Wednesday, October 24, 2012

My Grinspoon Moment

Dr. Lester Grinspoon

Sometimes a single meeting can change your life.  Such was the case for me when, in the early summer of 2005, I met with Dr. Lester Grinspoon.   

For readers who may not be familiar with the work of this cannabis movement icon, Dr. Grinspoon is the famed Harvard psychologist who wrote Marijuana Reconsidered, the very first prohibition-era text on the true medicinal nature of cannabis.[1] 

His book was published at the height of Nixon’s escalation of two major US wars; Vietnam and the war on drugs.  Originally intended to be a warning to stoners he saw protesting around Harvard Square, Dr. Grinspoon instead learned and reported the truth about this ancient herb—an act that cost him professionally as colleagues quickly distanced themselves from his ‘pro-pot’ findings. 

In one sense cannabis is truly addictive because people who learn the ancient medicinal truth about it can’t shut up.  Lester Grinspoon has spent his life in the field; and his appreciation and awe of the plant has only deepened over time.  In 2007 he wrote: 

It is a sad commentary on the state of modern medicine -- and US drug policy -- that we still need "proof" of something that medicine has known for 5,000 years…If marijuana were a new discovery rather than a well-known substance carrying cultural and political baggage, it would be hailed as a wonder drug.[2]
Lester didn’t know my father personally, but they had been classmates at Harvard Medical School.  When I called for an interview, he asked if I was Stephen’s son. 

Stephen E. Hedberg, MD.  Brilliant surgeon at Mass General Hospital in Boston.  Heir apparent to his mentor Dr. Claude Welch, Chief of Surgery.  Endoscopy pioneer.  A Buckley conservative opposed to the war on drugs.  Skeet shooter at The Country Club in Brookline, sporting the vest pin; If they take away our guns, how can we shoot liberals? 

Dead at 54 from hepatitis contracted after cutting himself on a patient’s shattered bone.  At the time of his death, he was fighting a lonely battle against insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Dukakis Administration[3] in an effort to prove that the healthcare system was being manipulated for profits and threatening to wreck the doctor/patient relationship he cherished. 

Being around the age my father was when he died, and looking just like him (minus six inches and 50+ pounds), I wasn’t surprised Lester remarked on the resemblance as he invited me into his home office in Wellesley.  We had a good chat about the advocacy possibilities for his popular website,[4] and as I was heading out, I confided that I was a lifelong headache sufferer.

“My doctor tells me I’m killing myself with too many pain meds…I’ve started taking a hit of weed along with Aleve or Excedrin.  It seems to help…”

Lester chuckled, “Throw away the pain pills and learn how to make cannabis tincture!”

He had a call coming in so I thanked him and left; excited because I already knew how to make tincture!  I had been a tiny-plot outdoor grower for years but never a heavy consumer, so after a few seasons I had a bunch of dried old buds from previous grows.  I decided to try a simple extraction; bake the green material at about 280 degrees for a few minutes.  Place in canning jar and fill with grain alcohol to cover plus 10 percent more.  Agitate daily for ten days.  Strain.  Cannabis tincture.

To be sure, I didn’t know I was making medicine, much less a remedy for migraines.  I used it for feature film outings.  I was married with children, and even though my wife didn’t completely object to marijuana, she was not about to let me blaze away in the parking lot of local theaters.  A 40-drop dose before we left the house would kick in just as the movie got underway, and the effect would last through the credits and well beyond.  She never knew, and probably attributed my euphoric responses to my love of big screen movies, and to the fact that as new parents we didn’t get out much.

The first time I tried my concoction for a migraine, however, I wretched violently.  I couldn’t handle the alcohol content.  With a gentle boil I reduced the ‘menstrum’ by more than half, and swapped the jar for a tinted dropper vial.  The result was a stealthy, sexy, deep emerald green extract that was kick-ass at 15 drops.  Green dragon tincture; ancient medicine.

I was hooked.  I got online and it didn’t take me long to discover that In 1839, Dr. William B. O'Shaughnessy, a British physician at the Medical College of Calcutta, published On the preparations of the Indian Hemp or Gunjah.  Suddenly cannabis tincture was all the rage.  Queen Victoria used it for relief of PMS. Her personal physician, J. R. Reynolds, studied cannabis himself and declared it "by far the most useful of drugs" in treating "painful maladies."

Dr. William Osler, founder of John Hopkins University and author of Principles and Practices of Medicine, noted that cannabis tincture is “the most satisfactory” treatment for migraines. That discovery pissed me off, and in 2009 I called a local paper to have them write a story about my offer to teach patients how to make their own tincture in the privacy of their own lives.[5]

Instead of opening doors, they all slammed shut.  Stoner neighbors fretted about having a noisy loose cannon in their midst, and Yankee friends and family, some closet tokers among them, were quick and brutal; 
Sit down.  Shut up.  Laws are made to be followed, not broken… If you don’t like the law, work within the system to change it…
At Babson College, where I was working at the time writing teaching cases about bright ideas and inventive entrepreneurs, professors would squirm and smirk like red-faced schoolgirls at the very mention of the emerging enterprise frontier that must not be named.

Until just recently, parental commitments moored me in the Great Prohibition state of New Hampshire, so I have dealt with this aggressive social shunning for years.  Possibly the most telling example of the deeply entrenched insanity is that Yankee pot-parents, former progressives who still enjoy weed in the shadows, keep silent on the issue as uniformed DARE officers visit the schools and lie to their children about the dangers of cannabis.  Some of those parents buy into the social contract so completely that when their children ask about their experience with marijuana, they dutifully lie, duck and dodge.

Since everyone including local lawmen now knew what I was all about, I couldn’t risk even a small grow.   What little tincture I managed to acquire came from showing legal patients how to make their own (mostly down in Rhode Island, currently New England’s freest state).  While vaporizing also helps lighten up my headache days, I have recently developed tinnitus so I can’t blaze at all.  Needless to say, with my daughters now grown up and getting out, I’m heading for a free state where I can begin to more fully explore extracts and edibles. 

Dr. Grinspoon has been a legend for decades.  He’s also a really nice and genuine guy with a deep passion for telling the world the medicinal truth about cannabis.  I look forward to seeing him every year at Freedom Fest on the Boston Common.  He always smiles and greets me warmly with the same words;  My gosh, for a moment there I thought Dr. Hedberg had returned…

[1] Harvard University Press, 1971, reprinted with updates, 1994
[3] Michael Dukakis served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1975 to 1979 and from 1983 to 1991.


  1. Man I wish that we can get him to come up to Toronto to speak at the 4th Annual Treating Yourself Expo being held May 24 - 26, 2013 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Check out the expo web site for more details

  2. If Marco would like to pay just my expenses for the visit, I would be happy to speak at the expo. My daughter and I attended last year and it was marvelous! Carl

  3. He is a wonderful, kind, and generous man. Great article, thank you for sharing.