Carl Sagan’s long lost deep thoughts on marijuana and the War on Drugs
Editor’s note: This piece by Tom Angell on Carl Sagan was such an amazing story that we begged Marijuana.com to let us run it. And they did. Sagan died on Dec. 20, 1996, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle after a two-year battle with myelodysplasia, a pre-leukemic syndrome. The cause of death was pneumonia, according to Cornell University’s obituary. The university did not mention marijuana … so here’s the story of Sagan and weed.
Guest post by TOM ANGELL
New Library of Congress exhibit reveals “Cosmos” creator’s personal writings on marijuana that have never been seen by the public. Until now.
I’ve been a Carl Sagan fan ever since the film “Contact,” based on his novel of the same name, blew my 15-year-old mind in 1997 with notions of alien civilizations and deep-space travel.
But the film premiered after Sagan had already died — too soon, from pneumonia following a battle with bone marrow cancer — and left this Pale Blue Dot. Nerds of my generation never got the chance to hear Sagan’s thoughts about later scientific discoveries like the accelerated expansion of the universe, the Higgs boson or the confirmed existence of thousands of exo-planets beyond our solar system.
And Sagan, who used marijuana to enhance his creativity and generate bold new ideas, never got to see the day when Americans could go to a store, buy marijuana and use it in the privacy of their own homes without fear of criminal prosecution.
But thanks to a huge collection of Sagan’s papers recently made available to the public for the first time at the Library of Congress, we’ve now been given greater insight into his deep thoughts on the drug war and related topics.
The documents confirm that Sagan, whose 1985 “Contact” novel includes a scene where a store in fictionalized future 1999 France is selling marijuana imported from California and Oregon, would’ve been thrilled to see the legalization era we’re entering now, even if we’ve taken a bit more time getting here than he once predicted (back during the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” crusade, no less).
He passed away just a few months after California voters made their state the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Since then, 22 other states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing for medical use, and Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana outright for all adults over 21.
In my own work as a marijuana legalization strategist seeking to make the case to legislators that reform is a mainstream issue, I’ve often cited Sagan’s quotes about the compassion of allowing medical marijuana and the way he personally used the drug as an aid in attaining new scientific and philosophical insights. If respectable scientific brains like Carl Sagan — along with the majority of voters — think it’s time to change marijuana laws, surely more politicians should stop being afraid of embracing reform efforts.
So I was excited to recently spend a few days poring through some of the 600,000 Sagan papers made available at the Library of Congress with generous funding from TV and film impresario Seth MacFarlane in partnership with Sagan’s widow and longtime professional collaborator Ann Druyan. The collection, which includes four boxes strictly focused on drug policy alone, includes a plethora of previously unpublished and unknown Saganisms.
Marijuana is a topic Sagan is now well associated with, but he actually wasn’t especially publicly vocal about the legalization debate during his life, remaining more focused not only on his career exploring and explaining the universe but also on other political causes like environmental conservation, animal rights and stopping the use of nuclear weapons.
He did publicly endorse medical marijuana, and Druyan, his partner in life and in science communication, has long been active with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), including serving as a board member while Sagan was still alive. In an interview with Marijuana.com, Druyan explained that “one of the reasons that I became such an activist in this area was I was doing it for both of us. He was an employee of NASA and there’s no question that he wouldn’t have been able to do his work exploring the solar system and searching for life elsewhere if he made as public a stand as I did.”
Druyan says Sagan “encouraged me in every way” to work on marijuana reform and “was doing as much as he could in the very narrow constraints of being a NASA employee.”
Although Sagan never lied about his marijuana use (even admitting it when asked by a caller on Larry King’s radio show) he didn’t exactly go out of his way to advertise it, and it wasn’t widely known just how much of a marijuana enthusiast Sagan really was until much later.
Indeed, it was only after Sagan’s death that Lester Grinspoon, editor of the classic volume “Marihuana Reconsidered,” revealed that the book’s essay by an anonymous “Mr. X” — who wrote that his use of marijuana “produced a very rich array of insights” — was in fact penned by Carl Sagan.
Grinspoon, like Druyan, understands why his cannabis enthusiast friend wasn’t more public in advocating for an end to prohibition. “Carl more than once said to me that he wished he could help me more with this fight. But of course he couldn’t,” says Grinspoon, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard University who has been one of the leading legalization proponents in academia for the last several decades. “He had every reason to be cautious. He was testifying every other week, it seemed” in front of government committees about NASA affairs.
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While Americans are supposed to enjoy First Amendment protections for their issue advocacy, one 1988 Sagan letter I found at the Library of Congress shows why a government-funded scientist might be reluctant to draw too much public attention to his views about marijuana in the midst of President Reagan’s drug war.
Writing to Grinspoon, Sagan expressed outrage about language in a congressional funding bill for NASA that required contractors like him to adopt written anti-drug-use policies. Saying that the “oath required seems to smack of prior restraint and is unsymmetrical with respect to other crimes.” Sagan pointed out that “we are not obliged to sign an oath we will not murder our fellow employees, for example.”
