By Fiona E Lewis

It's High Time: Weed at Harvard

Even after recreational marijuana became legal Massachusetts in the fall, some Harvard affiliates—professors, administrators, proctors, deans, even students—still clam up when asked what they think about using the drug on campus.
By Benjamin D. Senzer and Lucy Wang

“Indeed, the greatest potential for social harm lies in the scarring of so many young people and the reactive, institutional damages that are the direct products of present marijuana laws. If we are to avoid having this harm reach the proportions of a real national disaster within the next decade, we must move to make the social use of marijuana legal.”

-Lester S. Grinspoon, "Marihuana Reconsidered" (1971)

“So. Let’s talk marijuana,” says Michael C. Ranen, Resident Dean of Ivy Yard.

These days, there is a lot to talk about.

On November 8, 2016, hundreds of Cambridge residents voted ‘Yes’ on Question 4, the Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Initiative, and that initiative was approved. While Massachusetts decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2008 and legalized medicinal marijuana in 2012, the 2016 initiative legalized the use of recreational marijuana. This makes Massachusetts one of eight states to do so.

But as long as marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, and as long as Harvard receives federal funding, administrators will prohibit the use and possession of marijuana on campus. As a result, the university isn’t exactly the crime-ridden bastion of pot-smoking depicted in films like “The Social Network­” and “How High.”

By Fiona E Lewis

That said, there are plenty of people who use marijuana at Harvard. A yearly poll conducted by The Harvard Crimson reveals that 21.8 percent of students in the Class of 2017 alone have tried marijuana. This number is even higher—24.3 percent—for the Class of 2020.

Despite this common usage of the drug on campus, the legalization of marijuana comes with baggage. After decades of criminalization, a negative social stigma persists. Some Harvard affiliates—professors, administrators, proctors, deans, even students—still clam up when asked what they think about marijuana use on campus.

“I don’t blame them at all. Look, I’m not that excited to be [interviewed] here either,” says Ranen. “It’s really not a large proportion of my job.”

This reluctance to speak about marijuana reveals one crucial fact: At Harvard, marijuana is legal in name but not in practice. While people are free to possess and smoke marijuana around Cambridge, this freedom ends as soon as they walk within Harvard’s gates.

‘Marijuana Epiphany’

For decades, Harvard has been home to both professors who study marijuana and students who smoke it. Despite its sprawling, 51,000-foot labyrinth of documents covering Harvard’s 400-year history, the Harvard Archives turns up almost empty-handed when it comes to records of these stories.

A search for references to “marijuana” or “cannabis” within this repository yields a few honorable mentions: miscellaneous anthropological photographs of a marijuana farm in China; a 1970 French film score entitled Cannabis; hundreds of dissertations, books, and papers about the social and medical implications of drug use, written by Harvard scholars during the past century.

Among these many technical studies, however, there are only a few references to marijuana use among students.

One report, published by University Health Services in the 1966-67 school year, summarizes these results elegantly: “Harvard has received much publicity because of experiments which were conducted here in the early sixties, but the use of hallucinogenic drugs never achieved wide acceptance, in spite of many well-publicized statements to the contrary.” And yes, “hallucinogenic drugs” includes marijuana.

Almost all attempts by past Harvard affiliates to grapple with marijuana use involve conducting medical or psychological research. Paper after paper references topics from the evolution of the cannabis plant to the political ramifications of its legalization. These professors study marijuana as if it were a bug under a microscope, dissecting and scrutinizing it.

When asked about the legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts, some fall silent.

Ezer Vierba, a professor of Drugs and Minds in the Americas, declined to comment for this story.

Asim I. Khwaja, a professor of political economy and public policy at Harvard Business School, also declined to comment.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, a professor of economics and author of a book about black markets, also declined to speak to us.

But there are exceptions. On Level B of Lamont Library, there is a tiny alcove with a section dedicated to books about marijuana. Most of these books just play into the same motif of Harvard professors studying marijuana from a purely academic perspective, but one stands out: Marihuana Reconsidered, written in 1971 by Lester S. Grinspoon, current Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Grinspoon tells us that he has dedicated his life to getting up close and personal with marijuana. He recounts the first time he ever used marijuana at a dinner party, hosted by famed astrophysicist Carl E. Sagan, a life-long friend and colleague.

