Few people have done more to bring cannabis back from the abyss of prohibition than Dr Lester Grinspoon, whose lifetime of work not only highlighted the plant’s extraordinary medicinal capacities but also exposed the political duplicity behind the War on Drugs. Having passed away on June 25th, the day after his 92nd birthday, Dr Grinspoon leaves a legacy that will continue to shape the cannabis reform movement for years to come.
Grinspoon’s association with marijuana began when he was assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in the mid-1960s. During this time, he struck up a friendship with a colleague named Carl Sagan, who later went on to become one of the world’s most iconic astronomers. Ironically, Grinspoon was initially opposed to Sagan’s cannabis use, and hoped to convince him to stop smoking by presenting him with all the facts about the plant’s dangers. However, his research into the topic caused him to radically change his stance and set him on a collision course with the scientific and political establishments, both of which would later be transformed by Grinspoon’s work.
Released in 1971, his bestselling book entitled Marijuana Reconsidered provided an evidence-based review of the plant’s psychological and physiological effects, and highlighted the level of deceit and propaganda behind the US government’s policy of prohibition. True to its title, the book caused many academics and politicians to reconsider their position on cannabis, sparking a renewed interest in researching its medicinal properties and kickstarting a global campaign to legalise the plant.
Shortly afterwards, Grinspoon convinced researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital to conduct a study which confirmed the ability of THC to alleviate nausea associated with chemotherapy[i], after his son Danny had undergone treatment for leukaemia. Speaking at a conference organised by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in 2011, Grinspoon explained that only cannabis had helped Danny stop vomiting after each round of chemotherapy, and while Danny tragically died from his illness at the age of 15, the results of this study did at least lead to the creation of the first synthetic cannabis-based medication[ii].
Grinspoon co-wrote numerous papers and books with his Harvard colleague James Bakalar, including the influential 1993 book Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine. Forcefully arguing for the legalisation of cannabis, the book provided a comprehensive review of all of the plant’s medicinal applications, describing its ability to assist in the treatment of conditions such as multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and even AIDS. The pair also penned studies in several academic journals, most recently in 2011 when they provided evidence for the efficacy of cannabis to treat bipolar disorder[iii] and to improve the quality of life for those in palliative care[iv].
As an activist, Grinspoon continued to give talks on the need to legalise marijuana well into his old age, recently delivering a lecture at Lasell University entitled A Cannabis Odyssey. Regarding his own cannabis use, Grinspoon says that he learned to fully appreciate the music of the Beatles the first time he got high, which seems fitting as he later testified in court in order to save John Lennon from being deported from the US because of a previous hash conviction.
Without the incredible Lester Grinspoon, it’s unlikely that support for medicinal marijuana would be anywhere near as widespread as it is today, and while he may have departed his mortal husk, the ramifications of his life’s work will continue to be felt well into the future.
[i] Sallan SE, Zinberg NE, Frei III E. Antiemetic effect of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol in patients receiving cancer chemotherapy. New England Journal of Medicine. 1975 Oct 16;293(16):795-7. – https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm197510162931603
[iii] Grinspoon L, Bakalar JB. The use of cannabis as a mood stabilizer in bipolar disorder: anecdotal evidence and the need for clinical research. Journal of psychoactive drugs. 1998 Jun 1;30(2):171-7. – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02791072.1998.10399687
[iv] Carter GT, Flanagan AM, Earleywine M, Abrams DI, Aggarwal SK, Grinspoon L. Cannabis in palliative medicine: improving care and reducing opioid-related morbidity. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine®. 2011 Aug;28(5):297-303. – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1049909111402318