years old. He was one of my mentors when I was a student at Harvard Medical School. He says he saw something about me in the Boston Globe, and it reminded him to write to me because he wanted to say to me, “Lester, you were right all along.” He died a year later at 102.
Overall there were very few people at the medical school who were in any way supportive of what I was doing, to say the least. But, I got it done, and I lived a very nice life without the full professorship.
Page down for the rest of our interview with Dr. Lester Grinspoon.

What’s your opinion on states like New York that have majority support for recreational legalization, but don’t have a medical cannabis law yet? Do you think they Should they go for medical as a stepping stone, or should they focus all their resources on full legalization?

Dr. Grinspoon.

Well, there was a luncheon given in my honor recently in Massachusetts, and I told them “you know, I think we made a mistake going for medical marijuana because Massachusetts is more than 50% in favor of legalization, and maybe we should have skipped this step and gone directly to it.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if some states are going to do that, because people are changing their minds so rapidly, they are coming to ask, “what’s all the fuss?”
Do you support an end to the drug war as a whole, or do you specifically feel that cannabis is the only substance which laws need reforming?
I think ultimately, the only way to deal with drugs is not going to be warring, it’s to make them legally available. You may question that for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and so on. Well, you know, we can control the use of alcohol much better now that it’s legal than we could during the days of the Volstead Act.
My wife and I were walking the Boston Common one day, and we saw this exchange. We were sitting on a bench, and it happened pretty much in front of us, though they didn’t seem to pay much attention to us. A man was coming with a 6 pack of beer, he was about in his 30’s, and then there were a couple of young people, in their late teens, 2 of them, and they approached him, and were talking to him, and I saw one of them open the palm of his hand, and as nearly as I could tell it looked like there were a couple of joints there. They talked, and he handed him the joints, and the man handed them the beer. Now, they couldn’t have gone to the store to buy the beer themselves, because they surely couldn’t prove that they were 21, and he, the man in his 30’s, probably doesn’t have the same kind of access to grass as these young people did. Now, if it’s legal, and you control it like alcohol, you’ll have more control over the alcohol consumption of young people, because those bars and those people who run the liquor stores, they are really frightened, in Massachusetts at any rate, because if they get caught selling it to an under aged person, they lose their license. They lose their living, there’s a lot there at stake. So, it’s generally the case in this state, that those laws are being very carefully monitored and controlled, and younger people are having a tougher time getting beer, or whatever it is they want to drink.
You run the website – can you explain this project a bit?
When I first got interested in marijuana I believed it was simply a recreational drug. Now, I’ve come a long way. First of all, I think it’s the best recreational drug. It’s free, well, almost free of serious side-effects. You don’t want people stoned driving, I don’t want young people to use it; I would prefer if they wait until what’s inside their head is fully mature. But at any rate I was convinced the biggest danger to young people or to anybody else was getting caught because there you can suffer some real and obvious consequences.
I had a personal experience with it as a medicine: I had a son who had acute lymphocytic leukemia, and it was amazingly helpful to my son. We never had to suffer through those awful post-chemotherapy bouts of nausea that would last for 8 hours that he just dreaded. That was the end of them. Once he started using it for chemotherapy-induced nausea, he never had to suffer that nausea again. So that’s when I began to think I should really do a book on this, because I imagined there are lots of other kids, not to speak of adults, who might benefit from its use. That’s when I started to think of it as a medicine, along with my own experience through the literature.

I started the website The Uses of Marijuana ( because I later became convinced that it was not just useful as a recreational drug and a medicine, but that it helped some people who learned to use it as an enhancer of a variety of human capacities. Now, anybody who gets high knows about its culinary enhancing capacities; “Hey, I’ve never had a eclair taste like this, where’d ya get it?” That kind of thing. And everybody knows it enhances the sexual experience. One of the things I began to catch onto was, it helped people do kinds of thinking that they normally don’t do. The Uses of Marijuana is meant to illustrate how many people find it enhances some aspect of their lives, whether it be music, spiritual experience, or some kind of problem-solving. That’s the third category.
While these categories, recreation, medicine, and enhancement are overlapping to some extend, they never-the-less are the three general areas of usefulness. Unfortunately many people never discover the enhancement capacity because they’re more interested in the more “let’s have fun” kind of thing. But for example, Carl Sagan used it everyday, and there’s no question he felt it enhanced his writing, and thinking about things, and certainly that has been my experience, and the experience of a lot of other people, whose essays I put on the marijuana uses website.
I’ve heard that you’ve spent time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono – what was that like?
We had dinner together: They picked me up and took me to dinner, and then we had breakfast the next morning. I was in New York to testify for John, because John Mitchell, the attorney general (under Nixon), wanted to kick him out of the country, because he was getting too active in anti-Vietnam War activities, and he was becoming a big hero in that. They took as the excuse to kick him out, the fact that some hashish had been planted in his apartment in London by a London police person who was determined to get him. He knew he smoked marijuana, and he was so determined to get him that he even worked weekends on his own, and finally, managed to plant some.

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John Lennon statue in New York.

There was a very important reason for John not leaving the country, as Yoko’s little girl, who was five years old, had been kidnapped by her ex-husband, and the court said the child was legally hers as long as she stayed in the United States. So they had to stay in the United States no matter what. I served as a witness to his trial.
At the conclusion of the trial, I had an experience that gave me a very good idea of what it must have been like to be someone as famous as John Lennon. After breakfast we had stopped by the place where he had a company that distributed records, and they gave me a whole pile of records, including two that were inscribed on the outside, one to Danny, and one to his brother.
At any rate, after we won, I was walking out with John and Yoko, who were going to drive me to the airport. We walked out to their limousine together, not knowing that while the court was in session that morning, apparently some music broadcaster announced that John Lennon and Yoko were in the immigrations courtroom in New York, and word got around. When we got out, there were I don’t know how many young girls, a huge crowd of them, yelling and screaming, and the police had come and formed a line, and were actually holding each other to keep them away from the three of us. I thought “wow, this must have been what it was like for these poor people every time they moved.” Well they were so determined, these young creatures, they broke through the police line, and they got close enough to see these were inscribed records I was holding, I had my briefcase in my right hand and the records against my chest, and they started to really lunge at me, not me, but the records. I was determined to keep them, but in the process, the records were ruined. So we stopped again at their office, and they loaded me up with two more of the inscribed records, and a whole bunch of albums, like that wonderful one called “The Pope Smokes Dope” by David Peel and the Lower East Side that he signed, and then we proceeded to the airport.
For a few minutes I knew what it was like to be a Beatle. It was something else.
Toke of the Town would like to extend our gratitude to Dr. Lester Grinspoon for taking the time to speak with us.