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Pot shots
The faces of marijuana in Boston


IN 1937, HARRY J. Anslinger, the commissioner of narcotics, stood before the United States Congress to speak of a new scourge that was sweeping the country: marijuana. He presented many tales to illustrate just how dangerous the drug was. " A teenage boy and a girl lost their senses so completely after smoking marihuana, " he intoned, " that they eloped and were married. "

And yet, Anslinger continued, conjugal indiscretion was the least of the country’s problems in the face of the green menace. The drug, he said, caused " delirious rage " in its users. " A man under the influence of marihuana actually decapitated his best friend; and then, coming out of the effects of the drug, was as horrified as anyone over what he had done. "

Although few are concerned about gangs of murderous potheads roaming the streets anymore, marijuana is still viewed by many Americans as a public menace — and its users are still condemned as renegades, reprobates, and criminals. The year Anslinger provided his colorful testimony, there were 338 arrests for marijuana violations in the US. Today, the annual arrest rate stands at about 700,000.

According to some estimates, as much as $10 billion of public money is spent every year in the effort to stamp out pot. And yet, says Drug Enforcement Administration literature, " Marijuana is the most commonly-used illicit drug in America today. " According to government figures (as reported by NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), about 70 million Americans have smoked marijuana at least once; 18 million have smoked in the past year; and 10 million are regular users.

Though authorities still claim that pot use leads to a host of health problems — impaired memory, heart attacks, paranoia, cancer, infertility, psychological dependence — an ever-growing number of people are willing to challenge these claims. There are even those who say that pot is good for you — and this argument, too, is gaining ground. Today, nine states allow limited medical use of marijuana.

Partisans on both sides of the marijuana question seem unwilling to budge. For the bystander, trying to keep up with the pro/anti debate can feel like watching a tennis match. You read an editorial here, a study there, and you come away with little more than a bad case of mental whiplash. But one thing, at least, is certain: like it or not, pot is a part of American life, and it is not going away.

And beyond the statistics and the charts, the arrest figures and the thundering rhetoric, there is a human element to marijuana — one that is often overlooked amid the clamor of argument and counterargument. Just who are the people who have an intimate relationship with the drug Harry Anslinger once described as " a menace " ?


Sally is a drug dealer.

She doesn’t keep a pit bull in her apartment. She doesn’t employ runners or lookouts. She has never been involved in a turf war or a deal gone bad. She doesn’t wear gold rings or sport a single diamond in her teeth. Soft-spoken and polite — maybe even a little timid — Sally (not her real name) doesn’t fit the popular image of a drug dealer at all — except for the fact that she deals drugs.

Although she allows that selling pot is " technically illegal, " Sally, 24, doesn’t see herself as an outlaw. In fact, as far as she’s concerned, she’s providing a public service. " I’m convenient, " she says. " I don’t overcharge. The guy I get it from, he can’t believe how honest I am. " Sally’s pot is indeed quite a bargain. She charges $55 for a half-ounce — about $10 to $20 below the going rate in Boston. " And, " she says, " my stuff’s really good. "

Like the vast majority of pot dealers, Sally does not make a living from this business. Instead, she uses her revenues — about $200 a month — as a way to smoke for free. She also enjoys the social aspect of selling pot. " Sometimes people will hang out for 10 minutes, " she says, " sometimes half an hour. It’s nice because it gives me an excuse to see people. "

To pay the rent on her Somerville apartment, Sally holds down two part-time jobs. And that suits her just fine. To become a full-time dealer, she says, would make her feel " sketchy. " She doesn’t deliver. She doesn’t sell large amounts. She never has more than a couple of ounces in stock. Her customer base consists of about 25 people — all people she knows. " I keep it pretty low-key, " she says. " I wouldn’t feel comfortable making too much money. "

Still, if Sally were to get caught, she would face up to two years in prison and a $5000 fine. Her driver’s license would be suspended for two years. She would go down in the record books as a convicted dealer. Even worse, her parents might get involved. " They’re very conservative, " she says. " They found out I smoked when I first went to college and they wanted to send me to rehab. " She adds: " My little sister would probably be a little traumatized, too. "

As Sally says this, her voice takes on a jittery edge. " I do get a little sketched-out talking over the phone sometimes, " she says. " I just hope the police have better things to do than come after me. I’m not pushing crystal meth or ecstasy or any of that crazy stuff. If I thought I was causing harm, I wouldn’t be doing this. I’m just hooking up my friends. "

Lester Grinspoon

Harvard Medical School professor Lester Grinspoon can still quote, word for word, the first letter he received on the publication of his 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered (Harvard University Press). " It was a one-liner, " he says. " I’ll never forget it: ‘You dirty Harvard Jew. You only did this to make money.’  " He laughs and adds, " There was no signature. "

The cause of the letter-writer’s wrath was the central argument in Grinspoon’s book: that marijuana was not nearly as harmful as authorities had previously claimed. " When I wrote the book, believe it or not, I was concerned about this terribly dangerous drug, " Grinspoon says, looking a good deal younger than his 73 years, his lanky frame folded neatly into a chair at the Massachusetts Mental Health Institute in Boston. " So I went into the library with the idea that if I could write a really good, scientifically sound statement on the harmfulness of marijuana, maybe some of these kids who were smoking it would pay some attention. "