“[Sagan] invited us to his apartment in Cambridge and I was surprised to see that he and his friends were smoking marijuana. And I knew nothing about marijuana—it had never been mentioned in any psychopharmacology course in med school.”

Grinspoon relives the moment. “I said to him, ‘Carl, you mustn’t use it! It’s harmful to you!’ And Carl held it out to me and said, ‘It’s not harmful, not harmful at all. Here, try it! You’ll love it!’”

After getting high for the first time, Grinspoon began to question the negative portrayal of marijuana that pervaded the media of the early 1970s. He spent hours poring over books in the Harvard Medical School library to find at least some—if any—proof that marijuana was harmful. But he just couldn’t. “It was the first marijuana epiphany I ever had. I was 180 percent wrong,” Grinspoon says.

For Grinspoon, marijuana was more than a research interest. “I used to come home from work and have a drink: scotch,” Grinspoon says. “I stopped that as soon as I started to use cannabis. I haven’t had any scotch in all those years.” He thinks that now that marijuana is legalized in the state of Massachusetts, college students will lay off the alcohol, too.

Grinspoon adds that marijuana use correlates with fewer car accidents than alcohol use, and that there has never been a death attributed to cannabis overdose.

“If I were going to advise a college student on whether or not he should use cannabis or alcohol,” Grinspoon says, “and he’s going to use one or the other, whether it’s on campus or anywhere else, I’d much rather see him use cannabis.”

Not everyone shares Grinspoon’s optimism.

Vaughan W. Rees, Director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, specializes in analyzing the dissemination of tobacco among the public. Some of his latest projects involve researching the impacts of marijuana use.

“We’ve heard a lot of anecdotal reports that people seeking help from marijuana problems had always been turned away from all of the drug and alcohol facilities because marijuana wasn’t considered by people at that point to be a dependence-producing drug,” Rees says. “There is a very specific set of symptoms which comprise of Marijuana Withdrawal Syndrome.”

Rees has seen patients with symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, overwhelming craving for the drug, anxiety, irritability, anger, depression, trouble sleeping, and night sweats, just to name a few. “Marijuana has a lot in common with a lot of other abused drugs,” Rees says.

Courtney S. Blair ’19, who once smoked 2 to 3 times a day, was diagnosed with a disease known as Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome last summer. Though people may have pre-dispositions to the disease, she says an overloaded use of cannabis can activate the symptoms. “Diseases such as this are definitely drawbacks to people who might think that legalization means that weed is just completely okay to use,” Blair says.

Rees suspects that marijuana use may have a negative effect on Harvard students. “There is good evidence that marijuana decreases learning, memory, and attention,” Rees says. “For those who are attempting to accomplish academic pursuits, that can compromise their ability to perform at a high level.”

‘Definitely Finances’

Beyond its health detriments—or lack thereof, marijuana also catches the eyes of faculty in economics and business. And as much as its impact can fluctuate markets, it can also dent the wallets of Harvard students.

As anyone who’s read N. Gregory Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics” will know, there’s no such thing as a free lunch—or a free smoke. You have to dispense some green to get some green.

There are four cannabis markets, according to John A. Quelch, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “First of all, you have the illegal street price. Secondly, you have the medicinal marijuana price. Then you thirdly, now that we’ve legalized, have the recreational marijuana price. And then fourthly, you will also have (if I can put it this way) the ‘home-grown price’,” Quelch says.

A few years ago, Quelch and colleagues conducted a case study on Colorado’s 2012 legalization of recreational marijuana. It’s almost as if Quelch can look into the future: Based on his Colorado research, he predicts, with astounding detail, how he thinks the marijuana market will change the face of the Cambridge economy.

“In most cases, it’s likely that we would see towns or cities such as Cambridge, which is a relatively large city, start with not one licensee, but start with two or three at the most for a trial period of a year or so, just to explore what the impact is on the local economy,” Quelch says about the possible emergence of new marijuana dispensaries in Cambridge.

Some of that impact will probably play out in the recesses of the Harvard Square businesses that already sell marijuana-related goods.

Blue Moon Smoke Shop is a smoking accessories store about halfway between Harvard and Central Squares. Assistant manager Tyler J. Bouchard estimates that the vast majority of its customers are college students from Harvard and MIT.