Grinspoon, who corresponded with Sagan so often their letters fill up several boxes at the Library of Congress, told me he thinks Sagan smoked marijuana nearly “every day, except when he had to travel.”
Druyan says that might be a “bit of an overstatement,” but confirmed Sagan enjoyed marijuana “frequently.” She made it clear just how important cannabis was in their life together: “We smoked the way other American families would have wine with dinner. For us, it was our sacrament. It was something that made a great life sweeter in every possible way.”
Druyan also told me that toward the end of his life Sagan utilized marijuana’s medicinal properties to experience a measure of relief. He used cannabis to treat “not only the lack of appetite and the nausea [from chemotherapy]but to refocus on the beauty of life in the midst of such torture.”
The plant’s effects directly impacted the couple’s work over their decades of collaboration on everything from “Contact” to the 1980 PBS series “Cosmos” that Sagan hosted and that they wrote together. And marijuana’s effects on their work are still being felt. This year’s Fox reboot of “Cosmos” — hosted this time by Neil deGrasse Tyson and again co-written by Druyan — not only took home four Emmys, but made mention in one episode of 17th Century scientist Robert Hooke’s use of cannabis while describing him as “possibly the most inventive person who ever lived.”
“Marijuana made it possible for both of us to be far more creative,” Druyan says of her collaborations with Sagan. “The things that people find distinctly unique about Carl’s work, and our work together, and my work since, were certainly influenced by the perspective that was made possible by knowing what it was like to be high.”
Of course, Sagan’s interest in marijuana policy extended far beyond his own use of the drug or prohibition’s direct impact on himself, and the newly opened papers reveal that he put a great deal of thought into the ill effects of the drug war and ways to combat it over the decades.
In 1990, Sagan wrote to leading drug policy reform campaigners suggesting they organize a “systematic attempt to rebut” sensational Partnership for a Drug-Free America commercials that he felt “routinely make gross distortions of the scientific facts.”
This disconnect from science was among Sagan’s chief concerns about the criminalization of marijuana. It was “something that particularly infuriated Carl as a scientist,” Druyan says. He was troubled by not only the “bad civic engineering but the very bad science behind prohibition.”
In another letter from 1990 Sagan laid out these fundamental philosophical questions underpinning America’s drug war:
Might it be possible to engineer drugs with all of the alleged benefits and none of the deficiencies and dangers of current drugs?Why is the foregoing suggestion occasionally rejected on moral grounds, and is there something intrinsically immoral about feeling good by taking a molecule?Do we ordinarily feel good because our bodies have generated molecules?
More practically, he went on to ask:
How much money is spent every year on the planet on illegal drugs?Does the existence of such enormous amounts of money inevitably lead to corruption in police and military enforcement agencies, legislators, intelligence agencies and the Executive branch?If the financial rewards from drug dealing are so enormous, will not the suppression of the drug industry in one nation cause it to proliferate in another nation?
Sagan also recorded his concerns with the nation’s increasing over-reliance on incarceration. As prison populations started to rise in the 1980s, he noted, “The California Corrections Department has an annual budget of a third of a billion dollars” (in 1980 dollars). “Consider the costs both in dollars and in other units of the encouragement to crime provided by justice and poverty.”
When it comes to marijuana laws in 2014, we might as well be living on an entirely different planet from the one Sagan, Druyan and the activists they were corresponding with inhabited in the 1980s and 90s. With marijuana now legal in two U.S. states and in the nation of Uruguay, and more jurisdictions undoubtedly on the way soon, change is happening fast.
Grinspoon told me Sagan would be overjoyed at the progress the legalization movement has achieved in recent years, and that as a result he’d probably be more likely today to be open about both his support for changing marijuana laws and the fact that he regularly broke them as a marijuana user.
“I think he would be quite straightforward with it now,” Grinspoon says. Noting that “all sorts of people are coming out” about having used marijuana these days, he sees parallels between this issue and the struggle for gay rights. “I think when people started to come out about being gay, that was one of the most important engines of moving this country to a more sensible view of getting rid of homophobia.” As more people — especially successful academics and scientists — feel comfortable identifying themselves as having broken the marijuana laws, “that’s just going to push the whole thing further.”
With the success of this year’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” and with more states voting on legalizing marijuana in November, the newly unearthed Sagan documents add to the growing consensus that marijuana prohibition is not grounded in science and is not supported by leading thinkers and prominent people.
“We are going at warp speed toward getting rid of that prohibition now,” says Grinspoon.
Druyan says Sagan “would have been encouraged by every one of the victories against short-term thinking.”
“Our culture has begun to catch up with him on so many different issues,” she says.
Carl Sagan would indeed be relieved to see that we didn’t need a “Spaceship of the Imagination” to travel to a world where marijuana is legal. All that’s been required is hard work by the growing marijuana reform movement, and time.