A famous populariser of science… and someone’s motivation to study marijuana

The older man’s voice on the other end of the phone was slightly frail but was still full of the liveliness and enthusiasm of someone younger. I started to scribble down notes about the life and research of the Emeritus Professor I was speaking to when my pen was stopped in its tracks. Did he just say he was Carl Sagan’s best man? Twice? And Sagan was the reason he first started researching marijuana? What?!

There really is nothing quite like calling an eminent scientist to discuss their research. I find real joy in hearing them passionately explain what drives them in their pursuit to discover things about the world around us. But sometimes the best part of the conversation is learning a little bit more about the person behind the science; what motivated them to become a scientist? And what led them to enter the field that they did?

A couple of months ago I had called Dr Lester Grinspoon, an Emeritus Professor at Harvard University, to talk about his work on marijuana. I asked him what prompted him to look into this controversial drug, and he explained to me that it was best if he told me the story behind why he wrote his first book, Marijuana Reconsidered. It was shortly into this story that he dropped the Sagan bombshell…

In 1967, a younger Grinspoon was working on a book about schizophrenia. Both of the book’s junior authors were running late with their contributions, leaving Grinspoon with 2 months free time. He decided that wanted to use it to do something productive.

His closest friend, Carl Sagan, used marijuana regularly. [The conversation at this point went something along the lines of; Me: Carl Sagan?! Grinspoon: Oh yes, I was best man at his wedding, you know. Twice. Me: ……] Grinspoon recounted the times he used to tell Sagan that he should stop, that it was bad for him. Sagan would insist that it wasn’t. The impression I got was that this was something they would bicker about regularly.

When those 2 free months opened up for Grinspoon, he decided that he would prove to Sagan once and for all that he was right. Grinspoon installed himself in the Harvard Medical School library and started wading through the scientific literature. His aim was to publish, in a prominent place where young people could see, something that outlined the scientific proof that smoking marijuana was harmful.

However, over the course of his research he explained to me that he found little empirical evidence to back up the anti-marijuana message. This led him to change his opinion on marijuana. At the end of the 2 months he wrote an 80-page journal article that outlined why marijuana was a non-toxic drug. This article was then expanded into the book, Marijuana Reconsidered. To this day, I wish I’d asked what Carl Sagan thought of the book!

Lester Grinspoon went on to write books and speak out against marijuana prohibition. He is very prominent in this area to this day. It’s crazy to think that if he hadn’t had disagreed with Carl Sagan about whether marijuana was bad for you or not, he might never had investigated the literature, and his life might have been very different.

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