Story by Ken Krayeske • 12:55 AM EST
The professor of pot, Lester Grinspoon, M.D. argues a point during an interview in November 2001.
Dr. Lester Grinspoon usually waits until evening to inhale. He prefers a vaporizer because it uses less grass and lowers the harmful tars of smoking weed, but if it's plentiful, he gladly rolls a joint.
Sparking up in the afternoon reduces his ability to work, even in retirement. More than his mind wandering, Lester admits that he talks too much when he's high.
His adventures, collected during his 72 years, tell of a man who pursued risk, made sacrifices and reaped rewards. They reveal a person who challenged himself and showed the courage to change.
Grinspoon's accomplishments are many. He gave credibility to the pot movement with the publication of Marijuana Reconsidered and ushered in the age of medical marijuana with Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine.
He prevented John Lennon's deportation and helped save a American charged with marijuana possession in Malaysia from a death sentence; traveled the world as a reasonable ambassador for the sacred herb and chaired NORML's Board of Directors
He's introduced a lexicon that frames marijuana as an enhancement tool for sex, music, food, sports, spirituality and anything else you can think of that is improved by smoking pot.
Oh yeah, he was an accomplished academic researcher and physician. He was the first person to prescribe lithium for manic depression in North America, and he made the American Psychiatry Association and Harvard University millions from publishing ideas like the Annual Review and the Harvard Mental Health Letter.
Thing is, when baked, Lester, like most stoners, tends to branch off on tangents. He'll start the story about how Harvard University withheld full professorship for his heretical views on drugs.
Soon enough, some phrase reminds him of how, in 1993, Harvard awarded then-drug czar Barry McCaffrey the prestigious Zinberg Award for drug scholarship.
"It's like giving the Elie Wiesel Award to a Nazi," says Dick Cowan, former head of NORML - the National Organization for the Reformation of Marihuana Laws - and now in charge of the Media Awareness Project. "They placed prohibitionist ideology above intellectual standards."
In protest, Lester resigned from the faculty of Harvard's Zinberg Center for Addictions, one of his many posts in Cambridge. Halfway through the Zinberg incident, he refers to 1989's highlight, when he and former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark flew to Malaysia to save an American man facing death for marijuana possession.
"But I'll get to that later," Grinspoon says, leaning back in his black lawyer's chair, seated at his desk of his basement home office in posh Wellesley, Mass. His words soothe like a jazz solo."
"Where were we?" His hazel eyes, aided by thick glasses, scan the wood-paneled wall for answers, passing photos of his wife Betsy and his three children.
Yes, he says, the dean threatened him that if he wrote about illegal drugs instead of schizophrenia, he would suffer consequences. Despite prolific writing for 35 years in the Ivy League's publish-or-perish climate, Grinspoon stayed at associate professor.
"How many people would pass up promotions at Harvard for their personal values and beliefs?" asks ecstasy expert Rick Doblin, who, inspired by Grinspoon's success, earned his Ph.D. at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
"Lester gained more than he lost in fighting the system in that way," Doblin says. "He is honored by his enemies."
Over at Columbia University, the prohibitionist Center for Addictions and Substance Abuse, led by Reaganite Joe Califano, had no comment on "Dr. Witherspoon."
Ironically, Grinspoon's affiliations with the leading American academics furnished international credibility for the burgeoning drug policy reform movement.
"Lester is a magnificent dancer," says Ram Dass. Dass, a.k.a. Richard Alpert, knows waltzing. Harvard excommunicated Alpert and Timothy Leary in 1963 for promoting LSD. "I mean dancing in social situations, dances with Harvard, dances with drugs, dances with all of us in the psychedelic family."
Alpert and Grinspoon attended Newtown (MA) High School. "He was a spoiled little bastard, an awful person," Grinspoon says of the teenaged Alpert. "I didn't like him. His father owned the New Haven Railroad. They were very wealthy. He wouldn't speak to his father."
At Harvard, Alpert and Grinspoon worked at the Joslin Diabetic Camp. Dass was a counselor, Grinspoon headed the laboratory. Once Alpert left for India and transformed into Ram Dass, "Servant of God," he and Grinspoon lost contact.
I'm a psychiatrist who has treated a lot of people," Grinspoon says. "I've never seen personal growth like this man, Dick Alpert to Ram Dass, has made. To me, he is a model of what people can do."
Only since Dass suffered a stroke two years ago have they reacquainted. Grinspoon steered Dass to medicinal marijuana. They are now two souls, Dass says. "I respect the way he is playing the game," Dass says. "I respect the wisdom that he is using. His heart is in the right place. We are in harmony."