Dr. Lester Grinspoon, one of the most vocal champions of marijuana legalization in the United States who promoted his advocacy in both best-selling books and Congressional testimony, died on Thursday. He was 92.
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.”
“At that time I had no doubt that it was a very harmful drug that was unfortunately being used by more and more foolish young people who would not listen to or could not believe or understand the warnings about its dangers,” he later wrote.
Grinspoon said his “aim was to define scientifically the nature and degree of those dangers,” but he ultimately discovered that his perception of marijuana had long been off the mark.
“I came to understand that I, like so many other people in this country, had been misinformed and misled,” Grinspoon said. “There was little empirical evidence to support my beliefs about the dangers of marihuana.”
Writing, Research, And Nixon
By 1971, Grinspoon published the book for which he is best known, and which forever established his bona fides as an authority on medical cannabis, “Marihuana Reconsidered.” The book made an immediate impression, with the New York Times hailing it as the “best dope on pot so far.”
Grinspoon presented research and literature throughout the book to make his case for legalization.
“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.”
The book also drew the ire of some of Grinspoon’s colleagues, with the Boston Globe reporting in 2018 that he was denied promotion to full professor twice and that his “his allies believe an undercurrent of unscientific prejudice against cannabis among faculty and school leaders doomed his chances.”
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.”
“While there have been other medical and public health experts who have taken an active role to advance full legalization of marijuana, it is Dr. Lester Grinspoon who first led the way to insist that our marijuana policies be based on legitimate science,” NORML founder Keith Stroup said in a statement. “He has made it possible for us to have an informed public policy debate leading to the growing list of states legalizing the responsible use of marijuana.”