Drug War Peter Grinspoon Robert Scheer SI Podcast

The Century Long War on Cannabis Is a War on Science

Harvard physician Peter Grinspoon fights back against years of war on youth and communities of color.
Dr. Peter Grinspoon.

Since the days of reefer madness hysteria, there has been significant progress in the legalization and deconstruction of stigma surrounding cannabis. Recreational cannabis stores line the streets of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Denver and others. The battle to get to this position, however, was a fierce one and was held up by decades of distorted and politicized views of drugs disseminated from both the political and public health establishment. The war on drugs delayed cannabis’ potential in medicine and threw thousands of nonviolent offenders in prison for a plant. In this week’s episode of Scheer Intelligence, host Robert Scheer and Harvard physician Peter Grinspoon break down how with all wars, truth is the first casualty and in this case, science is denied and society’s most vulnerable people are victimized.

Grinspoon and Scheer dive into Grinspoon’s new book, Seeing Through the Smoke: A Cannabis Specialist Untangles the Truth about Marijuana. He explains why so many are ignorant to the reality of marijuana, the benefits of drug legalization, as well as pulls on his own personal experience with drugs to cover all sides of the topic. As the conversation unfolds, a discussion much deeper than drugs emerges—one of ethics, the moral responsibility of physicians, and the question of the strength of American civil liberties. “[D]octors have been both victims of and perpetrators of all of the misinformation about cannabis by the US government over the last 50 years,” Grinspoon says.

For many, Grinspoon points out, it is a result of lapses in doctors’ education, where medical schools often ignore the potential of using drugs like cannabis to treat some of the most common ailments. “[U]nfortunately it’s only taught in about 13% of medical schools. So if doctors haven’t learned anything helpful or true about cannabis and they’ve been given a lot of nonsense about it, it’s very hard for them to have helpful conversations with their patients,” Grinspoon says.

He maintains, “it’s a relatively nontoxic medication that helps millions of people with chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, and many of the most difficult things that we as doctors try to treat. So I think it should be one of the tools in the doctor’s toolbox. And to get there, we have to educate doctors a lot more about how it works, how it helps, you know, the things that we have to avoid.”

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Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


Diego Ramos


Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from, my guest. And this case, it’s Dr. Peter Grinspoon, who I still, I think is still at Harvard, right? Yeah. Yeah. 

Peter Grinspoon: They haven’t fired me yet! 

Robert Scheer: And he’s written this great book. I want to hold it up here…It’s called Seeing Through the Smoke: A Cannabis Specialist Untangles the Truth AboutMmarijuana. And just to be clear about the lineage here, your father was one of the first people to write in a, I would say, honest way about marijuana. And then you sort of inherited the field and has now written what I think is the definitive book on marijuana. No?

Peter Grinspoon: Well, my dad’s book was definitive 52 years ago, but we’ve learned a lot since then. And I tried to write the definitive book for 2023.

Robert Scheer: But you also had been benefiting from the atmosphere becoming more open and so forth. And yet, you know, it’s funny because just today I’ve been in two different doctor’s offices, and I raised the question because I was, in your book, you suggest the public demand cause new thinking about marijuana. So I asked for my first medical professional. This morning I said, What do you think about marijuana? I’m going to interview this guy. He says, Well, it is a gateway drug, isn’t it? And that started a conversation. And I was talking to my wife, to her doctor, and she said, well, I don’t know, I mean, you know, you don’t want people to think that it’s not addictive. And in both cases, I said, well, but I mean, what about compared to alcohol compared to other things, you know, and so forth. And I was really disappointed that the discussion, even though we’ve had some improvement, considerable improvement in the legal situation, even among professionals. And in your book you describe it, you know that…there’s still a reluctance. So why don’t you answer the question posed by your book? Really, What is the proper you’re not, you know, a missionary for marijuana. You don’t claim it cures all the illnesses. And you know, why don’t you set us right? Let me just preface one thing. A lot of people have been hurt by not getting it right. There are people in jail right now, in prisons right now throughout the world, including the United States, and people who could use marijuana as one way to alleviate some pain and suffering through chemotherapy and other things or being denied it. But also just seriously, there are people serving hard time for doing something that you are, if it makes one thing clear, we should have never treated this as some sort of major criminal issue. So why don’t you set us straight? Now I’m going to go on record as saying this is the indispensable book to not only read about marijuana, but read about how to deal with the drug war, how to deal with addiction. And let’s just put it out there and and tell us that these are really the conclusions of not only your life’s work, but your father’s as well, so set the record straight.

