Lost in the Weeds

According to the polls, Massachusetts voters are going to overwhelmingly approve a ballot initiative next month that legalizes medical marijuana. That should be good news for someone like me, who’s spent half his life smoking pot. So why am I feeling so uneasy?

By Casey Lyons | Boston Magazine |

Just because pot remains popular, though, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily helping anyone. To learn more about its medical uses for the sick and suffering, I head to the Wellesley home of Lester Grinspoon, an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

In 1967, Grinspoon was watching as his friends and contemporaries quickly adopted marijuana as their drug of choice. He feared that it “was a dangerous drug, no question about it.” Since he was an M.D., he took it upon himself to find definitive proof of marijuana’s harmful effects, then use what he’d discovered to convince young people to quit. Thus began an exhaustive review of the cannabis-related literature in the Harvard Medical School library. The more he looked, though, the more he became convinced that marijuana wasn’t dangerous. He published his results in Scientific American in December 1969, and two years later expanded his argument in a book called Marihuana Reconsidered. “At first I thought it was a terrible drug,” Grinspoon says. “But that first book was to reassure me and the rest of the world that we were all wrong about this, that this is a remarkably nontoxic drug. It’s the only drug I know of that you can’t…establish a death from it, from an overdose.”

Around the same time, Grinspoon’s young son, Danny, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Grinspoon wouldn’t condone medical marijuana for his son, but his wife, Betsy, went behind his back and bought a little cannabis in the parking lot at Wellesley High School. She shared some with Danny before one of his chemo sessions. Gone was the anxious kid who vomited for hours after treatments. Instead, Danny asked for a sandwich on the ride home. “You have no idea what a relief it was for him,” Grinspoon tells me. “Not just for Danny, but all of us who saw the way he suffered.”

Danny passed away in 1973, but Grinspoon by then was personally and professionally invested in marijuana. He tried smoking it himself for the first time that same year, when he was 44. With President Nixon recently classifying it as a Schedule I drug, Grinspoon wanted to prove pot’s medical potential. He spoke with Emil Frei at Harvard Medical School about conducting a proper study on marijuana’s antiemetic effect—meaning its ability to curb nausea. Frei’s results, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1975, became the first American study proving pot’s effectiveness in reducing nausea. Grinspoon added to his own research with 1997’s Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine, presenting hundreds of case studies that showed marijuana’s ability to ease the suffering of patients afflicted with conditions like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, cancer, AIDS, epilepsy, migraines, glaucoma, and arthritis. While there are synthetic marijuana tablets available by prescription, Grinspoon maintains that they don’t offer the full benefit of the whole marijuana flower.

Sit with Grinspoon long enough and you’ll believe what he does about the medical use of cannabis, that it “will be like penicillin seemed in the early ’40s—the wonder drug of our time.” I ask him whether he thinks the nature of his work affected the trajectory of his career. He suspects that he was never granted a full professorship at Harvard because of his research on marijuana, but says, “I am content that, ultimately, I have done more to relieve suffering than most of my colleagues.”

I leave Grinspoon’s basement office thinking that marijuana is clearly a valid medicine to help people who are suffering. But that doesn’t prove it’s not harmful to those who aren’t sick. Could weed be both beneficial to the ill and damaging to the future success of a guy like me? To find out, I call up Harrison Pope, a professor in the Harvard Medical School psychiatry department.

Pope, the director of McLean Hospital’s Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, conducted a number of marijuana studies between the late 1980s and 2000. I ask him if marijuana is dangerous over the long term. No, he tells me, but there are definitely short-term effects. “We had found from neuropsychological testing that chronic marijuana users exhibited difficulties, especially with verbal memory, for at least a week or two after they stopped smoking,” he says. So, the age-old stereotype that stoners have bad short-term memories is true. But thankfully, it doesn’t last. Pope tells me that in his studies, the memory problems disappeared within 28 days, and the adult pot smokers “were no longer distinguishable from the comparison group.”

