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Lester Grinspoon, Harvard psychiatrist and early champion of marijuana reforms, dies at 92

He enraged President Nixon and rankled his colleagues, but inspired legions

Dr. Lester Grinspoon sat for an interview at his home in Auburndale, Mass., in 2018.
Dr. Lester Grinspoon sat for an interview at his home in Auburndale, Mass., in 2018.Keith Bedford

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, the Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author whose early, blistering criticism of marijuana prohibition made him a hero to generations of activists and cannabis consumers while drawing scorn from authority figures, died Thursday at his home in Newton, his family said. He was 92.

Dr. Grinspoon’s classic 1971 book “Marihuana Reconsidered” helped launch the contemporary movement to legalize the drug, lending Ivy League credibility to a cause more associated with hippie counterculture than serious medical research.

In it, he methodically dismantled the evidence behind pot’s supposed harms, and suggested the aggressive enforcement of drug laws was largely a tool of political suppression, not public health. The New York Times called it, “the best dope on pot so far.”

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“After Lester, we had the intellectual tools we needed to win,” said longtime advocate and friend Rick Cusick. “Every serious cannabis activist for the last 50 years started by reading ‘Marihuana Reconsidered.‘ ”

Its publication launched Dr. Grinspoon into the public arena, spawning numerous appearances in the media, before lawmakers, and in courtrooms as an expert witness in drug cases, including the deportation trial of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And it earned him a wide range of opponents, from fringe figures like Lyndon LaRouche to anti-drug parents to Harvard colleagues who thought his work was unserious.

The book even popped up on the radar at the command center of the Drug War itself — the White House.

“Every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” Richard Nixon fumed in a May 26, 1971, anti-Semitic tirade captured by the Oval Office recording system. “I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists.”

That morning, Nixon had read a review of “Marihuana Reconsidered” in his daily news briefing. A copy of the page provided to the Globe in 2018 by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum shows Nixon circled Dr. Grinspoon’s name in black ink and scrawled a note to his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman.

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“H[aldeman] - I’m sure I recall - this clown is far on the left,” Nixon wrote, underlining the word “far” for emphasis.

Dr. Grinspoon laughed joyously when first shown the briefing.

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

In the years after his book’s publication, though, Dr. Grinspoon felt stung by a backlash. Far from the second coming of Timothy Leary, he was a suit-and-tie academic who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1955 and stayed there until he retired as an associate professor in 2000. Dr. Grinspoon’s early research focused on schizophrenia and he was one of the first physicians in North America to administer lithium for bipolar disorder. Later, in the 1980s, he would co-found and edit the seminal Harvard Mental Health Letter.

In fact, in 1971, Dr. Grinspoon had yet to sample cannabis, worried it would tarnish his objectivity. The book’s thesis arose instead from a profound dismay with what he saw as the intellectual dishonesty of its prohibition: how could such draconian and inequitably enforced laws exist when the scientific record didn’t justify them?

Still, Harvard University Press almost passed on the project after the publisher’s governing Board of Syndics initially deemed the manuscript too controversial.

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“An image of the Rembrandt painting “Syndics of the Cloth Guild” came to mind: a group of serious-looking, long-haired men sitting around the table, exuding caution and conservatism,” Dr. Grinspoon wrote later. “It was the first instance of academic resistance to my work in this area.”

It wouldn’t be the last. In 1975 and again in 1997, a Harvard Medical School committee passed him over for a full professorship, which allies attributed to anti-marijuana bias. Friends in recent years lobbied unsuccessfully for Harvard to grant Dr. Grinspoon an honorary promotion in his retirement.

Earlier in his career, Dr. Grinspoon ran for president of the American Psychiatric Association as head of a liberal faction that believed doctors were ethically obligated to oppose the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. It was in such progressive campus circles that in 1966 he met Carl Sagan, the celebrated astronomer and “Cosmos” host who would become his lifelong best friend.

Dr. Grinspoon initially scolded Sagan for his prolific marijuana consumption, but his skepticism toward the drug faded after he was asked to testify about it in a court case but could find few studies to justify the official warnings about its effects.

Dr. Grinspoon finally tried cannabis in 1973, although getting high took several attempts, as is typical. (He said he knew the drug was working when a Beatles song he had found unappealing, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” suddenly made sense to his ears.)

