Why, in the case of cannabis, we can’t always separate healing from pleasure
Dr. Lester Grinspoon published his landmark scholarly study, Marijuana Reconsidered, in 1971 while serving as Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Considered radical at the time, the book grew from his experiences with patients who used cannabis to heal or mitigate the symptoms of chronic illness.
Additional inspiration came from his friends in the Harvard community – Carl Sagan among them – who consumed cannabis to no apparent personal harm, and in fact touted some of its creative and intellectual gifts.
Still a passionate advocate for the medical benefits of cannabis, Grinspoon has in recent years turned his attention toward what he calls the ‘enhancement experiences’ – or the subjective effects of cannabis that go beyond treating illness and support what he calls our “human potentials.”
While the cultural debate still swirls around how to define and legislate medical vs. recreational cannabis, Dr. Grinspoon encourages us to privilege what might be called ‘the place in between’ – and what we are loosely terming ‘Wellness’ – where good medicine and heightened experience meet.
Solstice is dedicating September to exploring and celebrating this threshold in our “Month of Wellness.” To kick it off, we spoke with the grandfather of modern medicinal cannabis research himself, about smoking up with Carl Sagan and his own evolution as a doctor and cannabis advocate.
Q & A
B: What are you working on now?
LG: One of the problems I have with marijuana is that it’s not being absorbed by medicine – that is to say the institution of medicine.
It’s going to be a tough sell to medicine. And it shouldn’t be because 1) It is the safest drug a physician can use.
Nobody has died from marijuana. I mean you consider aspirin a safe drug, right? But more than 1,000 people in this country alone lose their lives to aspirin every year.
Or if you take the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs – like ibuprofen and such, there are tens of thousands of people who lose their lives to that. No one has ever lost their life to cannabis.
Secondly, when cannabis becomes a legitimate medicine, when it regains its place in the pharmacopoeia, a place lost after the first legislation – the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 – it will be seen as one of the safest substances in the whole pharmacopoeia.
Furthermore, it will be much less expensive than the pharmaceutical products it replaces. There is a cost of prohibition; people take chances to grow and sell it. They run a lot of risk, so it drives up the cost.
Thirdly, it will be less toxic. No drug in the pharmacopoeia has as little toxicity as cannabis. There are medical books from 1913 saying that cannabis – and back then they only used it as a tincture – was the best medicine for migraines. And it still is! There’s no toxicity. If you’re a migraine-sufferer, and you feel the onset, the aura, then quick, take a few puffs and stop it in its tracks!
B: So why is there so much resistance to cannabis on the part of allopathic doctors?
LG: Medical doctors get their drug education from the drug companies, directly or indirectly. When you pick up an established medical journal, there are so many ads for drugs. Many of the papers published in medical journals are about drugs created by the pharmaceutical industry. And the drug companies put up a huge amount of money to pass the necessary criteria for the FDA. There are two criteria: Is the drug efficacious? And is it safe?
One of the problems with cannabis is that it’s a plant – you can’t patent it. And THC alone, even if you isolate it from the natural plant, doesn’t work as well as what I call, the ‘ensemble effect’. There would have to be the presence of other cannabinoids, most notably cannabidiol, or CBD and others or it just doesn’t work as well.
B: So do you foresee a time when big pharma will figure it out and create effective cannabis-based products?
LG: I think it will be a long time before the pharmaceutical industry will produce things better than the gold standard: natural marijuana, either smoked or ingested.
Now, I can see the pharmaceutical industry finding an inverse agonist that does something that is the exact opposite of what cannabis does to appetite. Cannabis gives you the munchies. Now nobody’s been able to find an appetite suppressant that isn’t toxic. But supposing they could create the inverse agonist of cannabis’ stimulation of appetite – boy they would make a fortune! The pharmaceutical industry knows it can’t just sell the natural stuff, but they can take it apart, and see if they can develop something like what I just described.
There was a French company who tried to do this: They created a diet drug from cannabis, but they didn’t factor in all of its properties. Cannabis is a good anti-depressant, and if you create something that is the opposite, that yes, might reverse appetite – but it will also reverse the anti-depressant properties. And there were a number of suicides. So they had to take it off the market.
B: Tell me about the beginnings of your research into cannabis.
LG: I began my own study in 1967, and I’d never smoked a joint, or knew anyone who’d smoked one. I just knew as a young, somewhat arrogant doctor that it was harmful and you musn’t use it!
At the time Carl Sagan was one of my closest friends, and he smoked marijuana. And he said, “Lester,” (he mimes taking a puff from a joint) “Here, take a puff, It won’t hurt you.” (Laughter)
I really didn’t think about marijuana as medicine much beyond that. My book, [Marijuana Reconsidered] was published in ’71, and I went on to do other projects. I did the research for that book in ’67 and I’d met all these people through Sagan, and they all smoked. And they were not slouches! They were not unsophisticated people. And I thought – maybe I’d better find out just what the scientific and medical basis is for this prohibition.
B: Some medical cannabis advocates tout cannabis as a therapy or cure for all manner of ailments and chronic conditions, including cancer. What is your view on this?
LG: When I wrote the first edition of Marijuana the Forbidden Medicine, it was a much shorter list, but now – you should see the list of conditions for which it is considered to be useful. And I’m very often in the position where someone will say to me – I have this condition. And I say – It won’t hurt you. I don’t know if it will help you, but it will not hurt you if you learn to use it properly.
Now that holds for everything except cancer. I think people who are being treated for cancer, it’s a good thing for people to use marijuana – it cuts their depression, it increases their appetite. And it does have some curative effects in the laboratory.
I wrote an article called, ‘A Note of Caution’, because there are people who are diagnosed with cancer and instead of going to see the oncologist and get the best of what they have to offer, they are determined to show that cannabis will cure their cancer. You’re wasting your time. Look – Bob Marley, he had cancer. And he ran off to Switzerland to get some quack cure, and he died there of course. And people just get so afraid. So there’s an example where I say: Use it with the treatment, but get the oncological treatment.
B: What do you think of the new developments in legislation?
LG: I love it! But there’s got to be one thing that stands above everything: People have a right to grow their own. There are people who are trying to get a monopoly on the dispensaries. What would that do? That would cause the price to go way up.
I think the only way that we the people are going to be able to defend ourselves against manipulation by the government or people who just want to make a lot of money is to say: We’ll go grow our own. If it gets too expensive – I’ll grow my own. Once we win this right, we must protect it. And the right to grow is absolute protection.
Dr. Grinspoon’s writings on the ‘enhancement experiences’ of cannabis can be found at www.Marijuana-Uses.com, and another website, www.rxmarijuana.com has thousands of anecdotal accounts of marijuana’s medical uses.