  • http://www.TheRizzolution.com J.Riz

    Good article although I think Casey got a little lost while heading towards the conclusion. That’s what happens when you smoke while you write. The beginning was very informative but after a bunch of rambling and no real end to the story, I am left feeling like I took a seven page long hit from a bong. However, I do still plan on voting yes on question 3 when Tuesday, Nov. 6th rolls around.

    • Sean

      If you want to INVEST in marijuana for the elections, look at stock ticker MJNA. They sell CBD products, and their stock will explode if Washington (23 point lead in the polls), or Colorado (12 point lead in the polls) fully legalizes on the 6th of Nov!

  • Ben

    If marijuana isn’t solving your problems, stop smoking it. Just because it doesn’t “solve your problems” doesn’t mean you should forbid everyone else from using it. Your logic is completely un-American.

  • Jamie

    Thoughtful piece on the author’s conflicts with his own use of marijuana, but provides little insight on the medical cannabis debate in the Commonwealth. Perhaps Mr. Lyons is also now regretting his own fraud against the Colorado system, or recognizing that even with the passage of ballot initiative #3, as a recreational user he will face less legal liability in the black market than a dispensary.

    He might have done better to interview patients. He might have learned how pain and prescription drugs wreak havoc on relationships and careers, that even “non-narcotic” medications such as cymbalta, neurontin and tramadol can cause side effects including severe, even violent behavioral events, flat affect, loss of intellectual ability, and on and on. He might have met patients who lost out on children’s milestones due to illness or prescription drug effects, or who almost lost families from prescription narcotic addiction, or who could not hug their small children from pain, but who are able to function as parents with the help of cannabis.

    I’m sure that if Mr. Lyons spends some time thinking about the people this law is intended to benefit, rather than his own situation, he will vote in favor of Question #3 without ambivalence.

  • jway

    American taxpayers are being forced to pay $40 Billion a year for a prohibition that causes 10,000 brutal murders & 800,000 needless arrests every year, but which doesn’t even stop CHILDREN from getting marijuana.

    After seventy years of prohibition, it’s obvious that the federal marijuana prohibition causes FAR more harm than good and must END! Drug Dealers Don’t Card, Supermarkets Do.

  • Pot smoker

    What about the lungs? They weren’t even mentioned in the article. The nasty resin you see coating the insides of your pipe or bong is what you’re putting into your lungs. I’m a smoker who’s trying to quit because I can’t bear the thought of what I’m doing to my lungs.

  • F Michael Addams

    Recreational use of any psychotropic probably won’t help Mr. Lyons with his struggle and confusion defining his personal notion of “success “, whether personal or career. Not really “Lost in the Weeds “, just lost. Editor, help..

  • Katie

    I thought that this article was very insightful and I felt like I could’ve written half of it myself.
    I have loved smoking pot since I was 18, I am now 23. I recently gave up smoking for awhile because I felt that I should try destressing in other ways. I have honestly felt no difference except the fact that I am not stoned and in a comotose state every night before bed. I also want to point out that my high vanishes in two hours time. It does not last all night and is not a high that I experience all day after smoking one blunt. I do think that it can definately effect people in different ways and sometimes can be harmful to people that are already lazy and not motivated to get up and do something. I think that as alcohol effects people in different ways, pot does too. I choose pot over alcohol every day and feel that in the long run, pot is a no brainer choice. It has no long term side effects, does not cause death and is not addictive. Prescription pills are becoming more of a problem, however they are Legal and are now becoming easier to get due to FDA and doctor relationships. Cigarrettes have absolutely no good benefits and kill millions of people every year, but they are still Legal!!! Alcohol is legal and has killed millions of people each year. Marijuana has killed no one and causes no long term side effects but isnt legal.. hmm something seems wrong there.
    I think there must be some other explanation as to why marijuana is still illegal because I still can not comprehend why.
    I am going to emphasize again that I smoked a lot of pot over the years and am about to finish college. I think that lazy people that smoke pot are going to be lazy. Motivated people that smoke pot will be high, but still get up every day and go to work/school and live their lives to the fullest. I will be voting yes on question 3 because I feel that it is a safe and effective drug that can better the economy, the lives of people with cancer and illness and for those who need a quick stress relief after a hard days work and dont want to drink alcohol or smoke a disgusting cigarrette.

