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​Grinspoon, Reconsidered

The University should look into biases in its promotion procedures

By The Crimson Editorial Board

Psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School associate professor Lester Grinspoon has contributed to the psychiatric field for over 45 years. He has conducted substantial amounts of pioneering research on schizophrenia and how to treat it, published dozens of papers and books, and held leadership positions at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center for years. Still, Grinspoon is best known for his research into marijuana. Although controversial when published in the 1970s, his contribution to the understanding of cannabis has been crucial to the modern marijuana legalization movement.

Yet his research has not always been looked upon fondly. Grinspoon says he was snubbed for a promotion from associate professor to full professor at the Medical School twice—in 1975 and again in 1997. It was never explicitly explained why he was denied the position, though his colleagues and supporters have pointed to his marijuana research as the reason for his rejection. Grinspoon recalls one dean calling it “too controversial” in a 1975 conversation. Nevertheless, Grinspoon retired in 2000, continuing to publish new research in this field as recently as 2014.

Recently, his allies sparked a campaign against these perceived wrongs, calling for the medical school to grant him an emeritus professorship for his contributions. Although a spokesperson for the Medical School bluntly stated that Harvard doesn’t offer professorships retroactively, the campaign cites biases at Harvard “during the dark decades of the war against marijuana” as the reason Grinspoon was not made a full professor and as the justification for awarding him this title now.

Given the circumstances surrounding his promotion, we believe these biases may well have had a significant effect on Grinspoon’s attempt to become a full professor. While we do not necessarily support action concerning whether or not Grinspoon should be awarded an emeritus professorship at this time, we do believe that Grinspoon’s contributions to the fields of psychiatry and marijuana research should not simply go up in smoke. We urge the University to review its promotion procedures and to consider whether a title change is appropriate given the likelihood that cultural prejudice may have played a role during his professorship considerations.

The immense good Grinspoon’s novel research has done for not only his discipline but for societal issues and law reform is difficult to dismiss and warrants recognition. It has been used to fight for the decriminalization of marijuana possession, which has disproportionately affected communities of color. Grinspoon’s research has also been indispensable in the budding legalization of marijuana in nine states, including Massachusetts.

The historical stigma associated with marijuana is yet another example of the academic consensus on a topic changing over time. Unfortunately, when it is incorrect or based on biases, this consensus has the ability to impede the scientific community from recognizing empirical, scientific research like Grinspoon’s. The only way to rectify these cultural influences on research is to openly acknowledge past mistakes and to update our understanding of what is and isn’t of scientific value.

In the future, we hope that researchers and members of the Harvard community make every effort to recognize novel contributions irrespective of societal trends.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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