Peter Grinspoon: Well, you know, the drug war, the science, the attitude of the medical establishment, which is really way behind where patients are on this issue and the social history are all linked together. They’re not separate things. So that’s why I included it all in my book. And to summarize, cannabis is a relatively nontoxic medication that has some harms. We don’t recommend it for people with a history of psychosis, for people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. We don’t recommend it usually for teenagers, but when you get beyond that, it’s a relatively nontoxic medication that helps millions of people with chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, and many of the most difficult things that we as doctors try to treat. So I think it should be one of the tools in the doctor’s toolbox. And to get there, we have to educate doctors a lot more about how it works, how it helps, you know, the things that we have to avoid. But I really think that the patients have got it right more than the doctors. And I hear stories every day that you’re just like the story you just told of patients trying to discuss it with their doctors. And either the doctor doesn’t know anything about it or they’re just very dismissive of it. So I think we need a lot of education. And I think the medical, the doctors and the nurses have to evolve on this like the rest of society has. 

Robert Scheer:  But let’s probe a little more into why they don’t know what you make. You have a couple of scenes in your book where, you know, I routinely see psychiatrists as a group who have strong views on this. They themselves partake of alcohol. They don’t think twice about it. I myself consider myself an alcoholic and that for that reason I haven’t had any for about 30 years now, 25, 30 years. And I’ve always been puzzled by this. Personally, I never found marijuana that appealing. I’m like Bill Clinton. I found it hard to inhale. For some reason, it never appealed to me. I was in a lot of places where people use it. I never saw any terrible things from it. But for the life of me, I never understood how it became this repressive cause. Going back to reefer madness and the role of, you know, government agencies. And when you talk about your colleagues and you’re at, what, the most famous medical school in the country, even there you have found resistance. What is the resistance based on? I mean, you don’t have to endorse marijuana and you don’t have to even claim it has medicinal values. But has anybody ever really been able to argue effectively that it’s more dangerous, socially destructive than alcohol? 

Peter Grinspoon: Oh no. Nobody could argue that it’s more destructive, it’s less addictive, it’s less damaging, and it’s less dangerous than alcohol. There’s no question. Alcohol kills about 100,000 people a year. Cannabis kills exactly zero people a year. The reason that the many doctors and the doctors are slowly heading in the right direction, but the reason many of them are against it is, number one, they’re not taught anything about it in medical school. And number two, they’ve been subject to 50 years of sort of nonsense about it, like exaggerated harms and really not much research into the benefits by the U.S. government. As as my dad said, doctors have been both victims of and perpetrators of all of the misinformation about cannabis by the US government over the last 50 years. So they need to unlearn a lot of what they have been taught about it because it’s just not true and they need to learn the basics of, for example, the endocannabinoid system, the system of neurons and transmitters by which cannabis works, its effect, the endocannabinoid system. There’s a lot of really, really important things in our body unrelated to cannabis just on its own. And unfortunately it’s only taught in about 13% of medical schools. So if doctors haven’t learned anything helpful or true about cannabis and they’ve been given a lot of nonsense about it, it’s very hard for them to have helpful conversations with their patients. 

Robert Scheer: You’ve spent your life dealing with this. I mean, let’s start with your father, you know, who medically trained, right? Had expertise. You grew up in this household and you describe that. What was the resistance? I can understand it if we’re going to talk about banking. I wrote a book about the banking scandal. People who benefit from banks ripping people off. They have a stake in saying they shouldn’t be regulated or people who like an aggressive foreign policy and make money off the military industrial complex. You could see why they favor wars or they just want enemies as Orwell suggested. But you got something like marijuana, which I mean, my goodness, when, how did it rise to be a source of terror that it required, you know, incarceration of people and intimidation and lying? Why? Why doesn’t the science break through? Why didn’t, even now, what I found really startling about your book is that now, with all of the evidence that we have, we’ve had basically decriminalization for a large part of America. We know we aren’t having marijuana riots. We are not having a marijuana crime frenzy. We’re not having a lot of people dying from marijuana. So where was the source of irrationality on this subject, going back to your father, taking it up through your whole your life? 

Peter Grinspoon: Yeah, well, there were a lot of different agendas when they first criminalized it. It was not on grounds of medical concern. In fact, the American Medical Association testified against criminalizing cannabis in 1937 because the doctors were using it as a helpful medication. Really, it was two things. One was the same racism that we have now at the southern border they exploited back then. They got people really worried about crazy local Mexicans coming up with their marijuana and they got people worried about African-Americans and jazz musicians. So it was, number one, a lot of racism. And number two, underneath that, there were a lot of competing commercial interests: the paper industry, the silk industry, the petrochemical industry. They didn’t want the competition from hemp. So the competing commercial interests and the racism were really what got it illegal in the first place, nothing to do with health or safety. And then when you got to Nixon’s time, he created this whole moral panic because he was very interested in using marijuana. And they’ve admitted as much against the antiwar left and against the African-American community, that they were very eager to create this moral panic and to scare people about drugs for sort of social control. So, again, it never had anything to do with health and safety. It was always just a moral panic based on competing commercial interests and racism, which is really sad because the net result has been more than 20 million arrests over the last 50 years for nonviolent cannabis possession, which has just ruined so many lives. And for what? For nothing. At this point, 94% of Americans believe in legal access to medical marijuana. I mean, name something else that 94% of Americans agree on. So the patients have got it. The doctors are just a little bit behind the patients.