    • Aly-Kat

      EXCELLENT COMMENT, I agree with all of it 100%. Loving this part, and especially your last paragraph:
      “Cigarrettes have absolutely no good benefits and kill millions of people every year, but they are still Legal!!! Alcohol is legal and has killed millions of people each year. Marijuana has killed no one and causes no long term side effects but isnt legal.. hmm something seems wrong there.”

      I just cannot understand it either.

      I also agree that the lazy people that smoke will be lazy but the motivated people are still going to get up and do their thing–maybe they’ll be even more motivated with their enhanced mind, too.
      Hate to hear that it affects short-term memory, such as verbal recall, but excellent to know that it has NO long term effect and after a few weeks memory is back to normal…

  • MattMan

    I can’t believe how narrow minded this article was. Marijuana should be full-blown LEGAL, done and done. We’ve got two killers on the books, alcohol and tobacco, not to mention all the prescription drugs that kill people every day and I’m not even including the ones that get you high. This country is practically a facist state and then Lyons comes along with his awful article basically saying that we as a population should not be responsible for our own actions and behaviors. This is the real problem. Be PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE for the things you do and have done. If you blew chances or stayed with a girl too long or can’t remember the final answer on Jeapordy… it’s your fault and besides that… it’s not that big of a deal. Don’t take life so seriously and realize that it doesn’t fit nicely into a time table. Live it, love it and protect our freedom. It’s disappearing faster than I ever thought possible and this law is a light at the end of the tunnel, that had been turned off due to budget cuts. GET FREE!!

  • Steve

    I found the article pulling me in as if Casey was going to bash pot, and in the end you can tell he is a smoker as he has these kind of rambling philosophical insights along the way leaving the reader drifting on their own thoughts about pot.

    Personally Casey and I are juxtasposed, philosophically. I didn’t smoke pot until I was 28, divorced and with a new friend. Has pot changed my life? Absolutely. Not only am I a very successful middle class family man with meaningful relationships – I have an escape that allows me to break free of those thoughts and self-doubts that hold us back. When I smoke I see my life for what it is without judgment and feel free to just be and to also create. After the high, and sometimes during the high I build my life in a direction I may not have if I was still holding on to anxiety and fear that pot dissolves so readily.

    Not to mention the relationships I have solidified in my life by sharing pot with those I love, it’s a bonding experience. It’s not artificial and it’s about as real as anything else in life. So to say that I have the life that smoking has created would be UN TRUE. I have the life that I created from places of clarity and peace of mind that smoking has afforded me along the way.

    Here’s to legalization!

  • sean

    This articel was great. I appreciate the personal narrative and agree that i often question my own use. I can say that I recently graduated magna cum laude from a philosophy program. I wrote all of my papers stoned at 8 am and received A’s on all of them. I find that marijuana increases my ability to stream thoughts in a coherent and cohesive way. The issue, though, comes when I’m about to leave the house and find my searching; not for my keys or phone, but for my dugout and lighter. What does this say about me? Am I one of the odd percentage of addicts? I have anxiety issues that stunt my social-hangout-and-have-conversation-ability, but if i get stoned first, I’m just happy to be there, whether i speak or not. But I still wonder that if I quit what would I be like and is it the better option? After 17 years of smoking, is it time? I’m just happy to know that someone my age is struggling with the implications of a sort of escapist lifestyle.

  • Zach

    I thought about posting a small inconsiderate comment suggesting that the author is projecting his own self-control and insecurity issues onto his pot use, but then I decided something else.

    Take every reference in the author’s life narrative about smoking weed and replace it with drinking alchohol.

    Where is that author now?

    Not writing for Boston Magazine, that’s for sure.

    And he wouldn’t have done anything illegal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ambermoon1965 Amber Moon

    my town where I live says my racamtion is not real and it is he even stamped it with his own licence piss me off so there tellin me I can not grow my own or anything here they said the only way I can get it or use it is go all the way to boston I live 3 hours away wtf