“We’ve already seen a huge increase,” Bouchard says. “[Legalization has] actually brought in a whole new age demographic that we’ve never seen in the business.”

In Cambridge, the city council is waiting for the state to enforce regulations before acting. Vice Mayor Marc C. McGovern says that however the city decides to act will follow the state’s decisions, which is scheduled to come out by September of 2017 but may be delayed.

Though Cambridge City Councillor Dennis J. Carlone has no problem with recreational dispensaries in Cambridge, he wants to make clear a distinction between which dispensaries will be for recreational purposes and which are for medicinal purposes.

“People who go to medicinal dispensaries for marijuana want it to be more like the doctor’s office, or perhaps a pharmacy,” Carlone says. “As far as recreational dispensaries - the ones I’ve seen in Colorado, or Amsterdam, for that matter, are a different atmosphere altogether.”

The Cambridge branch of the Boston Smoke Shop, another purveyor of marijuana accessories, contains a plethora of colorful lights, shelves full of trinkets, water pipes, and bongs. The only thing missing is the marijuana itself.

Marc T. Lundgren, Director of Operations of Boston Smoke Shops, says that medical dispensaries will get first dibs on marijuana licenses. “It’s not our end goal to get our hands on those licenses,” Lundgren says. “If we can, we will. But our goal is more to provide the accessories that go along [with] marijuana for the masses. We plan on seeing—and we already do see—an increase in the usage of marijuana.”

Jeffrey A. Miron, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics and author of more than a dozen papers detailing the fiscal and social benefits of legalizing marijuana in the U.S., disagrees.

“In other states, legalization has not led to huge booms in use,” Miron says.“Legalization doesn’t make more people smoke marijuana. It’s not like that. The people who want to be using it are already doing it.”

Instead, Miron predicts that marijuana legalization in Massachusetts will lead to more responsible procurement and usage. “When you legalize a drug, the usage becomes less unsafe. In Portugal, heroin has been decriminalized de-facto for years now, and we see a better usage now of it,” he says.

For pot-smoking Harvard students on a ramen noodle budget, safety concerns and price changes make all the difference.

Erica, a Harvard undergraduate to whom The Crimson has granted anonymity so she could speak about her encounters with law enforcement, is an avid marijuana user, smoking three to four times everyday.

“The biggest concern that I have with smoking is definitely finances,” she says. “It definitely adds up.”

Blair says that legalization could change where she buys her marijuana. “As for me, price would be the biggest determinant to whether or not I will continue to buy illegally,” Blair says. “There is a huge price from people transporting illegally, and I would rather prefer the safer product from a dispensary. I also see how some people might be turned off by the shadiness of a drug deal in the car.”

‘A Social Norm’

Smoke rises. Anyone who lives on the top floor of a dormitory knows that. Ranen, whose office is on the top floor of the Freshman Dean’s Office, knows that, too.

“Marijuana is a problem in a residential community when it becomes a community issue. I think if the odor of marijuana is distinct and powerful and if there is one room smoking marijuana, it really does affect the entire entryway,” says Ranen, who is a former resident tutor in Winthrop House.

On paper, marijuana is still explicitly forbidden on Harvard’s campus. Even though marijuana’s legal status in Massachusetts is now more or less comparable to that of tobacco, Harvard’s Drug and Alcohol policy groups marijuana together with heroin and cocaine.

Garrett O. Fitzgerald, Director of the Office of Alcohol & Other Drug Services, asserts that Harvard will do everything it can to limit student infraction of the federal ban of marijuana.

Rules aside, a total marijuana ban can be difficult to enforce on a campus of hash-hungry undergraduates.

“When you meet the right people, Harvard has a strong culture of smokers,” Blair says.

Though some students find themselves immersed amongst smokers and made friendships through using marijuana, Jake H. Hummer ’17 recognizes that it doesn’t dominate his social life. “Actually, I would say that most of my friends aren’t smokers,” he says.

As the legal landscape changes, enforcement of the laws surrounding marijuana usage becomes a grey area for students.

One Tuesday last fall, before marijuana was legalized, Erica decided to smoke by the Charles River in full view of the Winthrop construction site. After a few minutes, she saw a Massachusetts State police officer coming down the bank of the river toward her.

