At 89, Legendary Psychiatrist And Marijuana Advocate Still Wonders About Harvard Professorship

Photo Credit: Keith Bedford

“I want a goddamn strong statement on marijuana,” the distinctive voice on the tape growls. “I mean, one on marijuana that just tears the ass out of them.”

It was May 1971, and Richard Nixon was fuming over a review included in his morning news summary of the book “Marihuana Reconsidered,” in which 42-year-old Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon savaged the US government’s case for keeping cannabis illegal.

The book was immediately popular — The New York Times called it “The best dope on pot so far” — and the author’s Ivy League pedigree made it hard to dismiss as a hippie screed. But it also raised hackles at Harvard (more on that in a moment) and, plainly, in the White House.

“Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” Nixon ranted in a conversation captured by the Oval Office recording system. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews? . . . I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists.”

Nixon had circled Grinspoon’s name on the review, writing, “this clown is far on the left.”

Now 89, Grinspoon hadn’t known of the Nixon barb until recently.

“Imagine that,” he said, laughing uproariously. “I got the attention of one of the world’s biggest [jerks]. It’s a red badge of courage.”

Snubbed, twice

A psychiatrist, Vietnam War opponent, and son of a Russian Jew, Grinspoon made a rich target for Nixon. But the book also earned him critics at Harvard Medical School, where colleagues greeted the pro-pot tome skeptically. Though more muted than Nixon’s ravings, their disapproval ultimately had more influence on his career.

Grinspoon says he was twice denied a promotion to full professor, once in 1975 and again in 1997, despite a career that included pioneering research on schizophrenia, dozens of books and papers, and leadership roles at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center and other prestigious institutions. He retired in 2000 as an associate professor.

The school never offered him an official explanation, but his allies believe an undercurrent of unscientific prejudice against cannabis among faculty and school leaders doomed his chances; Grinspoon remembers a dean telling him in 1975 the promotions committee “hated” his book because it was “too controversial.”

Today, Grinspoon’s controversial vision — legal marijuana — is the law in nine states, including Massachusetts. And now, his friends and sympathetic former colleagues say, it’s Harvard’s turn. They have mounted a campaign to get the medical school to award Grinspoon a symbolic full professorship, arguing the honor is more than merited by his academic work — not to mention his pivotal role in the movement to legalize marijuana.

“He bore the academic torch through the dark years of the drug war when it was heresy to speak the truth about marijuana,” said attorney Dick Evans, a cannabis advocate who has worked with Grinspoon since the early 1980s.

Recognizing Grinspoon now, Evans added, “would not only be an act of supreme decency, but also an act of institutional humility — and I think Harvard’s capable of both.”

‘Too controversial’

Raised in Brookline, Grinspoon joined the Harvard faculty after receiving his medical degree from the school. In the 1950s, he was among the first American doctors to prescribe lithium for bipolar disorder; he later coauthored a book on schizophrenia and cofounded the well-known Harvard Mental Health Letter.

He was something of a campus renegade, speaking out against the Vietnam War. He ran for president of the American Psychiatric Association as head of a liberal faction that thought the group was obligated by professional ethics to oppose the conflict.

His antiwar activism led Grinspoon to befriend another progressive on campus: Carl Sagan.

Sagan, who would later become perhaps the most popular scientist in the United States as the host of television shows such as “Cosmos,” was a prolific but closeted pot-smoker. Writing under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” Sagan said pot enhanced his creative thinking and advanced his scientific work.

In the ’60s, though, Grinspoon was shocked.

“When I saw him smoking for the first time, I said, ‘Carl, you musn’t do that! That’s a very dangerous drug,’ ” Grinspoon recalled. “He took another puff and said, ‘Here, Lester, have some, you’ll love it and it’s harmless.’ I was absolutely astonished.”

Grinspoon stormed off to the medical school library to prove Sagan wrong. Instead, he found his assumptions about the drug had little basis.

“I have concluded,” Grinspoon would later write, “that marijuana is a relatively safe intoxicant which is not addicting, does not in and of itself lead to the use of harder drugs, is not criminogenic, and does not lead to sexual excess.” The real harm, he added, was “the way we as a society were dealing with people who use it,” referring to the incarceration of marijuana users.

Thus began an obsession with the subject that ultimately resulted in “Marihuana Reconsidered,” a blend of literature review and cultural critique rendered in crisp, explanatory prose. The book went through several printings and earned Grinspoon numerous appearances in the media and before lawmakers.

