Lester Grinspoon, MD, who unintentionally became a major intellectual leader of the movement to legalize cannabis (Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae), died on June 25, 2020, one day after his 92nd birthday. His wife of 66 years, Betsy, was by his side. Grinspoon was a psychiatrist, longtime Harvard University professor, researcher, author, advocate, and activist.
His book Marihuana Reconsidered, published in 1971 by Harvard University Press, is a seminal work on the safety and efficacy of cannabis. It made a compelling case for the need to create a legal cannabis market during the presidency of Richard Nixon, who was known for his strict stance on substances including cannabis, and when only 15% of Americans reportedly supported cannabis legalization.1 For nearly 50 years after the book’s publication, Grinspoon continued to write about cannabis, speak at conferences and to the media, and provide expert testimony during trials and government hearings.
Grinspoon was a “scholarly, kind of nerdy guy,” his son David was quoted as saying in The New York Times. “That was part of his power when he got involved in the issue. He was a very professorial person, not a hippie.”2
He was born on June 24, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts, to Simon Grinspoon, a Russian-Jewish immigrant and lawyer, and Sally, who at one time was science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s secretary. Though he did not have a high school diploma, since he dropped out to join the merchant marine, Grinspoon graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he studied chemistry and biochemistry.
He earned his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1955 and then served in the United States Public Health Service. After a residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, he became part of the center’s staff as a psychiatrist for 40 years. Concurrently, he was a Harvard Medical School faculty member for 42 years, until he retired in 2000.
In 1967, Grinspoon began an extensive study of the available literature on cannabis, intending to confirm why his good friend and Harvard colleague, the astronomer Carl Sagan, PhD (1934-1996), should stop smoking it. Along with his small social circle of academics in Cambridge, Sagan used cannabis regularly and enthusiastically, though he did not admit so publicly.
“When I saw him smoking for the first time, I said, ‘Carl, you mustn’t do that! That’s a very dangerous drug,’” Grinspoon was quoted as saying in The Boston Globe. “He took another puff and said, ‘Here, Lester, have some, you’ll love it and it’s harmless.’ I was absolutely astonished.”3
Grinspoon started visiting the Harvard Medical School library to compile an authoritative case against cannabis that would scientifically support its prohibition. Instead, however, he realized that his previous assumptions had little basis and that the public had been misled by government propaganda about the plant’s supposed dangers. He found little to nothing to justify decades of hysteria about cannabis, such as that seen in the 1936 film and cult classic Reefer Madness, and he concluded that cannabis should be regulated like alcohol.
In 1971, four years after starting his study of cannabis, Grinspoon’s findings were published in Marihuana Reconsidered, a mix of literature review and cultural critique. In the book, which became a bestseller, Grinspoon wrote: “Indeed the greatest potential for social harm lies in the scarring of so many young people and the reactive, institutional damages that are direct products of present marijuana laws. If we are to avoid having this harm reach the proportion of a national disaster within the next decade, we must move to make the social use of marijuana legal.”2
The book also included an essay by someone identified only as “Mr. X,” who Grinspoon later revealed was Sagan. In the essay, Sagan wrote: “The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate…. Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds.”1
At the time of the book’s publication, The New York Times called it “The best dope on pot so far.” But, perhaps not surprisingly, it also created controversy, including in the White House, where it drew the ire of President Nixon himself. After seeing a review of the book, Nixon went on an anti-Semitic rant that was recorded by the Oval Office recording system. He also circled Grinspoon’s name on the review and wrote, “This clown is far on the left.”2,3
Wanting to remain as objective as possible, Grinspoon never used cannabis before Marihuana Reconsidered was published. When asked how he could write a book about cannabis without having tried it, he replied that he had also written a book about schizophrenia without having experienced that either.
He and Betsy eventually did try cannabis but did not feel any effects until their third time, when they listened to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” an album that Grinspoon had previously ignored. “My son would put it on and say, ‘Dad you ought to get your head out of the baroque and listen to The Beatles,’” Grinspoon was quoted as saying. “But I didn’t see the appeal until that night…. And it was like an auditory implosion. I couldn’t believe it.”1
Grinspoon later told that story to John Lennon himself when he provided expert testimony during Lennon’s deportation hearing. Lennon previously was convicted in England for cannabis possession, which was central to the Nixon administration’s effort to deport him. Grinspoon’s testimony helped Lennon’s winning defense. In return, Grinspoon asked Lennon for some signed Beatles memorabilia for his teenage son Danny, a Beatles fan who in 1967 was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Danny’s story gave Grinspoon a personal window to the potential of medical cannabis. After his chemotherapy sessions, Danny struggled with severe nausea and vomiting. Grinspoon had read that cannabis could help with nausea, but when Betsy suggested that Danny should try cannabis, Grinspoon rejected the idea largely because it was illegal. Betsy ignored him, however, and, before Danny’s next treatment, drove to his high school, where she asked one of his friends for some cannabis.
