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HMS Prof Promotes Medicinal Pot Use

Today is “4/20,” a day celebrated by marijuana smokers across the country—and here at Harvard, Lester Grinspoon is continuing his crusade for the legalization of cannabis in the U.S.

Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), has advocated for legalization ever since the early 1970s when, he said, the drug helped his son overcome the painful side effects of chemotherapy.

Inspired by his son’s struggle, Grinspoon wrote several controversial books including “Marijuana Reconsidered,” in which he presented a case for the drug’s benefits.

The spirit of the campaign for legalization is reflected in the counterculture “holiday” of April 20, or “4/20,” when many people unite in cannabis consumption.

The day has its roots in the 1970s, when a group of teenagers in San Rafael, Calif., would meet each day after school at 4:20 p.m. to smoke marijuana under a statue of French chemist Louis Pasteur, according to the Web site for High Times, a magazine about the cannabis culture.

In the years that followed, many other users began to smoke communally at 4:20 p.m.

Grinspoon has been one of the most prominent scientific voices for the legalization campaign.

“I started out wanting to help convince America’s youth of the negative effects of marijuana. But as I soon learned, anybody that goes into a library and reads about it will see that we as a people are being grossly misled about marijuana,” Grinspoon said. “Most people associate marijuana with crime, mayhem, chromosomal damage, and brain cell depletion. But I discovered that marijuana is just as versatile and non-toxic as penicillin. It really is a wonder drug.”

J. Allan Hobson, a professor of psychiatry at HMS, echoed his colleague’s sentiments about marijuana’s medical benefits but was less optimistic about its prospects for legalization.

In Massachusetts, marijuana users can receive jail time and fines as high as $500. Some states, such as California, have passed laws allowing marijuana use for medical purposes, but a federal law prohibits use of the drug.

“I would love to see it used for medicinal use. I just don’t see it happening,” Hobson said. “Legalizing marijuana would be guilt by association. Opening the door to marijuana is opening the door to even more questionable drugs.”

Lecturer on Law in the department of psychiatry James Bakalar, a longtime friend and collaborator with Grinspoon, agreed that legalization could pose problems.

“The process of making marijuana readily available would be too difficult with too many obstacles,” Bakalar said.

Grinspoon, however, is more optimistic.

“Legalizing marijuana would put an effective drug on the market that is cheaper than most prescription drugs,” he said. “If legalized, Cannabis would clearly have to be treated like alcohol—taxed and regulated.”

Anthony Pettigrew, a spokesman in the Boston office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), underscored the federal government’s position that marijuana has no medicinal purposes, and that patients can receive similar effects from synthetic drugs such as Marinol.

“People who want to smoke pot use medicine as an excuse to smoke pot,” Pettigrew said. “I don’t know a heroin addict that didn’t start by smoking a joint. The DEA has never targeted the sick and dying. But as long as marijuana exists as a schedule one drug, we will enforce federal regulations and arrest anyone using or cultivating marijuana.”

Grinspoon calls the federal government’s position “absurd.” He said that the common painkiller Aspirin causes more than 1,000 deaths each year, while there “has never been a documented death caused by marijuana.”

“There will always be cases of abuse. After all, the drugs abused most today are prescription,” Grinspoon said. “But it is absurd that the government insists on the position that marijuana has no medicinal use. Thousands of people are finding this drug useful.”

“The federal government will eventually have to heed citizens’ demands,” he said.
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