Renowned scientist and Harvard Professor Stephen Jay Gould died in May 2002, of lung cancer. Gould was the author of many books on science and evolution, including The Mismeasure of Man, and his massive 1400-page opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, published shortly after his death. While many obituaries marked Gould’s passing, few mentioned that Gould had been using marijuana since at least 1982. That was the year Gould was diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer called abdominal mesothelioma, and told he had eight months to live.
Gould survived and thrived for 20 years after receiving that grim diagnosis, with treatments including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Yet above and beyond these, Gould claimed that it was pot that saved his life. “The most important effect upon my eventual cure,” said Gould, “was the illegal drug, marijuana.”
Gould testified to the benefits of medical marijuana in August 1998, at the trial of Ontario med-pot patient and activist Jim Wakeford (CC#15, Jim Wakeford – Canada’s Best Hope for Medical Marijuana?). He told the court how “absolutely nothing” worked to treat his severe nausea, except for marijuana, which “worked like a charm.”
“It is beyond my comprehension that any humane person would withhold such a beneficial substance from people in such great need simply because others use it for different purposes,” said Gould.
Yet Gould did not admit to being a pot head. “I was reluctant to try it because I have never smoked any substance habitually, and didn’t even know how to inhale. Moreover, I had tried marijuana twice? and had hated it.” Yet chronic use of medicinal marijuana robbed Gould of none of his intellectual vigor. His critically-acclaimed The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was researched and written over the two decades that Gould was using pot heavily to maintain his health.
Gould was also a signatory to a 1998 advertisement in the New York Times, which took two full pages to appeal for a new international drug policy. “We believe the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself,” the ad claimed.
(Other signatories to the ad included Walter Cronkite, former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, former Secretary of State George Shultz, Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, Mayor Susan Hammer of San Jose, Milton Friedman, and a variety of judges, police, academics and other prominent citizens.)
Gould was far from alone in the world of prominent pot-friendly scientists. Although most scientists are often reticent to admit or publicly discuss their use of illegal mind-enhancing drugs, there are some who are not afraid of openly discussing how marijuana or psychedelics opened their minds to new scientific perspectives.
One prominent example is astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a regular user of marijuana from the early 60’s until his death in 1996. Like Gould, Sagan was also best known for his ability to explain his complex ideas to the general public (CC#32 Carl Sagan: visionary scientist).
Sagan was close friends with Harvard professor Dr Lester Grinspoon, a leading advocate of decriminalization. In an anonymous essay which Sagan wrote for Grinspoon’s book Marijuana Reconsidered, Sagan explained how cannabis use had on occasion inspired him to produce scientific papers which won later acclaim.
Sagan disputed the “myth” of the pot high ? that the insights achieved while stoned are illusory. “I am convinced that this is an error,” wrote Sagan, “and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.”
One classic anecdote from the mid-1980’s shows Sagan’s devotion to the inspirational effects of kind buds. Grinspoon had received some unsolicited buds from an admirer, and he shared the high-potency joints with Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan one evening. Afterwards Sagan said “Lester, I know you’ve only got one left, but could I have it? I’ve got serious work to do tomorrow and I could really use it.”
Although Sagan’s pot use didn’t become common knowledge until after his death, his last wife Druyan was a long-time board member and important fundraiser for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Richard Feynman was an extraordinary intellect who revolutionized modern physics. During his astounding career he helped design the atomic bomb, created a Nobel Prize winning theory of quantum electrodynamics, became a skilled safecracker and exposed the flaws which had led to the space shuttle Challenger disaster. His autobiography Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman! is full of anecdotes as to how he used his vast repertoire of arcane mathematical knowledge and plain common sense to outsmart and outwit the scientific, political and military establishments.
