Lester Grinspoon, Seminal Cannabis Advocate, Dies at 92

Dr. Lester Grinspoon

The Harvard psychiatrist and early marijuana proponent waged war against Nixon and ignorance.

 

Dr. Lester Grinspoon’s life does not make for a compact obituary.

A Harvard psychiatrist for nearly half a century, Grinspoon is perhaps best known as the author of 1971’s “Marihuana Reconsidered.” In that book, he argued against the enforcement of drug laws that he shrewdly identified as having no basis in scientific fact. What made the title unique when compared with other tomes on the subject was both Grinspoon’s standing within academia as well as the fact that he’d penned the volume without having ever consumed cannabis himself.

As the Boston Globe explains in a recent remembrance of Grinspoon, the late figure’s fiery disdain for the prejudiced drugs laws of the Nixon administration was not the ire of an academic stoner denied his pipe:

“In 1971, Dr. Grinspoon had yet to sample cannabis, worried it would tarnish his objectivity. The book’s thesis arose instead from a profound dismay with what he saw as the intellectual dishonesty of its prohibition: how could such draconian and inequitably enforced laws exist when the scientific record didn’t justify them?”

Upon publication, “Marihuana Reconsidered” thrust Grinspoon into the limelight. In defending his positions, the psychiatrist found himself busy with a circuit of media appearances, testimony in front of lawmakers, and even a few court trials. The deportation case of ex-Beatle John Lennon and musician Yoko Ono, for example, featured testimony from Grinspoon as an expert drug witness.

Of course, Grinspoon’s biggest namecheck came courtesy of none other than President Richard Nixon. A White House recording made in May of 1971 includes an anti-Semetic rant from Nixon in which he claims “every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish” before adding that this is likely “because most of them are psychiatrists.”

Official documents also show Nixon’s handwritten marks on a copy of newspaper review of “Marijuana Reconsidered” in which the disgraced ex-president refers to Grinspoon as a “clown on the far left.”

Despite Nixon’s assessment, Grinspoon was nothing like his fellow Harvard professor Timothy Leary. While Leary was known for indulging in outlandish antics that often risked his career, Grinspoon remained true to by-the-book academia throughout his life. As a result, Grinspoon is credited with being “one of the first physicians in North America to administer lithium for bipolar disorder” as well as an early adopter of research focused on schizophrenia.

In the 1990s, Grinspoon was also instrumental in revitalizing the then-flagging non-profit NORML. For several years, he even chaired the board.

Today, NORML is one of the most visible groups in the battle for cannabis justice and equality. Speaking with the Globe, former NORML director Allen St. Pierre reiterated Grinspoon’s importance to the organization’s success today.

“We went from a group of ragtag activists who had driven this organization into the ground to an incredibly impressive group of academics, intellectuals, and funders, and Lester did it all in two weeks.”

In a way, NORML’s resurgence can be seen as an extension of Grinspoon’s legacy. In truth, the importance of Grinspoon’s work exists today in many (and varied) forms. Naturally, there’s a strain of weed named for him. More surprising, perhaps, is the Australian rock band Grinspoon, which formed in Wales in 1995.

Regardless of the form of recognition, it’s good to see the memory of Lester Grinspoon being preserved. Even if copies of “Marihuana Reconsidered” are no longer flying off the shelves, the argument it makes — that drug laws must be rooted in science, not racism — could not be more relevant to today. In his 1993 follow-up, “Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine,” Grinspoon would set the table for California to become the first state in the U.S. to legalize the use of medical cannabis.

Grinspoon’s work also became immensely personal in nature when his teenage son, Danny, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1967. Tragically, Danny would not survive his illness but before his death, he did experiment with medical marijuana as a means of easing his suffering. The results were impressive enough that, as Leafly writes, Grinspoon got some of his peers to take notice of how cannabis was benefitting his son.

“By allowing certain of his colleagues to witness this phenomenon firsthand, Grinspoon eventually convinced the head of the oncology department at Boston Children’s Hospital to undertake a 1975 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That study demonstrated the efficacy of cannabinoids for nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.”

Thus, Dr. Lester Grinspoon’s legacy is one that encompasses all the most important aspects of cannabis today. As we continue to fight for the ideals he long ago set forth, perhaps one day we’ll finally be able to honor his memory in the most fitting way.

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