“On a normal day of chemotherapy, I hoped we could make it home from the hospital before Danny’s vomiting would start, and we always had to put a big bucket next to his bed,” Grinspoon said later. “But the first time he tried taking a few puffs [of cannabis] prior to a round of treatments, he got off the gurney and said, ‘Mom, there’s a sub shop in Brookline. Could we stop for a sub sandwich on the way home?’ And all I thought was, ‘Wow.’”1
In his 1993 book Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine (Yale University Press), Grinspoon recounted how cannabis made his family “much more comfortable” during the final year of Danny’s life.2 That book, co-authored with James B. Bakalar, was a follow-up to Marihuana Reconsidered and reportedly helped lead California to become the first US state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996. Today, 33 states and Washington, DC, have authorized the medical use of cannabis.
Grinspoon was also one of the first American physicians to prescribe lithium for bipolar disorder in the 1950s. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychiatric Association and served as the founding editor of the popular Harvard Mental Health Letter for 15 years.
In 1990, Grinspoon received the Alfred R. Lindesmith Award for Achievement in the Field of Scholarship from the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, DC. And, in 1999, NORML, a nonprofit cannabis advocacy group founded in 1970, created the Lester Grinspoon Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Marijuana Law Reform, its highest honor. Fittingly, Grinspoon, who served for many years on NORML’s board of directors, was the first recipient of the award.
Despite a prestigious career that included notable published works and leadership roles, Harvard Medical School twice denied Grinspoon a promotion to full professorship, once in 1975 and again in 1997. He retired in 2000 as an associate professor. That may largely be because of disapproval of his cannabis work. A decade earlier, the school had been embarrassed by psychologist Timothy Leary, PhD, who often carried out research on psychedelics while under the influence and was dismissed by the university in 1963. Grinspoon later recalled that the promotions committee “loved” his book about schizophrenia but “hated” Marihuana Reconsidered because it was “too controversial.” He was “crushed” at the time, but eventually the promotion did not matter to him anymore.3
Ethan Russo, MD, a neurologist and highly respected medical cannabis expert, remembers Grinspoon as a “giant” in the cannabis therapeutics movement. “His books, Marihuana Reconsidered and Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine, are monuments to his dedication to a cause that consumed the last several decades of his illustrious career,” Russo wrote (email, July 4, 2020).
“When I began an intensive study of cannabis in 1996, his writings were guiding lights to the history and modern applications of cannabis in medicine,” Russo added. “Lester always had suggestions, gentle or otherwise, about how he thought cannabis political matters should be handled. When I accepted a full-time position with GW Pharmaceuticals in 2003, he was highly skeptical of co-opting of cannabis by the pharmaceutical industry. But, with the diplomacy of Rick Doblin, the founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who arranged an in-person summit, reassurances led to an understanding that continued through the years. Lester and I would communicate from time to time, and it was always extremely pleasing to me when he commented that his mantle had been passed and was in good hands.”
Andrew Weil, MD, well-known physician and integrative medicine advocate, wrote: “Lester Grinspoon was a colleague, good friend, and one of the first credible academics to go out on a limb to advocate for decriminalization of cannabis and later oppose the whole war on drugs. His spoken and written words on these subjects were always informed, rational, and never angry. He had a long, productive life, and his influence lives on” (email, July 9, 2020).
Grinspoon’s work caused academics, the medical community, and the public to re-evaluate the legitimacy of what he called “cannabinopathic medicine,” though he insisted that he did not necessarily promote the use of cannabis but, instead, the end of draconian cannabis laws. He helped create an informed and overdue public policy dialogue about cannabis that was based on science, and his Ivy League background lent needed credibility to the conversation. Lester Grinspoon is survived by his wife, Betsy; sons, astrobiologist David, physician Peter, MD, and Joshua; five grandchildren; and brothers, Harold and Kenneth.
- Bienenstock D. Dr. Lester Grinspoon Encouraged America to “Reconsider” Marijuana. June 25, 2020. Leafly website. Available at: www.leafly.com/news/politics/dr-lester-grinspoon-encouraged-america-to-reconsider-marijuana. Accessed July 21, 2020.
- Sandomir R. Lester Grinspoon, Influential Marijuana Scholar, Dies at 92. The New York Times. July 2, 2020. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2020/07/02/science/lester-grinspoon-dead.html. Accessed July 21, 2020.
- Adams D. At 89, Legendary Psychiatrist and Marijuana Advocate Still Wonders About Harvard Professorship. The Boston Globe. April 28, 2018. Available at: www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/04/28/legendary-psychiatrist-and-marijuana-advocate-still-wonders-about-harvard-professorship/7UBEbWBedoW44gKHpFhLGI/story.html. Accessed July 21, 2020.