The Harvard professor emeritus and author of Marihuana Reconsidered responds to the New York Times columnist’s anti-pot polemic.
Last week the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece, “Weed Been There, Done That,” which slammed the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and other states and labeled users stupid at worst and indolent at best. Among other criticisms, he wrote that cannabis is “not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.”
In making his case, Brooks cited long-debunked research and relied on old stereotypes that serious scholars discredited decades ago. One of the leading thinkers on the topic is Dr. Lester Grinspoon, Harvard psychiatrist and author of the 1971 classic, Marihuana Reconsidered, an exhaustive study of the scientific, medical, cultural and legal arguments against the plant. That book stripped away the myths, lies and distortions surrounding cannabis and sparked an enormous debate in this country and around the world. Joe Dolce spoke to the doctor, who is 85, from his home in Newton, Massachusetts.
Lester, how did you react to Brooks’ takedown of cannabis?
My overall impression is that David Brooks, who seems like a very smart man, is very much mistaken about what he thinks he knows about marijuana and out of date. I think he has just touched the tip of the iceberg in his experience with marijuana. His ignorance about this subject is vast. I hope he’s on more solid ground with the other things he writes about in the New York Times.
I was a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in the 1960s, and I saw all these people using this “dangerous drug.” I could see no problem that these people were having.
Let’s start at the top. He says that all of his friends gave it up after college, as if it’s indicative of some sort of emotional or psychological immaturity.
I think it’s true that most people who use it as young people do give it up in the course of their lives. I don’t think they give it up because it’s harmful. They give it up because they turn to other things, like getting married or having children, or having jobs with drug testing.
On the other hand, young people who use it and give it up don’t ever discover some of its other uses. It’s certainly a good recreational drug—better than alcohol or any other drug that might be considered recreational. It’s so…free. You don’t have a hangover, it’s less expensive in the long run, it doesn’t compromise functioning in a way that alcohol can.
But now it’s becoming increasingly understood that it is a very interesting and versatile medicine with much less toxicity than some of the pharmaceutical products it replaces. And more people at older ages are using it.
There’s a third category of use—and mind you these categories are conflated—which is the least appreciated: it’s what I call enhancement. Everyone knows that if you smoke, things that aren’t ordinarily culinary treats taste wonderful or that it can enhance a sexual experience. But I’m talking about experiences that aren’t so obvious. Like going to a museum. Take Allen Ginsberg’s experience with Cezanne….
He wrote about this in The Paris Review in 1965…
Ginsberg, who was a regular smoker of marijuana, was concerned that his friends were getting a great deal out of Cezanne but that he couldn’t really “see” his artistry. So he decided to smoke before going to the Museum of Modern Art to see Cezanne and he found an understanding that he had not been able to achieve sober. Furthermore, he pointed out that the perceptions stuck. It wasn’t something he saw only when high.
For many people that’s the case, and not just with art. My closest friend, Carl Sagan, used it as an adjunct or a catalyst for his creative processes. He wrote an essay for Marihuana Reconsidered under the pseudonym Mr. X, in which he described how he was in the shower one night with his wife, high on marijuana, and got the idea for 11 essays on the origins of racism along the lines of something called Gaussian distribution curves. He used these essays as the bases for university commencement addresses, lectures and in his books.
Carl Sagan and Lester Grinspoon, 1981
Brooks seems to say that smoking is a youthful folly, yet you didn’t start smoking until you were 43, correct?
I had a strange experience. I was a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in the 1960s, and I saw all these people using this “dangerous drug.” People would be smoking and I, as a physician, who knew everything about drugs—I was so arrogant I could have been the country’s drug czar—I would give them my little lecture on the dangers of marijuana and urge them to give it up.
Well, this went on for a while, even though I could see no problem that these people were having and they seemed to enjoy it a lot. And then I started to question what I knew about the scientific and medical basis of marijuana prohibition, and I went to the Conway Library to examine why we in this country were arresting about 300,000 people a year, 89% for possession, and most of them very young. [There are currently over 800,000 citizens in US jails for marijuana arrests. 24 million have been arrested for marijuana related offenses since the publication of Marihuana Reconsidered.]
And I had a very uncomfortable discovery—I had been brainwashed like just about every other citizen in this country. Marijuana was not a toxic drug. In fact it was remarkably nontoxic. The problem was not any inherent psychopharmalogical property with the drug itself, but rather the way we were treating it by arresting so many people, imprisoning some of them, and compromising their possibility for successful careers.
I published that paper in the International Journal of Psychiatry, and nobody read it. Well, almost nobody. One day I got a call from the editor of Scientific American who had seen the piece and asked me to condense it so he could publish it in his journal. It ran as the lead piece in November 1969. That created a big stir, and eventually Harvard University Press published Marihuana Reconsidered in 1971.
It wasn’t only that the data impressed me. I was becoming increasingly fascinated by what the drug had to offer. I resolved then that I must try some myself, but decided to postpone that adventure until after the book’s publication. If the book were successful, I thought I would undoubtedly be called before many legislative bodies and courts, which did occur. They might ask me if I had used it, and I didn’t want to compromise my objectivity. I finally decided in 1973 that I would start using it, and I’ve been using it ever since.