Robert Scheer: Yeah, but let’s not disconnect it from medical marijuana because that’s almost a cop out in a way. We don’t defend this or permit the sale of alcohol because it has medicinal use. We think that’s people’s choice. They want to drink. We have laws about drunk driving and so forth, but we tried with prohibition and it was just seen as totally absurd. Why? Because most people think they can control alcohol and they can enjoy it and so forth. Right. Why is that it been so difficult to extend it to, well, a lot of different drugs, but beginning with was marijuana and you offered one explanation. It was important to the culture wars. But why did people in your profession go along? There were plenty people at Harvard. I remember Harvard Medical School were concerned about the Cold War, concerned about possibility of nuclear war, right? Physicians for Social Responsibility, I think came out of Harvard and Public Health School or a lot of people there. So how you know, again, why did your profession, why did the medical profession why okay,  I don’t want to out anybody but the medical professional I talked to this morning as I was being worked on when he said marijuana is a gateway drug, or at least he thought, now what is that? Yeah, if it’s a gateway drug and it takes people off into more dangerous drugs, you can make an argument. Is it a gateway drug?

Peter Grinspoon: Well, interesting question. First of all, the gateway theory was nothing but a creation of the drug war. There is no truth or validity. In the 1999 report by the U.S. government’s Institute of Medicine, they said there’s no evidence whatsoever for the gateway drug. You know, everybody that’s addicted to heroin drinks milk as a baby. But that doesn’t mean the milk causes the heroin use. It just doesn’t make any sense. Association is not causation. But interestingly, we’re finding more and more that medical marijuana is a gateway off of alcohol, off of opiates, off of painkillers, off of benzodiazepines, your Valium, your lorazepam. So ironically, it is turning out to be a gateway drug, but not to heroin or to other drugs is a gateway off of these drugs. So it’s a really interesting term. When you use Gateway, it is a gateway, but not at all in the exact opposite way that has been used by the War on Drugs. 

Robert Scheer: I want to parse this because we are talking about people with advanced degrees. We are talking about people who pride their commitment to science, to logic, to fact and so forth. And reading your book, I you know, what I found most shocking about your book is that any of your ideas have ever been thought to be controversial. No, really. I mean, I was reading it, you know, frankly, it’s it’s a definitive, classic and basic book, which should end the whole discussion about, you know, imprisoning people or, you know, that they can’t make their own choice about how to use marijuana. So it’s a classic. It is a classic and and so forth. It also should be unnecessary. Why have we had this discussion forever? You know, I don’t know if it’s a historical fantasy but didn’t some of the founding fathers of this country actually use some version of marijuana? I mean. 

Peter Grinspoon: Yeah, they grew hemp. Absolutely. And we don’t know if they grew cannabis, but they grew hemp. I mean, you know, marijuana has been front and center of the culture wars since the 1930s. And doctors don’t like to get involved in politics. In fact, it’s very awkward when you get involved in politics with your patients. It puts up a barrier between you and your patient. So I think the doctors just sort of acted like sheep and ducked out of the conversation. Now, some doctors made a lot of money off prohibition. And you know, there’s the Upton Sinclair quote, It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it. So a lot of the psychiatrists treating cannabis addiction, which exists but has been very exaggerated, a lot of the pain doctors don’t want the competition. A lot of the psychiatrists don’t want people treating themselves for anxiety, depression, because then they can charge $400 an hour to see a psychiatrist. So part of it’s been just pure economic self-interest. But I think a lot of it’s just been doctors are real sheep about political issues. They don’t get involved, which I tend to think is very unethical. If you see, you know, 500,000 young people getting arrested every year for something that you’re smart enough to know isn’t really bad for you. And even if it were bad for you, it shouldn’t be illegal. You’ve got to say something. You can’t just let all these lives get ruined. 

