Lester Grinspoon, M.D., a Harvard professor, psychiatrist and author, passed away June 25 at the age of 92.
Grinspoon was committed to advancing cannabis policy throughout his life. He wrote 12 books over the course of his career, including Marijuana Reconsidered, an influential work that argued for the end of cannabis prohibition.
A native of Massachusetts, Grinspoon studied at Harvard Medical School, and later joined the faculty there as a professor. His interest in cannabis began in the 1960s, when he said its use in the U.S. “increased explosively.”
Dr. Lester, during his initial years, was skeptical about Marijuana. He believed that it was a harmful drug inflicting wrong in society, which compelled him to study the cannabis plant even more. Dr. Lester aimed to bring evidence to support the dangers of Marijuana. However, he soon realized that he was misinformed and misled.
Once Dr. Grinspoon began his review of the available literature in the 1970s, he concluded that there was no reason to treat marijuana smokers as criminals; and even more importantly, he adopted his old friend’s perspective that in the right situation, marijuana smoking can be an enriching experience. He ended up being a recreational marijuana smoker for the balance of his life.
I finally tried it in 1972 or ’73, sometime around when Danny did it for the first time. You know I remember the day very well because in testimony at that time, I was very often not always asked, “Have you ever used marijuana?” I was able to say no, but then there was one – in fact it was before this Massachusetts Legislative Committee and this very hostile Senator said to me, “Dr. Grinspoon, do you use marijuana? Have you ever used marijuana?” I said to him finally, “Look Senator, I’d be glad to answer that question, but first would you tell me if I answer affirmatively would that make my testimony more or less credible to you?” He got so pissed. He told me I was being impertinent and he stood up and walked out of the hearing. I came home and I said to Betsy, “You know, the time has come…. Let’s try it.” You know, every time we went to a party the Cambridge people would offer it to us, and people would often say, “You mean to say you wrote a book on marijuana and you’ve never used it?”
I’d say, “Well I wrote a book on schizophrenia and I never tried that either.”
By 1971, he wrote a book titled “Marihuana Reconsidered.” The New York Times applauded it as the “best dope on pot so far.” Throughout the book, Dr. Lester presented research and a strong case for Cannabis’s legalization. He faced a lot of criticism from his colleagues, the scientific community, and President Richard Nixon’s.
“After three years of research on cannabis, I concluded that not only was it much less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, but also that no harm it might cause was nearly as serious as the damage attributable to the annual arrest of 400,000 mostly young people on marihuana charges,” Grinspoon wrote in the introduction of a reprint of the book.
The book turned Grinspoon into a minor celebrity. The Times, in its review, wrote that “hopefully many Americans will read Lester Grinspoon’s “Marihuana Reconsidered” and utilize the information so well presented in reaching their own decision on ‘spot,’ to legalize or not.”
It also drew the attention of the sitting president at the time, which was revealed years later in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office recordings.
“Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” Nixon said in one of the recordings. On Grinspoon, Nixon was as blunt as he was harsh: “this clown is far on the left.”
Lester’s scholarly credentials made it impossible to ignore his long advocacy for marijuana and marijuana legalization. He appeared as an expert witness before several committees of the U.S. Congress as well as many state legislative committees. In 1990 he received the Alfred R. Lindesmith Award for Achievement in the Field of Scholarship and Writing from the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, D.C. In 1999 the NORML board of directors established the Lester Grinspoon Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Marijuana Law Reform, our highest honor, and Grinspoon was appropriately the first recipient.
But by the end of his life, Grinspoon enjoyed something of a vindication, with one state after another finally embracing his vision of legalization. He became chair of NORML’s board of directors; since 1999, the organization has awarded “the Lester Grinspoon Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Marijuana Law Reform.”
His extraordinary personal commitment to advancing both marijuana policy and the NORML organization demonstrated his deeply held belief that we all have an obligation to fight injustice whenever and wherever we find it.