Feynman was a brilliant scientist long before he sampled marijuana and LSD while in his mid 50’s, but he did claim to have learned from the mind-expanding experiences. Feynman was a friend of John Lilly, a researcher who pioneered the use of the tanks, studied psychedelics and consciousness, and is best known for his work with dolphins. Feynman’s use of these illegal substances was mostly in the context of experimenting with his own consciousness while in a sensory deprivation tank.
While experimenting with his mind and memories in Lilly’s tanks, Feynman also met Baba Ram Das, formerly Professor Richard Alpert of Harvard, friend of Timothy Leary and author of Be Here Now. Das instructed Feynman in how to achieve out of body experiences, which Feynman accomplished while in the tank.
Feynman found that pot helped him to achieve the hallucinatory state he was seeking. “Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going,” wrote Feynman, “but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly.”
Feynman also tried LSD under these circumstances, but in his biography Genius by James Gleick, Feynman is described as being “embarrassed” by his LSD experiences. Feynman also received some criticism from his colleagues for his admission. In an essay called To Smoke Or Not To Smoke, Dr Lester Grinspoon wrote that “Feynman, by courageously acknowledging his ongoing use of marijuana, won the respect and appreciation of many and the enmity of others.”
Another scientific luminary who has been public about the benefits to be gained from mind-expanding drugs is Kary Mullis. Mullis won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a now commonly used technique called the “polymerase chain reaction,” which allows scientists to quickly and easily duplicate segments of DNA.
In his 1998 autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Mullis claimed “I think I might have been stupid in some respects, it if weren’t for my psychedelic experiences.”
Mullis also describes his first LSD trip in 1966, before the drug had been banned. Under the advice of his friend, he tried marijuana first, and then later ate a 1000 microgram dose of Owsley acid. “I didn’t finish dinner. I started laughing. I got up from the table and realized, on the way to the couch, that everything I knew was based on a false premise. I fell down through the couch into another world.”
The next day, while assimilating the experience, Mullis was inspired to understand more about neurology and biochemistry. “I wanted to understand what had happened. How could 1000 micrograms – one thousandth of a gram – of some chemical cause my entire fucking sensorium to undergo such incredible changes? What mechanisms inside my brain were being so drastically affected? What did these chemicals do to my visuals? I wanted to know how it worked. I wanted to know more about neurochemistry.”
Dr Andrew Weil is possibly the world’s best-known naturopath. He is a Harvard Medical School graduate, also has a Harvard AB degree in biology, and is an internationally recognized expert on medicinal herbs, mind-body interactions, and alternative medicine. Dr Weil graced the cover of Time magazine in 1998, and is the author of eight books, including From Chocolate to Morphine, and the national bestseller Spontaneous Healing.
Weil is open about his past and present use of illegal substances, claiming “I think I’ve tried about every drug in Chocolate to Morphine.” He is equally open with his views on ending the drug war and the benefits of many banned plants. Weil claims that there’s an innate need for humans to alter consciousness, and that there is no such thing as good drugs and bad drugs, merely that some individuals have good or bad relationships with these substances.
Yet despite this, Weil’s personal history with the drug culture is less well-known. Weil studied under Dr Timothy Leary at Harvard, and also worked with Dr Lester Grinspoon on marijuana research in the late 1960’s.
Early in his career Weil wrote for High Times magazine, including articles like A gourmet coca taster’s tour of Peru: Stalking an ancient herbal high.
Weil’s first book was The Natural Mind, published in 1971. In it, he writes about the advantages of “stoned thinking” in understanding health and diagnosing illnesses.
Weil has even been honored with having a psychedelic mushroom named in his honor: Psilocybe weilii was discovered and named in 1995.
Sigmund Freud, medical doctor, psychologist and father of psychoanalysis, is generally recognized as one of the most influential and authoritative thinkers of the 20th century.
In the early 1880’s the cocaine alkaloid was first extracted from coca leaves and some studies were beginning into its medical use. Freud was intrigued by the drug and was among the first to study and use it. “I take very small doses of it regularly and against depression and against indigestion, and with the most brilliant success,” wrote Freud.
