The Forbidden PROFESSOR


By Allen St. Pierre ’89

Accomplished author, Harvard Medical School professor, activist, parent, life- long Massachusetts resident, Library donor, and something of a late-in-life cultural icon, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, of Newton, Mass., quietly passed away on the morning of June 25, just a few hours after celebrating his 92nd birthday with family via a pandemic-friendly Zoom video call.

Grinspoon, while internationally known for his pioneering research on schizophrenia and how to treat it, also published the first comprehensive review of medical literature regarding the known effects of cannabis on humans at the time, first in a Scientific American report in 1969, then later in the 1971 classic cannabis tome, Marihuana Reconsidered. His writings began the long and concerted effort by activists to reform cannabis laws, whose work was championed by a nascent National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) to employ science and data to pass numerous local and state-based cannabis law reforms.

Reviewing Marihuana Reconsidered for The New York Times, under the headline “The Best Dope On Pot So Far,” former Food and Drug Administrator James Goddard wrote “I can only express my admiration for the manner in which Grinspoon has extracted, analyzed, and synthesized the most relevant literature to present the reader with a coherent, logical case.”

Not escaping the watchful eye of an anti-cannabis president, Richard Nixon circled Grinspoon’s name on a clipping of the review and wrote “This clown is far on the left.” (Later in the day, captured on Nixon’s secret recording system, the president railed to his Chief of Staff against ‘Jewish psychiatrists trying to legalize marijuana.’)

In 1972, Grinspoon provided expert scientific testimony pivotal to musician John Lennon’s legal efforts fighting U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s deportation hearing for a prior hashish conviction in England. Lennon (and his wife, Yoko Ono) prevailed in the case.

In the mid-1970s, Grinspoon begrudgingly became an advocate for therapeutic access to cannabis after his teenage son, Danny, fought and ultimately lost a courageous battle against leukemia. Grinspoon began to publicly advocate for reform, joining the board of directors at NORML, and participating in the work that ultimately resulted in the current toppling of cannabis prohibition laws currently underway in the U.S. and globally.

During this time Grinspoon published numerous scholarly articles and definitively researched books about illegal recreational drugs such as cocaine, speed, and psychedelics. During the late 1970s and early 1980s Lester, and his wife, Betsy, along with his best friend (infamous Marihuana Reconsidered’s ‘Mr. X’ essayist) Carl Sagan, became prominent anti-nuclear war advocates, at one event even getting arrested protesting an MX missile site in Nevada.

Despite Grinspoon’s enormous academic output, including founding and editing the prominent and profitable Harvard Mental Health Newsletter, Harvard’s administration denied Grinspoon a full professorship, apparently embarrassed by his progressive views on drug policy.

In 1993, Grinspoon co-authored the groundbreaking Marihuana, The Forbidden Medicine with James Bakalar (published by Yale University rather than too-timid Harvard Press). It helped launch and solidify public policy reform efforts to legalize physician-recommended use of cannabis for qualified medical patients. The scholarly work published by Grinspoon, an East Coast academic, helped propel vigorous law reform efforts largely in the western U.S., resulting in prohibition-bending popular votes in favor of medical access to cannabis in the states of California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, from 1996 to 2000.

Despite being an Ivy League medical school professor and social justice movement elder, in the last decade of his life Dr. Grinspoon enjoyed numerous cultural accolades in his honor: NORML named a lifetime achievement award after him, a popular Australian rock band adopted the name ‘Grinspoon,’ and a popular pure sativa strain of cannabis is fittingly named: ‘Dr. Grinspoon.’

Listen to a multi-part oral history with Lester Grinspoon at this link.

Allen St. Pierre ’89 (Legal Studies) of Chatham, Mass., is a former executive director and board member of NORML (1991-2016). Grinspoon donated his archives on the history of cannabis law reform to Special Collections & University Archives, in the UMass Amherst Libraries.