Robert Scheer: Well, okay, I know your time is limited and I don’t want to waste it by going round and round around this question. But for my money, it’s the basic question. It goes to ethics, it goes to integrity, it goes to what do we mean by science? It goes to, you know, Al Gore’s famous thing on climate change, Inconvenient Truth. How in the world can you sit by? When you know, there are people who are imprisoned for being involved with marijuana and and you know that you think that somehow you can be silent about it. And, you know, I mean, according to your book, you know, I didn’t do intensive fact checking, but I certainly am somewhat familiar with the subject. It seems there’s no question that that marijuana has never been the scorge of society as was described. So then it becomes any other, you know, what jingoism, any other big lie. It’s a big lie. And as a person who is, by the way, the closest I’ve come to irresponsible behavior in my life, it’s been because of alcohol, you know, and you have you describe some of your own. You’ve had some addiction issues. Everybody does with other things. We can talk about that. But I mean, I still don’t get over this. What does a psychiatrist tell to their son or daughter? You know, what? You can drink that’s legal after a certain age, but you couldn’t use marijuana. They’re lying to their own children, right? 

Peter Grinspoon: It is very, very strange because, for example, they make a big deal about how the brain is still developing until age 25. So you shouldn’t use marijuana to age 25, but they’re silent about alcohol. If the brain’s vulnerable, it’s going to be more vulnerable to alcohol than to cannabis because alcohol is more dangerous. So I do think there’s a lot of hypocrisy. And I think that, you know, if you lose your credibility with a young person, good luck getting it back. So I think they’ve done a lot of harm by mixed messaging on marijuana. I think we could have done a lot better. And I’m just trying to change things in the right direction as much as I can. 

Robert Scheer: Yeah. And okay, let me just push this book again. It’s Seeing Through the Smoke. The cannabis Specialist Untangles the Truth About Marijuana. One thing about science, you know, we have a lot of sentiment out there. You can’t disrespect science, right? We put down people who are conservatives or whatever they are for ignoring science. We do that around climate change. It’s the last time I’m going to push this with you, but you are at a major center of American education. And you actually, in your book tried to talk about your own anecdotal, your own life experiences. And then you ask yourself the question whether some of these, you know, what’s his name, the science guy at CNN, that you have in your book?

Peter Grinspoon: Oh, Sanjay Gupta!

Robert Scheer: Yeah, and suddenly he discovers maybe, what do you say to these people/ Wait a minute. You’re supposed to be scientists. You’re supposed to set up a hypothesis, the test that you’re supposed to be fact driven. What? What? What are they talking about? How could most young people know the truth about marijuana? But they’re well-trained, credentialed, scientifically oriented professors not know it, even at a place like Harvard. 

Peter Grinspoon: Well, a lot of it has to do with what was funded. I mean, again, the U.S. government funded 80 to 90% of the world drug research, and they needed to demonize cannabis for the war on drugs to be successful. So they would only fund people who are looking for harms. To get any funding for cannabis research, you had to show somehow that it lowered your IQ or lowered your sperm count or lowered something good. And the fact is, you know, there’s a real as you mentioned, there was a real disconnect between people’s lived experience and what the scientists were saying. And I’m a little bit mystified myself why more doctors and other authorities didn’t speak out and just say this is wrong to be arresting people regardless of what you think of it. We don’t put people in cages for making the decision to smoke a plant. It’s absolutely ridiculous. So I’m with you on that. It is very confusing. In today’s light, why so many doctors were passively accepting of the drug war messaging when really if my dad could see through it? I don’t see why other doctors couldn’t see through it. So it is confusing and. 

Robert Scheer: Tell us about your father because he had the courage to really be first to challenge this this mythology. And we do arrest people for using alcohol if they are inebriated, if they fail a certain test. And, you know, and people, particularly if people get hurt in the accident and so forth. But in the case of marijuana, yes, they’ll arrest people for dealing. But you made a flat out statement that, you know, people don’t die from marijuana, you know. So where is the evidence that I mean, tell us about your father. I mean, how could it have taken so long that we go through father and then, son, in your case, a lifetime of work. Finally, public opinion catches up. And we have an example, I think, of David Halberstam’s book on Vietnam The Best and the Brightest. We actually have an example here where the best and the brightest put people in jail under the drug war. It’s analogous to to any other war that was not needed, if any of them are. 

