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Biographer: Astronomer Carl Sagan Smoked Marijuana

By Scott Andrews — 21 Aug 1999 Associated Press

Carl Sagan, 1934-1996

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.

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 of marijuana.

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 "weed" too.

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 early forties."

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 to try.

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 flashes.

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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