Grinspoon certainly had every right to expect his book to be taken seriously. A published professor and practicing psychiatrist allied with the prestigious Harvard Medical School, Grinspoon had academic credibility in spades. The book’s conclusions, however, came as a surprise to many — not least to Grinspoon himself. " I looked at the material that the ‘authorities’ — in quotes — were publishing on marijuana, and it seemed very unconvincing, " he recalls. " I came to realize that I was the one who was misinformed — that despite my training in science and medicine, I had been brainwashed like just about every other citizen of this country. "

Grinspoon got his first hint of how controversial Marihuana Reconsidered would become as he was lying in his bed one night with his wife, Betsy. " We heard it on the news: ‘Harvard professor says marijuana not harmful, should be legalized,’  " he says. " Of course, my point wasn’t that it wasn’t harmful, but that its harmfulness was far less than that of alcohol or tobacco, that the danger of the substance did not reside in any inherent psychopharmacological effect of the drug, but rather how we as a society were treating the people who used it, arresting 300,000 a year at the time. Under Mr. Clinton that figure rose to 700,000; heaven knows what will happen under Mr. Bush. But I wasn’t saying pot was not harmful — I was saying that the way we behaved towards it was more harmful. "

This distinction, apparently, was lost on Grinspoon’s critics. His book, arriving at around the same time America was tooling up for its long and messy war on drugs, was viewed by many as heresy. And it wasn’t only troglodytic right-wingers who took aim. As it turned out, being called a dirty Jew would be the least of Grinspoon’s troubles. Though reviews of Marihuana Reconsidered were positive — a headline in the New York Times Book Review called it the best dope on pot so far — many of Grinspoon’s peers in the scientific community were less enthusiastic. " They were very much at arm’s length about this, " he says. " They were skeptical. "

Some were more than just skeptical: Grinspoon’s Harvard superiors were out-and-out pissed. " My professorship was turned down, my full professorship, because of Marihuana Reconsidered, " he says. " I was told by my chief that it was too controversial. " He lets go with one of his frequent, staccato bursts of laughter. " I said it’s not supposed to be judged. This is the academy. This is a scholarly work. I couldn’t believe it. "

Grinspoon has continued to distinguish himself with his drug research, publishing, by his count, 12 books and more than 170 papers. He has testified before government committees and been quoted in countless articles on the subject. His Harvard career, however, never recovered from his association with pot. Yet he insists he has no regrets. " Freedom of thought is more important to me than whether I became a full professor rather than an associate professor, " he says. " It’s harmed my career, but what is a career? A career to me was to do what I thought was important and interesting. And that’s what I did. "

Besides, he adds, " while marijuana is not addictive in the usual sense of the word, for me, studying it was. "

Though he has been denigrated by politicians and shunned by colleagues, to many Lester Grinspoon is a true hero. " He’s amazing, really amazing, " says Jim Pillsbury, a local marijuana activist. " He really is the godfather of this movement. "

If Grinspoon helped debunk the myth that cannabis is a dangerous drug, his research into the medical use of marijuana was even more important. " He’s certainly been instrumental to the movement, " says Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann) president Bill Downing. " The movement as I see it has three prongs: the medical use of marijuana, the industrial use of hemp, and the regulation of recreational use. Lester is responsible for the strength of one of those prongs. For medical use, he is the shining light. "

Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate the role Grinspoon played in promoting pot as a viable medical drug. His 1993 work (revised in 1997) Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine (Yale University Press), co-authored with James B. Bakalar, is the bedrock upon which the growing medical-marijuana lobby was built. The book argued clearly and compellingly that pot could be used to alleviate the symptoms of myriad ailments — including multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, AIDS, depression, Crohn’s disease, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Grinspoon also argued that pot could help ease the aches and pains of aging — a claim that aroused hoots of derision from his critics.

But Grinspoon got the last laugh. Today, nine states allow limited medical use of marijuana, and Massachusetts has a medical-marijuana bill of its own under consideration. " I don’t have to fight for marijuana as a medicine any more, " Grinspoon says. " It’s too late — the government cannot stop it. "

The Harvard professor’s interest in medical marijuana, though, is not purely academic. In 1967, Grinspoon’s then-10-year-old son, Danny, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a fatal condition. The family was also confronted with the awful consequences of trying to treat the disease. Grinspoon visibly winces as he relates his son’s early experiences with chemotherapy, which began in 1971.

" I would meet Betsy and Danny at the treatment room, and you could see the apprehension all over his face, and that would be reflected in Betsy’s face, and pretty soon in my face. It was terrible. He dreaded those treatments. He would vomit or have dry heaves for eight hours after each session. He’d get home and lie down, this big pot next to his bed, on a towel. It was just dreadful. "

One day, Grinspoon attended a dinner party during which a doctor spoke of a teenage cancer patient in Houston who appeared to have overcome the nausea and discomfort of chemotherapy by smoking pot shortly before each treatment. On the drive home, Betsy brought up the possibility of getting marijuana for Danny. " I said — and I’m ashamed to tell you this, " Grinspoon says, putting his hand over the tape recorder, " but I said, ‘No, we can’t do that. It’s against the law.’  "

Nonetheless, Betsy approached a friend of Danny’s and asked him if he knew where she could get some pot. " Once the boy had recovered his equanimity, " Grinspoon laughs, " he ran off and in five minutes was back with a little bit of marijuana. " The next time Grinspoon joined his wife and son at the treatment center, he noticed a big difference.