Marijuana is a thought generator. The mind shoots out many bad ideas and many good ideas. You’ve got to look at them straight to see if they hold up.
Brooks claims it’s addictive in 1 in 6 teenagers.
I don’t believe it is addictive, and there’s no evidence of it being so. You get addicted to things like alcohol, cigarettes or heroin and many opiate derivatives, but people do not become addicted to marijuana. There are people who use it all day long and that seems to me silly—you get the high in the morning but the rest of the day, there isn’t much. Nevertheless, it’s not an addiction because those people can give it up if they want to and will not suffer any withdrawal effects. Some may get a little irritable or depressed. That has nothing to do with withdrawal symptoms.
But addiction data is so deceptive. When some of these kids go through the criminal justice system, they often have to go into therapy. And the therapist, in order to get reimbursed, has to specify a reimbursable diagnosis and so he puts down cannabis addiction or dependence.
He claims that “smoking and driving is a good way to get killed.” Agree or disagree?
I am opposed to smoking and driving. Using any psychoactive drug, even one with a minor effect on reflexes is dangerous. However, unlike the stereotypical drunk driver who is speeding recklessly with one hand on the wheel and who isn’t in control of his car, the person who is high is usually in the right lane with both hands on the wheel and he’s going so slow he’s a pain in the neck. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t increased his risk—he might get distracted by a pretty scene on the road. However, I have to tell you there is far less danger to both the driver and other people from the stoned driver than the drunk driver.
People are seeing a relative or a friend using it medically and seeing results and asking, “Hey, what’s all the fuss about over this?”
He insists that young people who smoke “suffer IQ loss and perform worse on cognitive tests.”
Both of those statements are absolute nonsense. I’d like to see the data he finds convincing. I’ve been reading it for a long time now, and I find no data for either contention. A lot of those cognitive studies were compromised.
Let me give you a little anecdote. Years ago I got a call from the editor of a journal called Depression who asked me to give my feedback on an article on cannabis being useful in treating depression. I explored it and it seemed to be true. By the time the article was published, I noticed a new paragraph at the end that said we want the readers to know that while the studies say that marijuana is useful in treating depression, we in no way support its use for depression or any other purpose. And I said, “Why in the world did you add this last paragraph?” The editor almost started crying. She said, “Dr. Grinspoon, our lab is supported by NIDA [National Institute on Drug Abuse] and if we don’t include that we jeopardize our funding.” You’ve got to be careful with a lot of that literature. They won’t publish anything positive about marijuana.
He says there was one member of his clique who “may have been the smartest, but that there was something sad about him as he sunk deeper into pothead life…”
[Laughing] I would be careful about that type of comment. Carl Sagan and many smart people I know used pot and they weren’t sad people.
I like it both ways. I like it straight, and I like it stoned. I like to move from one state of consciousness to another.
He said it was “fun, but repetitive…Most of us figured out that weed doesn’t make you funny or more creative.”
I don’t know about making you funnier, but judging from my experience, it is a lubricant of creativity.
To Brooks’ mind, “Smoking weed was not something you were proud of or that people admire.”
That’s the cultural bias against marijuana. He’s supporting the enormous mistake that this country made in 1937 when it initiated the draconian prohibition on marijuana. Its use as a medicine is one of the reasons that the Gallup poll last year showed that 58% of Americans are now interested in getting rid of prohibition. That’s up 10% from a year ago! Support for rolling back prohibition is going up exponentially. [Ed. note: A CNN poll released on Jan. 6 showed that 55% of Americans support legalizing marijuana.] And the reason is that people are seeing a relative or a friend using it medically and seeing results and asking, “Hey, what’s all the fuss about over this?”
He writes, “I think we had a sense that the actions you take change you inside, making you a little less coherent….”
I disagree. Marijuana is a thought generator. The mind is always shooting out thoughts but with marijuana they shoot out in greater frequency. It shoots out many bad ideas and many good ideas. You’ve got to look at them straight to see if they hold up. But it generates ideas.
What do you say to this one: “Government should encourage higher pleasures like being in nature and should discourage lesser pleasures like being high.”
That may true for David Brooks, but it’s certainly not true for people like me. I like it both ways. I like it straight, and I like it stoned. I like to move from one state of consciousness to another. It’s a mild state of enhancement but it can help you to see around some corners that you haven’t been able to navigate before.
Tina Brown, former editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair tweeted this after Brooks’ column appeared: “Legal weed contributes to us being a fatter, dumber, sleepier nation, even less able to compete with the Chinese.” Will pot be our nation’s downfall?
I’ll tell you, I was delighted when Tina Brown was no longer editor of The New Yorker. I think this is emblematic of her point of view and that helps me understand why I never fond of her magazine. Pot has been around for at least 10,000 years, and the Chinese used it as a medicine as long ago as 5,000 years, so it’s likely that it grew somewhere near there and that wasn’t a lazy society. Fortunately it now grows all over the world.