Dr. Grinspoon would continue to enjoy modest quantities of cannabis until the end of his life, especially by vaporization before bed, and coauthored a second book on the plant’s medical uses in 1993. But unlike Sagan, who under the pseudonym Mr. X lauded the professional and creative benefits of getting high, Dr. Grinspoon never found it particularly helpful to his work.

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His impatience with what he dubbed the “psychopharmacological McCarthyism” of marijuana opponents only grew after he saw how cannabis helped his son Danny cope with the side effects of harsh chemotherapy treatments before his death from cancer in 1973.

Dr. Grinspoon leaves his wife, Betsy, 89, and three children: astrobiologist and author David Grinspoon, 60; author and physician Peter, 54; and his twin brother Joshua, an attorney. He also leaves two brothers — real estate developer Harold Grinspoon, 90, and Kenneth Grinspoon, 88 — and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his sister Lenore (Grinspoon) Bellar and his brother Martin, who died as a teen after being institutionalized for severe illnesses.

A private virtual service for Dr. Grinspoon is scheduled for Sunday.

Besides marijuana, Dr. Grinspoon and his longtime collaborator James Bakalar also wrote presciently about the potential medical uses of other psychedelic drugs.

Toward the end of his career, Dr. Grinspoon was an increasingly revered figure in the burgeoning marijuana movement. In the mid-1990s, he helped reconstitute a struggling National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), chairing the group’s board for several years.

“We went from a group of ragtag activists who had driven this organization into the ground to an incredibly impressive group of academics, intellectuals, and funders, and Lester did it all in two weeks,” recounted longtime NORML director Allen St. Pierre.

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In the late 1990s, he launched a website to host his marijuana musings, and was the namesake to both an Australian rock band and a sought-after strain of weed. At Harvard, however, he was perpetually disappointed with more conservative colleagues who, in his view, too rarely concerned themselves with the implications of their work. To Dr. Grinspoon, the purpose of science wasn’t to publish the data and walk away, but to use knowledge to advocate for kinder and wiser policies.

“Lester opened the door for other academics from very highly regarded institutions to follow what they knew to be true, rather than hide behind the curtain of academia and say, ‘oh, I’m just a scientist doing an inquiry, I have no opinion,’ ” said Amanda Reiman, a cannabis industry researcher.

A humanist and academic, Dr. Grinspoon clashed both with the legalization movement’s libertarian wing — including once, according to St. Pierre, demolishing Gary Johnson over dinner — and grass-roots figures such as Jack Herer who made hyperbolic claims about marijuana’s benefits.

“That drove Lester crazy, because it was so devoid of the intellectuality he espoused,” St. Pierre said, recalling the time Dr. Grinspoon read a flat, 750-word essay to tens of thousands of stoners at a Seattle festival who had just been riled up by Herer’s enthusiastic pitch for hemp. “He would never compromise and just go with the moment and put his arm in the air and say ‘rah rah marijuana.‘ ”

That seriousness endeared him to skeptics who otherwise wouldn’t have given legalization a second look. St. Pierre recounted how his mother, a psychologist, was “utterly floored” to learn that the editor of her beloved Harvard Mental Health Letter was also leading NORML.

“My mom went from being a critic to being a donor,” St. Pierre laughed.

Today, a new generation of activists is reclaiming Dr. Grinspoon’s serious-but-inclusive legacy of advocacy, emphasizing racial justice and fairness.

“All of us participating in the cannabis economy, demanding justice, and creating new policies stand on his shoulders,” said Shaleen Title, a longtime advocate who now sits on the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

Away from Harvard, Dr. Grinspoon loved nature, often taking family and friends out on ill-advised sailing and boating trips in bad weather. And the dinner table of his home in Wellesley remained a revolving door of intellectual luminaries.

After he moved to the Lasell Village retirement community in Newton in 2013, Dr. Grinspoon was disappointed by the absence of fellow senior tokers, and irritated when staffers tore out a cannabis plant he had surreptitiously seeded in the facility’s garden. But no matter — admiring visitors came frequently, and one could often find his apartment by following the smell of burnt marijuana. In 2018, he took a puff of the first recreational cannabis sold in Massachusetts.

At the end of his life, Dr. Grinspoon was infused with hope, even as he assailed the Trump presidency as “impulsive, stupid, and outrageous.” He frequently praised younger generations for their greater tolerance and was heartened by the steady march of legalization.

“I believe I had the last laugh,” he said.


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.