Peter Grinspoon: No, absolutely. You know, interestingly, my dad was a man of great intellectual integrity. And in the late 1960s, he was wondering, what are all these crazy young people doing smoking marijuana? They’re hurting themselves. Because that’s what he had been taught. So he decided to try to write a definitive book on marijuana, which he did called Marijuana, because 

Peter Grinspoon: My dad grew up dirt poor and then he dropped out of high school. He never graduated from high school. They didn’t notice that. He went to Tufts. He joined the Merchant Marine. Then he went to Tufts on scholarship. Then he went to Harvard Medical School on scholarship, graduated cum laude and was a famous psychiatrist there for 50 years until he passed away. He published 11 books and 180 scientific papers. You know, he was such an interesting guy. He wrote a book in 1979 calling for the use of psychedelics in psychiatry 40 years before anybody else. I mean, he was so ahead of his time, but he was intending to write a book about how dangerous marijuana was. But when he did a deep dive into the literature, he discovered, sure, there are harms. You don’t want teenagers using it. You don’t want pregnant women using it. But he realized if the harms of criminalization were so much worse than the harms of people actually using marijuana, that he came out in 1971 in favor of legalization with this book, Marijuana Reconsidered. This book was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and it was a bestseller. But a lot of people didn’t like it at Harvard, and a lot of people really did like it. So he was sort of the center of controversy, sort of unintentionally for the last half century of his life. 

Robert Scheer: Can you give us his name? 

Peter Grinspoon: Dr. Lester Grinspoon.

Robert Scheer: Grinspoon and I’m talking to Peter Grinspoon. So I hear you. What did his colleagues say to him? You got the evidence wrong or I don’t want to know about it. This guy’s a distinguished professor at the most important university in the country. And he’s got the smarts, the credentials, he’s got the factual evidence. He puts it in a major study more than once. And how? What do they say? You’re the devil’s agent or you’re speaking in tongues or how did they do it in the cafeteria or in the faculty lounge? 

Peter Grinspoon: Well, some of them supported him in the end. Andy Wiles, Rick Doblin, so a lot of them supported him, but most of them were against him because that’s what they had been taught. And I remember going to ice cream when I was a little kid, and he bumped to one of his Harvard colleagues at the ice cream store. And he and my dad got into a heated argument in front of all the kids…And my dad was arguing that drinking a glass of whole milk was more unhealthy than smoking a joint. And this drove this other psychiatrist bonkers. Of course, my dad was right and the psychiatrist was wrong. But, you know, this was 50 years ago. You know, the fat will be more dangerous than a little bit of THC. But a lot of them have been really persecuting. 

Robert Scheer: Is that true? Drinking a glass of whole milk? 

Peter Grinspoon: Of whole milk. Yeah, because it has a ton of fat in it, than smoking part of the joint. Back then it was much weaker. I mean, but it was just really interesting to see them arguing and they never promoted my dad to full professor, despite again, most people don’t write 11 scholarly books and 180 scientific papers in like major medical journals, because of the work on cannabis and the work on psychedelics. I just published, I’m going to publish something in a couple of days where I dug up a letter where my dad’s boss told him not to talk about marijuana on the property of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center where he worked. Like they’re trying to silence my dad. It was really, really outrageous. So my dad was sort of persecuted by a lot of the academics, but a lot of them also really supported him. So unintentionally, he was a really sort of polarizing figure. Either people really thought he was right or they really disagreed with him. 

Robert Scheer: Well, you know, let’s talk about you know, because the negative that’s I mean, otherwise I’ll be accused of I you know, but, you know, one reason I don’t talk much about the negative because I’ve experienced the negatives of alcohol painfully, you know, and everything. As you say, whole milk, I’ll probably go have a whole milk yogurt about an hour from now or something and risk my life. But but seriously, how you know, what are adult decisions? We can argue, you know, you should be a certain age, perhaps whatever you do. And somehow we’re always forced to defend something like marijuana as being totally problem free. We don’t say that, you know, about sugar cereal or something. I mean, we let people make choices. So let’s get to the heart of the matter. What is it about, not only marijuana, but we can go through a number of other illegal drugs that we don’t want people to be able to make choices about. And oddly enough, it’s not even connected to another source of irrationality, a religion or political ideology. Those are usually the ways we censor people’s behavior. But that’s where it got into trouble. Increasing number of people like yourself I believe. You found other things more addictive than marijuana. Why don’t you talk about that? Your own life experience confirmed your father’s analysis. It wasn’t the power of his prose. 