" I walk in this day, " he says, " and they’re having a good time; they’re laughing and kidding about, and I’m beginning to feel as though there’s some joke being played on me. I’m completely befuddled by this. " On the way home, Danny asked if he could stop off for a sub — " He loved submarine sandwiches " — and even insisted that, rather than lie on his bed for the rest of the day, he would go to school. Grinspoon immediately called Danny’s oncologist and said, " I’m not going to stand in the way of this. "

At around the same time that Danny got sick, Grinspoon had begun to toy with the idea of trying pot himself. At first, he was ambivalent. Although he was curious, he was also concerned that his using the drug would compromise the objectivity of his work, and that by smoking pot he would give ammunition to those people — and there were many — who sought to portray him as a nut.

" I anticipated that if the book was successful, I’d be called before committees to testify about this, " he says. " The senators and representatives who were hostile were always asking me whether I smoked. You know, it was another way of questioning my credentials. One time, a senator asked me that and I said to him, ‘Senator, I’d be glad to answer the question if you’ll tell me whether it will make me a more credible or less credible witness if I answer affirmatively.’ Well, he got really pissed and said, ‘You are being impertinent!’ And then he walked out of the room. I got home to Betsy and said, ‘It’s time.’  "

The first time Grinspoon and his wife tried weed, they didn’t feel much of anything. The second time, they felt even less. Grinspoon underwent a minor crisis of confidence. " I began to wonder if I hadn’t just perpetrated a fraud here, " he says. " I began to question whether I’d just written about a great big placebo. " But the third time Grinspoon and Betsy smoked pot: whammo.

" That night, the music that was on the hi-fi was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, " he remembers. " I had heard this record before, but this was the first time I had heard it. It made a powerful impression on me. The next thing I remember, Betsy and I went into the kitchen and we were standing there sharing a napoleon, each of us taking a bite. The filling moved out laterally — it was threatening to drip on the floor. It was hilarious. But also the taste was so impressive. Where did they find those napoleons? The thing that clinched it, when Betsy and I really understood what was happening, was when we got home and got into bed. We had another way of appreciating what cannabis could do, and that was very exciting for us. "

These may sound like the common recollections of a first-time smoker, but that night actually marked a leap forward in Grinspoon’s research. Those messy napoleons and freaky Sgt. Pepper numbers formed the basis for the third and final step in Grinspoon’s ongoing exploration of marijuana — and one that puts him, yet again, right in the thick of things.

In his latest book-in-the-making, The Uses of Marijuana, Grinspoon moves beyond debates over whether marijuana should be regulated, deregulated, allowed for medicinal or recreational use, or outlawed. Not only should we tolerate pot, he will argue, we should celebrate it.

" Over the years, I have come to understand that marijuana is not just for fun, it’s not just for medicine, but there are other ways in which this high is useful, " he explains. " I began to realize that this drug, this plant, is truly remarkable, that it can be used to enhance various aspects of life. " In other words, pot is a vehicle for self-improvement, like practicing yoga or going to college.

The project has at its heart a Web site Grinspoon launched (, in which he invites pot users to submit essays describing how the drug has enriched their lives. The site currently contains 66 essays, including one by a New York City police officer who argues that smoking weed makes him a better cop.

The idea that pot enhances creativity and provides a sense of harmony, that it can heighten one’s appreciation of music, art, and sex, is getting to be old hat. But Grinspoon doesn’t stop here. Perhaps the most controversial argument he makes in favor of marijuana is that it is an effective problem-solving tool, and an aid to the most sacred of straight-edge ideals: reason. " Marijuana expands the breadth of variables one can bring to bear on a situation. It allows the intellect to visit parts of one’s consciousness that are usually off-limits, " he says, adding, " Cannabis has helped me make some important life decisions. This is something I’m glad I didn’t have to go through life without. "

Naturally, these claims have raised a few eyebrows. Particularly disturbing for some is that Grinspoon will openly admit to being a regular user ( " I smoke, on average, a third of a joint a night, " he says). " Some people, some of my friends, have practically stopped speaking to me. They feel that I’ve destroyed my reputation by admitting that I use marijuana. A lot of people say that’s crazy, that it’s the kind of honesty that makes people think you’re not smart enough to keep to yourself. "

But Grinspoon has never been one to let a little criticism discourage him. " I think one of the reasons that cannabis users have such a negative stereotype attached to them is that people like me refuse to come out and say, ‘Hey, not only do I use cannabis, but I find it useful,’  " he says. " That’s why this book is so important: it’s saying that this stuff is not just for fun, it’s not just for medicine, it’s useful. Can you get that through your head? It’s useful! "

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Issue Date: September 13 - 20, 2001

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