SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The late astronomer and author, Carl Sagan was a secret
but avid marijuana smoker, crediting it with inspiring essays and
scientific insight, according to Sagan's biographer.
Using the pseudonym "Mr. X'', Sagan wrote about his pot smoking in an essay
published in the 1971 book "Reconsidering Marijuana.'' The book's editor,
Lester Grinspoon, recently disclosed the secret to Sagan's biographer, Keay
Davidson, a writer for the San Francisco Examiner, revealed the marijuana
use in an article published in the newspaper's magazine Sunday. "Carl
Sagan: A Life'' is due out in October.
"I find that today a single joint is enough to get me high ... in one movie
theater recently I found I could get high just by inhaling the cannabis
smoke which permeated the theater,'' wrote Sagan, who authored popular
science books such as "Cosmos,'' "Contact,'' and "The Dragons of Eden.''
In the essay, Sagan said marijuana inspired some of his intellectual work.
"I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in
which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of
gaussian distribution curves,'' wrote the former Cornell University
professor. "I wrote the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to
write the idea down.
Sagan also wrote that pot enhanced his experience of food, particularly
potatoes, music and sex.
Grinspoon, Sagan's closest friend for 30 years, said Sagan's marijuana use
is evidence against the notion that marijuana makes people less ambitious.
"He was certainly highly motivated to work, to contribute,'' said
Grinspoon, a psychiatry professor at Harvard University.
Grinspoon is an advocate of decriminalizing marijuana.
Ann Druyan, Sagan's former wife, is a director of the National Organization
for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The nonprofit group promotes legalization
Sagan died of pneumonia in 1996. He was 62.
US: Billions and Billions of '60s Flashbacks
By Keay Davidson 22 Aug 1999, San Francisco Examiner
[Davidson is Carl Sagan's Biographer]
For young people of the '60s and '70s, marijuana use was a rite of passage.
To the very youngest, smoking the illegal drug was the boldest way to rebel
against parental and governmental authority. But many young adults used
The term "groves of academe" took on a new meaning in universities, where
the spiky-leaved plants grew vigorously and covertly under ultraviolet
lamps in dormitory closets. Carl >Sagan had been a regular marijuana user
from the early '60s on. He believed the drug enhanced his creativity and
insights. His closest friend of three decades, Harvard psychiatry professor
Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a leading advocate of the decriminalization of
marijuana, recalls an incident in the '80s when one of his California
admirers mailed him, unsolicited, some unusually high-quality pot.
Grinspoon shared the joints with >Sagan and his last wife, Ann Druyan.
Afterward >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."
Grinspoon's 1971 book "Marihuana Reconsidered" included a long essay by an
unidentified "Mr. X," who described his happy experiences with the drug.
The essay identified Mr. X as "a professor at one of the top-ranking
American universities" but disguised his identity by saying he was "in his
In my interview with Grinspoon, he revealed that Mr. X was >Sagan (who
turned 37 the year the book was published by Harvard University Press).To
Grinspoon, >Sagan's use of the drug is dramatic disproof of the popular
wisdom that pot diminishes motivation: "He was certainly highly motivated
to work, to contribute."
Mr. X's essay is of interest not merely because it reveals >Sagan's use of
an illegal drug but also because it offers a glimpse of feelings he rarely
shared. Portions of the account follow, beginning with >Sagan's drug-induced
version of Plato's myth of the cave.
It all began about ten years ago. I had reached a considerably more relaxed
period in my life - a time when I had come to feel that there was more to
living than science, a time of awakening of my social consciousness and
amiability, a time when I was open to new experiences. I had become
friendly with a group of people who occasionally smoked cannabis,
irregularly, but with evident pleasure. Initially I was unwilling to
partake, but the apparent euphoria that cannabis produced and the fact that
there was no physiological addiction to the plant eventually persuaded me
My initial experiences were entirely disappointing; there was no effect at
all, and I began to entertain a variety of hypotheses about cannabis being
a placebo which worked by expectation and hyperventilation rather than by
chemistry. After about five or six unsuccessful attempts, however, it happened.
I was lying on my back in a friend's living room idly examining the pattern
of shadows on the ceiling cast by a potted plant (not cannabis!). I
suddenly realized that I was examining an intricately detailed miniature
Volkswagen, distinctly outlined by the shadows.
I was very skeptical at this perception, and tried to find inconsistencies
between Volkswagens and what I viewed on the ceiling. But it was all there,
down to hubcaps, license plate, chrome, and even the small handle used for
opening the trunk.
When I closed my eyes, I was stunned to find that there was a movie going
on on the inside of my eyelids. Flash...a simple country scene with red
farmhouse, blue sky, white clouds, yellow path meandering over green hills
to the horizon. Flash...same scene, orange house, brown sky, red clouds,
yellow path, violet fields... Flash...Flash...Flash.
The flashes came about once a heartbeat. Each flash brought the same simple
scene into view, but each time with a different set of colors...exquisitely
deep hues, and astonishingly harmonious in their juxtaposition. Since then
I have smoked occasionally and enjoyed it thoroughly...
I smile, or sometimes even laugh out loud at the pictures on the insides of
my eyelids," Mr. X/>Sagan wrote.
Even so, he remained the astute scientific observer:
While my early perceptions were all visual, and curiously lacking in images
of human beings, both of these items have changed over the intervening
years.... I test whether I'm high by closing my eyes and looking for the
They come long before there are any alterations in my visual or other
perceptions. I would guess this is a signal-to-noise problem, the visual
noise level being very low with my eyes closed.... [Flashed images
resemble] cartoons: just the outlines of figures, caricatures, not photographs.
I think this is simply a matter of information compression: it would be
impossible to grasp the total content of an image with the information
content of an ordinary photograph, say 108 [100 million] bits, in the
fraction of a second which a flash occupies.
"I find that today a single joint is enough to get me high.... in one movie
theater recently I found I could get high just by inhaling the cannabis
smoke which permeated the theater." Pot enhanced his pleasure in music and
food. ("A potato will have a texture, body, and taste like that of other
potatoes, but much more so.")
In sex, too: marijuana "gives an exquisite sensitivity, but on the other
hand it postpones orgasm: in part by distracting me with the profusion of
images passing before my eyes."
"I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social
issues," he added. "I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my
wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of
racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves.
It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves
in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led
to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found
I had written 11 short essays on a wide range of social, political,
philosophical, and human biological topics...I have used them in university
commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books....
"...If I find in the morning a message from myself the night before
informing me that there is a world around us which we barely sense, or that
we can become one with the universe, or even that certain politicians are
desperately frightened men, I may tend to disbelieve; but when I'm high I
know about this disbelief.
And so I have a tape in which I exhort myself to take such remarks
seriously. I say "Listen closely, you sonofabitch of the morning! This
stuff is real!"
Sagan added: "I have on a few occasions been forced to drive in heavy
traffic when high. I've negotiated it with no difficulty at all, although I
did have some thoughts about the marvelous cherry-red color of traffic lights."
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