Peter Grinspoon: Right, absolutely. I mean, first of all, I do want to talk to you about harms, marijuana can be addictive. They’ve inflated the rates of addiction, by the way they defined addiction, which I think is really wrong. It’s sort of a long story, but but a certain percentage of people do get addicted, though. I have to say, the damage from a cannabis addiction isn’t on the same level as the damage from alcohol. You destroy your liver or the damage from opiates, you overdose. You know, people don’t injure themselves or break into pharmacies to get cannabis like they do with opiates. So the quality of the addiction isn’t quite the same thing, but a certain number of people do get addicted. And in my case, I started using cannabis at age 13. And, you know, again, I do not believe that people should use cannabis before age 18 because there’s enough evidence that it can harm the teenage brain. Of course, I didn’t know about that or care about that when I was 13. And I can honestly say that from the age 13 when I took my first puff, I didn’t get anything lower than a straight A in any class until college. So it didn’t really hurt my schoolwork. I thought it helped my writing. But, you know, there are some harms with cannabis. There’s no free lunch with any medication. And the main harms of cannabis are potential harms to the teenage brain, potential harms to the fetus in a pregnant woman, potential harms to a baby if you’re breastfeeding. And the final one is that it can really precipitate psychosis in people who are genetically predisposed to psychosis. It doesn’t cause schizophrenia, but if you have a tendency towards psychosis, it can trigger it or worsen it. So you have to screen people carefully before starting them on medical marijuana. But we do that for any drug that we use. And the fact is, it’s not a question, is marijuana safe or not safe? It’s just a question of if I’m a doctor, is it less dangerous than whatever else I’d be using? If I’m treating you for pain, is it less dangerous than the opiate or the ibuprofen? So it’s all about balancing risks and benefits. And I make a very big point in the book that the people that are against it have to know the benefits or they won’t understand why people are using it, and the people that are in favor of it have to understand the harms so they can make an informed decision about whether or not to use it and how much to use it. So I think both sides need to show a little bit of humility and open mindedness and just listen to both sides of the message, because no drug has no harms, no drug is perfectly beneficial with no potential damage. So I just think we need to all be a lot more open minded about things we’re not comfortable with so we can learn more. 

Robert Scheer: But the thing to examine here and why I’m recommending this book Seeing Through the Smoke, is because, again, I had a conversation with two medical professionals today who, I’m not one to put them down, but they have not seen through the smoke. And there’s a certain laziness. I don’t think either of them were resistant to the truth. And that if you’re not using it and it’s not part of your culture or your age group, it can become a weapon to feel superior to others, to intimidate others, and maybe even to imprison others. And to my mind, that is really the sad story of this, is that we as human beings are quite willing to lie or deceive to get power over others as a culture ourselves. And and really, that’s what your book describes because, you know, it should have never happened. I mean, whatever you think it should be, like, you know, all the things you just described, the bad effects of being a teenager and using it probably applied to much of other things. We can make a law that you can’t buy alcohol up to a certain age, Right. And wait until you’re adult before you decide. But really, what happened here, and particularly in in American history, was it became a weapon for silencing the young. That really is what the culture did. Reefer madness. I know I’m old enough. You know, I was born in ’36. It was the era of reefer madness. And, you know, and it was a way of really preventing critical thinking among young people. And it had just the opposite effect, the rebellion against stupid drug laws, excessive drug laws, caused people to question the whole structure of society. That’s why we had the liberation of the sixties, for example. It backfired. And it’s probably the only reason we’re developing somewhat more sane views of these things, because we know young people can’t be fooled all the time about stuff that they can experience. 

Peter Grinspoon: No, absolutely. I’ve several things to say about that. The DARE program is a perfect example. They exaggerated how dangerous cannabis was that contradicted the lived experience of teenagers. The teenagers discarded the entire message of the DARE program, and the net result was an increase in drug use because the teenagers thought everybody else was using drugs and they didn’t believe the harms. So you have to tell teenagers and young adults the truth. Again, if you lose your credibility with teenagers and young adults, good luck getting it back. But to me, the saddest part about the whole thing and this resonates with what you just said is that blacks and whites use cannabis at the same rate. But the 20 million arrests over the last 50 years. Four times as many were among people with black and brown skin, despite blacks and whites using cannabis at the same rate. So it wasn’t just a mechanism for controlling young people. It was a mechanism for harassing, intimidating and beating down minorities in this country. And that’s that’s like the lasting legacy of the war on drugs. And we really have to undo a lot of this damage or we’re going to you know, it’s really holding a lot of people back. People can’t vote. You have a criminal criminal record. You can’t get a job, you can’t get a student loan, you can’t get housing. So I think the the sort of racism involved in the whole marijuana thing is the worst part. It just breaks my heart. 

Robert Scheer: Well, it should do more than break our hearts. I mean, the fact that it matters, we’re talking about a great deal of injustice. You know, I’ve been reading I read stories of people serving 10, 15, 20 years for their connection with the sale of marijuana, you know, and you could extend it to some other drugs and so forth. And, you know, it’s just the idea that I want to end this by praising your work, but again, raising the question of why is it controversial? Maybe it’s far less controversial than it was in your father’s day. But really the startling thing that we still have people in jail or prison connected with this. And yet the evidence that it’s a menace to society or that it’s certainly not we’re not showing it through their behavior. Right. I mean, how many people are in automobile accidents because of using marijuana as opposed to alcohol? 