Freud was very enthusiastic about the benefits of cocaine. In his 1884 book Uber Coca, Freud write of the “exhilaration and lasting euphoria,” produced by cocaine, “which in no way differs from the normal euphoria of the healthy person? This result is enjoyed without any of the unpleasant after-effects that follow exhilaration brought about by alcohol.”
In an oft-quoted 1884 letter to his fianc? Martha Bernays, Freud wrote: “Woe to you my Princess, when I come, I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward, you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.”
Ralph Abraham has been a Professor of Mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, since 1968. He has written over a dozen books and is an editor for the International Journal of Bifurcations and Chaos. Abraham is an acknowledged leader in the emerging field of “dynamical systems theory,” also called “chaos math.”
In a 1991 interview with GQ magazine, Abraham explained how psychedelic insights had helped influence mathematical theories. “In the 1960s a lot of people on the frontiers of math experimented with psychedelic substances. There was a brief and extremely creative kiss between the community of hippies and top mathematicians. I know this because I was a purveyor of psychedelics to the mathematical community.”
“To be creative in mathematics,” continued Abraham, “you have to start from a point of total oblivion. Basically, math is revealed in a totally unconscious process in which one is completely ignorant of the social climate. And mathematical advance has always been the motor behind the advancement of consciousness.”
Quite possibly the most famous stoned scientist of our time, Timothy Leary was a highly respected researcher and psychology professor before he became interested in LSD and other psychedelic substances. Although Leary’s complete biography is too long to fully recount here, his early academic accomplishments are worthy of note.
Leary began his career in 1954 as a research psychologist at the Kaiser Foundation in Oakland. While there he published a great many papers, wrote an acclaimed psychology textbook, and developed a standard personality test used by prison officials to help classify prisoners according to their potential escape profile.
(When Leary himself was convicted many years later, prison officials unwittingly gave him the standard “Leary Test.” Leary was able to give answers which showed him to be a low flight risk, and that got him into a minimum security facility. He soon escaped.)
While at the Kaiser Foundation, Leary popularized his theories on existential transaction ? the idea that the relationship between therapist and patient be changed to a more egalitarian exchange. He was soon appointed to Harvard University, where for years already students had been used as test subjects for the CIA’s secret LSD experiments. Yet more years would pass before Leary himself first experienced the mind-expanding drug with which he would be forever associated.
In 1957, Leary was among the millions who read the 17-page article in Life magazine, where R Gordon Wasson discussed his experiences with psilocybe mushrooms. Like many others, Leary was inspired to travel to Mexico to sample the mushrooms for himself, and he returned to Harvard excited about his plans to research the active compound, psilocybin. Leary began working with Richard Alpert (who would later change his name to Baba Ram Dass) and together they published a variety of research papers.
The Harvard establishment became alarmed with Leary’s research, which often took place in Leary’s home and had researchers taking the drug with their subjects. But Leary persisted in his unorthodox techniques.
Leary was first introduced to LSD in the early sixties, and was very impressed with its effects. He shifted the focus of his research to LSD, but came under increasing fire from his fellow Harvard academics. Also, many of Leary’s colleagues had CIA connections, and the CIA wanted to keep their LSD research programs secret. They didn’t like that Leary was conducting similar research out in the open.
By 1963, Leary’s formal academic career was over, as both he and Alpert were fired from Harvard, the first time that Harvard faculty had been dismissed in the 20th century. Leary went on to lead an extraordinary life, including time spent as a convict, a fugitive, a lecturer, publicly debating Gordon Liddy, as well as writing dozens of books with his ideas and research on psychedelic drugs, virtual reality, neurological circuitry, evolution, and other topics.
These eight scientists are merely a representative sample of the many brilliant individuals who have been inspired and creatively challenged by the effects of potent mind-expanding substances. We’ll be presenting further examples of how our modern world has been shaped by the visions of stoned geniuses in a future issue of Cannabis Culture.
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