Ironically, Grinspoon came to his conclusions without having, at the time, tried marijuana. He reasoned his credibility would be undermined if he was labeled a “dope-smoker.” He would first try it two years later, around the time he was also administering marijuana to his young son, who was dying of cancer. Eventually, he came out publicly, hoping it would help dispel stoner stereotypes.

“I have and I do smoke marijuana,” Grinspoon said during an appearance on the “Today Show” in 1973, a moment he said was “jaw-dropping” for host Barbara Walters.

Two years later, Grinspoon was rejected for a full professorship. The promotions committee “loved the schizophrenia book, but they hated ‘Marihuana Reconsidered,’ ” he recalls his boss telling him. “‘They said it was too controversial.’”

“I was crushed,” Grinspoon said. “I don’t give a damn now, but it hurt terribly at the time.”

Harvard may have had its reasons. The previous decade, Timothy Leary had embarrassed the school with his questionable research into hallucinogens, often carried out while under their influence. After being dismissed in 1963, he went on to become a counterculture icon.

But Grinspoon was no Timothy Leary. He was an earnest academic who wore a tie, and insisted he never promoted the use of marijuana, but rather the elimination of draconian prohibitions. That distinction was lost on many.

“There always was a feeling that his interest in marijuana was a little out of the way compared to his colleagues,” recalled James Bakalar, Grinspoon’s longtime coauthor and collaborator. “They regarded it as eccentric. It wasn’t ‘mainstream psychiatry.’ ”

Grinspoon would go on to help revive the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws after its disastrous brush with the Carter administration. He also authored another book on marijuana, and in 1997 even quit Harvard’s addiction-studies program to protest the school’s bestowal of an award on Bill Clinton’s antidrug policy adviser.

After retiring, Grinspoon launched a website where he published occasional reflections on marijuana and his career.

“He’s one of the most important people in the history of marijuana reform,” said Rick Cusick, a former associate publisher of High Times, who was the first to link Nixon’s recorded rant with the publication of “Marihuana Reconsidered.” “His book started the movement.”

Still unrecognized

While praising Grinspoon’s work, a Harvard Medical School spokeswoman said the school’s policy “doesn’t allow us to retroactively grant a professorship or any other appointment.”

Several former colleagues backed Harvard, saying full professorships go to candidates who conduct the kind of hard-core science that attracts federal grants. Grinspoon, they said, did little hands-on research, but rather synthesized the work of others.

“You have to have very good, empirical research work, not hearsay,” said Dr. Ming Tsuang, Grinspoon’s chief in the 1990s.

His supporters say this is a blinkered view, arguing Grinspoon conducted work at significant professional risk and helped to inspire new research into medical uses of cannabis. They said Grinspoon helped redefine the relationship between academia and advocacy.

Photo Credit: Keith Bedford

Grinspoon has long blamed former Harvard psychiatry chairman Dr. Joseph Coyle for vetoing his promotion in 1997. Coyle disputes that account, saying a committee of Grinspoon’s peers declined to back him because of a lack of original research.

Still, Coyle acknowledged in an interview that the thinking at the time on marijuana “could have been an element.” While he stopped short of endorsing a full professorship now, Coyle said Harvard could at least go over the matter with Grinspoon.

Supporters also argue that the seeds Grinspoon planted decades ago are only now germinating, with support for legalization recently topping 60 percent in Massachusetts, and pot retailers soon to open for business.

“I wouldn’t be a state marijuana regulator if people like Dr. Grinspoon hadn’t made sacrifices,” said Shaleen Title, one of the five commissioners leading the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. “Harvard should recognize that he was right all along.”

But if Grinspoon’s views on marijuana have been, for many, vindicated, and Nixon, for almost everyone, discredited, Harvard Medical School’s role in the drama of Grinspoon’s life is more complex. Despite declining to promote him, it was his professional home for decades. In fact, he supports the campaign to make him a professor mainly out of affection for Harvard.

“Institutions that can acknowledge they’ve made a mistake are always doing something noble,” he said.

Today, Grinspoon lives in a Newton retirement community with his wife, Betsy. His health is declining, but his personality — warm and quick to laugh, with instinctive compassion for the vulnerable but little patience for those he deems fools — hasn’t faded. That’s probably why at the dusk of his life, Grinspoon still finds himself fighting the same old war.

During a recent dinner with friends that concluded with a joint, Grinspoon recounted his attempts to get elderly neighbors to smoke with him and impishly confessed to trying to grow a marijuana plant in the courtyard of the senior living complex.

“It had been there about three weeks, growing nicely, and I came back and somebody cut it down! Who would do that?” Grinspoon said. “That’s all going to change. It’s changing so rapidly I can scarcely believe it.”