Peter Grinspoon: Many fewer than alcohol. I mean, it certainly isn’t recommended to drive after using cannabis. But, you know, if I had to pick and I don’t want to pick, but if I had to pick, I’d much rather have someone who’s taken a couple puffs than someone who’s over the legal limit of alcohol. All things being equal, if you are [over] the legal limit of alcohol, you’re ten times more likely to crash. And if you’re high, you’re about twice as likely to crash. So, you know, it’s better to be no more likely to crash and to be stone cold sober when you’re driving. But certainly twice is better than ten times. And I’m always a little bit puzzled why there’s such a double standard with alcohol and cannabis when alcohol is so obviously the bigger menace on the roads. 

Robert Scheer: Let’s talk about the elsewhere because on college campuses and I happen to also teach at one, you know, sexual crimes, rape, violence of various kinds, particularly gender based and so forth, very often is associated with alcohol. And the evidence is overwhelming about that. And spousal abuse, child abuse, you can go through the whole list. How do we again, taking it back to science, we like to be science informed, science respectful. How in the world can your, not just your colleagues or all of our colleagues at professional universities and so forth, remain silent when we are arresting people for drugs that we assume lead to bad social outcomes when on your very campus, you know that the main enabler of violence against others is alcohol. Is there any question about that? 

Peter Grinspoon: Well, there’s a lot of selective detention and there’s a lot of hypocrisy. 

Robert Scheer: But let me stop you because…you’ve been generous with your time. Let’s wrap this up. But you have colleagues and you say, Charlie. Wait a minute. Do you think somebody’s smoking a joint and then they’re going to go on a date or they’re doing this or there’s a party or, you know, a social party or something and the violence comes out of the joint or What do you think? Or is it more likely to come out of the booze? And we actually celebrate booze in terms of athletics. It’s a lifestyle. We are an alcoholic culture. I don’t want to get on my own little  soapbox, but, you know, my life, came very close to being destroyed and, you know, and anti-social a number of times because of alcohol and have all the passion of a reformed hopefully. I haven’t done it for 25 years, but I never could understand how anyone could deny the obvious, the terrible effect of alcohol on social behavior and creation of anti-social behavior related to our comparison to marijuana. How do they do it? How do they sleep at night knowing? Yeah. 

Peter Grinspoon: Alcohol had a finger on the scale in one direction, and it’s pretty well documented that the alcohol companies, you know, influenced a lot of the research. So a lot of that was influenced to sort of, you know, minimize the harms of alcohol. They convinced people that alcohol is good for your heart when in reality alcohol is terrible for your heart and causes cancer. And at the same time, there was a finger on the scale magnifying the harms of cannabis. And again, to me, this comes down to like different commercial interests and who’s making money on the status quo. And I think that it’s, sadly, a lot of it comes down to capitalism and a lot of people make money from the war on drugs. Law enforcement has the most bloated budget imaginable. How much money we spend on the war on drugs and on persecuting people who are drug users. And it’s like law enforcement should have nothing to do with drug use if there’s a problem with drug use. You get treatment, you get a doctor, you get a social worker. How does it help to get law enforcement involved? Then the people just have criminal justice entanglement in addition to whatever problem or addiction they had in the first place. 

Robert Scheer: You know, I was going to end it right there, but let’s take another minute or two, because that’s such a basic question. How did we come to treat this as a criminal matter rather than a medical one? And I’ve mentioned this on this show a number of times, and I happen to live with my brother in law, who was a trooper with heroin. And I remember the first time when he was in rehab and he doesn’t mind my talking about that. We went to see him and he’d run afoul of the law. And the people in the beds right next to him, one of them was a doctor, and they were alcoholics and their bodies were ravaged. And I’m not defending heroin. And he didn’t end up shooting mainline…He held a very good job and so forth. It was so obvious that alcohol was the greater menace even in that regard. So why don’t you give us your broad view of this general drug problem beyond marijuana and so forth? 

Peter Grinspoon: Well, I think that all societies have used psychoactive drugs and intoxicants. It’s part of our nature. I mean, it’s very hard to find a society that hasn’t. And I think that in my personal opinion and as you mentioned earlier, I’m 15 years in recovery from a near-fatal opiate addiction myself. And I tend to think that the criminalization is what makes it much more dangerous, because once it’s criminalized, you’re afraid to get help. You don’t want to get in trouble. You go to the emergency room, you don’t want to lose your kids. You don’t want to help a friend because you might get arrested, too. So I personally think that legal drugs are safer drugs. I’m not saying safe drugs, but legal drugs are safer drugs. And I think we’re doing a really good job legalizing cannabis. The whole thing is getting much safer. If you get cannabis in a dispensary, it doesn’t have mold, heavy metal, lead, pesticide. And I think if we made opiates legal and not necessarily selling them at dispensaries, it doesn’t have to be a free for all. We could have something like a government store dispensing it. But if we made opiates legal and people had access to opiates, they wouldn’t have to buy them illegally and they wouldn’t be overdosing on fentanyl. These illegal drugs are contaminated. So I honestly just think safer drugs are legal drugs. And the only thing stopping us is this moral panic that we’re still suffering the effects. 