“Turns out that he thought I was shooting up heroin because I was leaning over,” she says. “I had $80 worth of weed and a bunch of plastic bags. It looked like distribution so I was really worried.”

After looking through all of her things, however, the officer just went over rules with her, including when marijuana was going to be legalized and how much she could have in her possession.

“And then he let me go. Didn’t even confiscate any of my stuff, didn’t fine me…. He kind of knew it was mine but he wasn’t going to get on my case about it,” Erica says. “But it was definitely illegal and they do make a big show out of it being illegal.”

She describes her experiences with the Harvard University Police Department, on the other hand, as “chill AF.” Last spring, when she was smoking hookah by the river, a HUPD officer pulled up and asked for her ID. She explained to him that she was only smoking tobacco, and he said that if he’d been off-duty he’d have taken a rip.

HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano declined to comment.

Hummer compares the illegality of smoking weed to that of driving past the speed limit. “There’s a margin of breaking the law that everyone feels is a social norm,” Hummer says. “Prior to the legalization of marijuana, I feel that smoking marijuana was within that acceptable level of breaking the law.”

Up in Smoke

Dean Ranen acknowledges that there is probably more marijuana use on campus than comes to his attention. “I don’t have exact numbers on that. It happens sometimes,” Ranen says.

Benches by the Weeks Bridge are popular spots for students to smoke.
Benches by the Weeks Bridge are popular spots for students to smoke. By Charles K. Michael

As a result, Ranen tries to implement marijuana safety measures. He mentions Harvard Proof, an online module for incoming freshmen that introduces them to the prospect of encountering drugs and alcohol on campus.

“How much did Harvard Proof focus mainly on alcohol, right? Did Harvard Proof talk about drugs and marijuana? A little bit,” Ranen says. “We need to make sure that we’re discussing it and educating our students appropriately.”

Absent an institutionalized marijuana education, Blair thinks that Harvard students are especially vulnerable to skewed depictions of the drug in popular culture. As a result, she feels that marijuana users get a bad rap.

“When some people smell weed on me, they think less of me. I can tell from their looks,” Blair says. She suggests that critics ask themselves a question: “Why do you hate weed?”

On election day, however, a majority of Massachusetts voters chose to legalize recreational marijuana. Perhaps public perception of marijuana is changing.

“I probably wouldn’t have opened up as much if marijuana was not legalized,” Hummer says. “I would’ve liked to, but I think it being legalized for me is at least a symbol that it has become more understood and accepted.”

Erica interprets legalization as a product of a gradual cultural shift towards marijuana appreciation. “Legalization is an indication that the public is accepting more,” she says.

Tynan C. G. Jackson ’19 goes a step further: He thinks last November’s legalization will be the catalyst for a new culturally dominant attitude toward marijuana. “Social stigma is based a lot on what’s legal and what’s not illegal. This [change in the stigma surrounding] weed should occur,” he predicts.

Despite it remaining a federal crime to possess or consume marijuana, Harvard students find ways to keep the flame alive.

Taking out her phone, Erica pulled up a map of Harvard Yard overlaid with orange diamonds to show the prime locations to smoke marijuana on campus. Erica says that she “hit[s] these spots on the daily” and is continually adding new locations.

Harvard may hold back on allowing students to smoke marijuana on campus, but that doesn’t mean that students who are already avid smokers are willing to change their lifestyle. Erica’s map reflects that, even when Harvard maintains its existing values, there are students who are willing and able to circumvent them.

Several students were reluctant to comment for this story because they feared running afoul of Harvard administrators. And despite some having a map of the best places to smoke, they certainly don’t want Harvard privy to their favorite places to take a hit.

Marijuana, then, is something of a disruption on campus, in more ways than one.

“I think it is a drug which can induce slight alterations in consciousness which allows one sometimes to be more aware of certain perceptions or ideas,” says Grinspoon.

Maybe that alternate state of consciousness is realizing that there is no alternate state of consciousness after all. The legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts does not significantly affect the status quo that Harvard students and administrators have cherished for years, and it probably will not for years to come.

And so our investigation into weed on campus—complete and incomplete—goes up in smoke, high above the spires and bell-towers, higher than you can ever imagine.

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