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Lester Grinspoon Pioneer of Cannabis Normalization Dies at 92

Dr. Lester Grinsppon Passes Away at 92
PHOTO Todd McCormick

In History

Lester Grinspoon Pioneer of Cannabis Normalization Dies at 92

Cannabis advocates across the United States and the world bid a grateful farewell to Lester Grinspoon, the Harvard psychiatrist and prolific author who changed the national conversation about marijuana and championed the need for a more tolerant and enlightened policy.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, the renowned Harvard scholar whose works boldly challenged the cannabis stigma in an era when it was deeply entrenched in American culture, died June 25 at his home in the Boston area. His passing came unexpectedly, one day after he celebrated his 92nd birthday. 

His most pioneering work, Marihuana Reconsidered, was published in 1971 and was the fruit of years of research spent at Harvard Medical School. In addition to a review of the scientific literature and historical material, the book includes actual first-hand interviews with cannabis users, portrayed without prejudice — a ground-breaking notion for its time. With multiple chapters dispassionately dedicated to deconstructing the propaganda of fear, it concludes with an open call for legalization.

This call for action was given greater legitimacy by the fact that Grinspoon came to the conculsion as an objective scholar, rather than an already-convinced advocate. As he would admit in a new introduction for the 1994 reprint edition: “I first became interested in cannabis when its use increased explosively in the 1960s. At that time I had no doubt it was a very harmful drug that was unfortunately being used by more and more foolish young people… But as I reviewed the scientific, medical, and lay literature, my views began to change. I came to understand that I, like so many other people in this country, had been misinformed and misled.”

Over the following decades, as the marijuana legalization movement burgeoned, Grinspoon emerged as its top intellectual authority and most respected representative.

He was among the very first to speak out for legalization on Capitol Hill. In 1977, he provided lengthy written testimony to the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse & Control, concluding optimistically: “Whatever the cultural conditions that have made it possible, there is no doubt that the discussion about marihuana has become increasingly sensible. We are gradually becoming conscious of the irrationality of classifying this drug as one with a high abuse potential and no medical value. If the trend continues, it is likely that within a decade marihuana will be sold in the United States as a legal intoxicant.”

Of course the backlash in Reagan revolution upset the timeline of Grinspoon’s prediction. But he did live to see a legal market became a reality in several states — a reality he could claim some credit for.

Bringing Science to Advocacy Work 

Grinspoon, a Massachusetts native, would be compelled by the conclusions emerging from his research to take an advocacy position, eventually joining the board of directors of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). 

Years after the release of Marihuana Reconsidered, Grinspoon revealed that one of the cannabis users quoted at length in the book — identified only as “Mr. X” — was in fact Carl Sagan, the Cornell astrophysicist who decade later would become a celebrity popularizer of science. Sagan’s closing remarks as Mr. X in the book have been quoted often: “The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”

Grinspoon credited Sagan as the key personality that opened his mind on the cannabis question. 

Carl Sagan Cannabis
Dr. Carl Sagan poses with a model of the Viking lander in Death Valley, Calif.
PHOTO Druyan-Sagan Associates, Inc.

Grinspoon also testified on behalf of John Lennon at his 1973 deportation hearing — a proceeding initiated by the US government based on his prior hashish arrest in England. As Grinspoon related to an amused audience at the 2011 NORML conference in Denver, the Nixon administration really “wanted to get Lennon out of the country because he was effectively protesting the Vietnam War.” The immigration officers overseeing the hearing weren’t even clear on whether hashish was a form of marijuana, Grinspoon wryly recalled. The ex-Beatle was ultimately allowed to stay.

The cannabis question became poignantly personal for Grinspoon and his wife Betsy when their son Danny succumbed to cancer when he was still a young teenager. Cannabis helped him endure the ill effects from high doses of chemotherapy. This experience propelled Dr. Grinspoon’s interest in the medicinal potential of the cannabis plant. In 1993, he joined with James B. Bakalar to author Marihuana: The Forbidden MedicineThree years later, California would become the first state to legalize medical use of cannabis.

Despite his achievements, Grinspoon was twice turned down for a full professor position at Harvard — something he attributed to the lingering cannabis stigma. According to a 2018 profile on Grinspoon in the Boston Globe, he believed “an undercurrent of unscientific prejudice against cannabis among [Harvard] faculty and school leaders doomed his chances.”

But whatever status he sacrificed for his beliefs among the academic establishment was made up for in the esteem he won from the advocacy community. In 1990, he received the Alfred R. Lindesmith Award for Achievement in the Field of Scholarship & Writing from the Drug Policy Foundation. In 1999, NORML established the Lester Grinspoon Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Marijuana Law Reform, the organization’s highest honor — with Grinspoon, of course, the first recipient. Dr. Grinspoon served as a member of the NORML advisory board until his death. 

As NORML wrote in a farewell statement upon the passing of the courageous scholar: “Dr. Lester Grinspoon led the way to insist that our marijuana policies be based on legitimate science. He made it possible for us to have an informed public policy debate leading to the growing list of states legalizing the responsible use of marijuana.” 

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