Robert Scheer: And let’s conclude by that. Moral panic is selfish. It serves certain interests. It allows some people to profit from it. It is a way of demonizing people. In the example you use on a racial basis, we know that from the crack powdered cocaine controversy. And, you know, I remember just let me end with with my own personal anecdote, I worked at the L.A. Times for one way or another for 29 years, and I found myself asked to be on a team to investigate cocaine when it was spreading through community, but mostly crack. And I really didn’t have many accounts. I tried just about everything once in a while, one short, but I made a comment at our meeting of hotshot journalists and editors. I said, Well, I think we ought to look at this a little carefully because I’m not sure these drugs do all the things you say they do in the way they do. I said, You know, I’ve only used cocaine twice. They were given to me by editors who thought it would improve my writing. And in fact, both times I fell asleep, which is not what was supposed to happen. So I said, I’m not you know, I think we should look into what is the effect. I was taken off the task force at the L.A. Times because I had admitted that I had this cursory connection with the thing. And in your book, that is a theme that you drive home over and over again. You say most of the people dominating discussion of the drug war and drugs over are not people who come out of the culture or the experience that have used it. It’s a point you make repeatedly. It might be a good point

Peter Grinspoon: . Well, there’s no substitute, there’s no substitute for lived experience. Now, I wouldn’t put getting addicted to opiates, almost dying and then getting better on the medical school curriculum. But I do feel like I understand opiate addiction really well because I went through it. So I just think there’s no substitute for lived experience, you know? Obviously, you don’t want to have lived experience like, you know with something horrific. But just in terms of these things, I don’t understand why people are allergic to lived experience. It really teaches us in a way that book learning can’t. 

Robert Scheer: It teaches us humility. But since we’ve brought it up, let’s end by your telling your lived experience, because…you didn’t have the disaster with marijuana, right? 

Peter Grinspoon: Oh, yeah. I started smoking at age 13. I’ve had no problems with marijuana. If anything, I can honestly say it’s probably greatly improved the quality of my life. I know that’s not true for everybody and some people have problems with it, but in my experience. But I always experimented with different drugs. I was just like a curious kid and none of them gave me trouble except when I was in medical school. A very unhappy time of my life. I was working 100 hours a week in the hospital. I was in a very unhappy marriage. So that kind of sets you up for addiction if you’re unhappy. I tried Vicodin with a medical school roommate and, you know, she just said, “Hey, that was fun. Let’s go back to work.” And it made me so euphoric that I spent the next ten years of my life trying to recreate the euphoria. Unfortunately, with addiction, the euphoria goes away very quickly, and what comes instead is a lot of misery. Instead of feeling good, you’re trying to not feel terrible. So you get into this negative cycle. And then because we have such a punitive attitude towards addiction in general and specifically to doctors, you can’t just say, “Hey, I’m having trouble. Can someone help me?” because they’ll kick you out of medical school or they’ll take away your medical license. So I truly believe if we made all of this more empathic and nurturing and less punitive, we’d be able to discover and help people so much earlier in their addictions. We’d save so many lives. If we just change the culture away from punishment and towards treatment. 

Robert Scheer: Yeah, but that would mean you can’t use it as a weapon to intimidate and imprison and divide and conquer other people. 

Peter Grinspoon: But I think people are getting tired of that, At least I hope people are getting tired. 

Robert Scheer: People want power and want to have power over others and have budgets that require them to have power so they can have prisons and everything else. They’re not going to give it up easily. 

Peter Grinspoon: We shouldn’t have private prisons. No other countries have private prisons. That’s like the greatest conflict of interest in human history. 

Robert Scheer: Imprisoned people were a medical solution is what is in order. And that’s the theme of Seeing Through the Smoke. Get this book and buy this book, read it, and then ask your doctor, as I did this morning, ask some medical professional. What do you know about this? Have you changed your view? How do we learn about these things? And it’ll in itself give you a crash course and why some irrationality seems to be a constant of our lives. So thank you so much, Dr. Peter Grinspoon. I want to say, by the way, I want to thank the people at KCRW: Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho for posting these podcasts, the terrific FM station in Santa Monica, the NPR station. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer who got me to read this book and recommended it highly, Diego Ramos, who writes the introduction, Max Jones, who puts together the video and the J.K.W. Foundation in memory of a terrific and important writer, Jean Stein, for helping to fund these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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