RIP Lester Grinspoon, Who Encouraged Americans To Reconsider Demonized Drugs
Lester Grinspoon, a leading drug policy reformer who died yesterday at the age of 92, was an optimist. “Whatever the cultural conditions that have made it possible, there is no doubt that the discussion about marihuana has become much more sensible,” Grinspoon wrote in 1977. “If the trend continues, it is likely that within a decade marihuana will be sold in the United States as a legal intoxicant.”
It turned out that Grinspoon was off by a few decades. He did not anticipate the reaction against adolescent pot smoking that would lead to an intensified war on weed during the Reagan administration, when public support for legalization dropped after rising during the 1970s. But Grinspoon lived to see marijuana become a legal intoxicant in 11 states, nine of which have government-licensed shops serving recreational consumers. Marijuana retailers not only are legitimate businesses in those nine states; they were deemed “essential” during COVID-19 lockdowns in all but one, meaning they were allowed to stay open as other merchants were forced to close.
That is a remarkable development after a century of pot prohibition, which began at the state level in 1911 and culminated in the federal Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The ongoing collapse of that regime is due in no small part to Grinspoon’s tenacious advocacy of a more rational and tolerant approach to America’s most popular illegal drug.
Grinspoon’s career as a reformer spanned half a century, beginning with his 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered. When he published that book, Grinspoon was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. That respectable perch gave him credibility as he made a case that was still highly controversial at a time when nearly nine out of 10 Americans thought marijuana should remain illegal.
Grinspoon, whose old-fashioned spelling of the drug’s name harked back to the era of Reefer Madness, originally set out to present credible evidence of marijuana’s harms to pot-smoking kids who were ignoring the government’s warnings. “I was concerned about all these young people who were using marijuana and destroying themselves,” he told me in 1993. But after examining the research on marijuana’s effects, he said, “I realized that I had been brainwashed, like everybody else in the country.” In his book, he methodically debunked many scary claims about pot, including fears that it caused crime, sexual excess, psychosis, brain damage, physical dependence, and addiction to other drugs.
The following year, the Nixon-appointed National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse reached broadly similar conclusions: that the dangers of pot had been greatly exaggerated and could not justify punitive treatment of its users. The commission introduced the concept of decriminalization, which the newly formed National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws (NORML)—which early on replaced repeal with reform in its name—soon adopted as a goal. At a time when some 600,000 people were being arrested each year on marijuana charges, most for simple possession, the strategy had broad appeal. Liberals were concerned about the injustice of sending college students to jail for carrying a joint or two. Conservatives worried about the mass al
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