Carl Sagan & the Feel Good Molecules
Nothing helps public opinion on cannabis legalization like a mainstream mind lending support to the counterculture. It is no secret that Carl Sagan both used and liked marijuana. Sagan’s archives have been given to the Library of Congress, and they include his correspondence with different professionals about his thoughts on drug policy. As Carl Sagan is one of the deepest thinkers in modern history, his thoughts on marijuana policy are especially important at this point in time when momentum is gaining against prohibition.
When the Voyager 1 spacecraft was 3.7 billion miles from Earth, about 12 years after its launch, NASA turned its cameras around and took a picture of Earth. The image it captured became known as the “Pale Blue Dot,” as it showed Earth as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
If taking a picture of Earth from so far away sounds like the kind of idea someone might come up with while smoking marijuana, then read reflections by the man who came up with the idea: Carl Sagan. What he wrote about the “Pale Blue Dot” would blow anyone’s mind, not just marijuana users.
Before Neil deGrasse Tyson, there was Carl Sagan. Perhaps most well known for his novel “Contact,” Sagan also hosted the original “Cosmos” television series to follow his book of the same name. Sagan, who among other things in his life was a NASA astronomer, took complex scientific ideas and presented them in a way that the general public could easily understand. He also had awesome ideas like taking a picture of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away and he helped send coded messages into deep space for extraterrestrial lifeforms to decipher.
Whether or not the idea to photograph the Earth from so far away for the “Pale Blue Dot” sounds like a particularly cogent stoner idea, Carl Sagan was the man who helped make it happen. This is not to suggest Carl Sagan was high on marijuana when he came up with these ideas, but he could have been.
Sagan also helped write the “Arecibo message,” which was beamed towards a distant galaxy from the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico. The message was sent in binary over FM, and included things like prime numbers, double helixes and which planet in the solar system the message was coming from.
David Downs characterized Dr. Sagan as “likely a closeted, near-daily toker,” and cited a quote by Sagan’s wife and writing partner, Ann Druyan, who is on the NORML advisory board. In the quote Downs cited, Druyan referred to marijuana as a “sacrament” that Sagan and her would partake in it “the way other American families would have wine with dinner.”
Even though Downs characterized Sagan’s marijuana use as near-daily, Druyan said otherwise. Druyan’s quote in Downs’ article was taken from an interview she gave to Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority. In the interview, Angell also spoke to Dr. Lester Grinspoon who kept regular correspondence with Sagan.
Grinspoon told Angell that Sagan likely smoked every day, and in response to this, Druyan told Angell that was an “overstatement.” Druyan then compared her and Sagan’s marijuana usage to having wine at dinner with family, which says nothing about frequency. Some families have wine twice a year, while others have it every night.
Why is everyone talking about Carl Sagan and marijuana right now? Last year, an archive of Sagan’s work was donated to the Library of Congress by Druyan and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who is also an executive producer on the current Fox version of “Cosmos” with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
It turns out that among the 1,705 boxes of archived work of Sagan’s, which included everything from his early notebooks and report cards, to correspondence with major figures of the 20th century, there were also some significant musings by Sagan on the subject of marijuana. Angell was given access to Sagan’s marijuana archives by Druyan, and recently published a few of his letters to friends and marijuana advocates.
The marijuana quote from Sagan that gets the most mileage concludes, “Is it rational to forbid patients who are dying from taking marijuana as a palliative to permit them to gain body weight and to get some food down? … That’s a highly irrational official government position … .” These recently released documents will likely give marijuana advocates and admirers of Sagan new food for thought when it comes to marijuana.
In one letter from the archives sent to the then-president of the Drug Policy Foundation in 1990, Sagan wondered what it was exactly that was being disapproved of when it came to drug use:
Might it be possible to engineer drugs with all of the alleged benefits and none of the deficiencies and dangers of current drugs?
Why is the foregoing suggestion occasionally rejected on moral grounds, and is there something intrinsically immoral about feeling good by taking a molecule?
Do we ordinarily feel good because our bodies have generated molecules?
In 1969, in a publication called “Marihuana Reconsidered,” Sagan published an essay about marijuana use under the name Mr. X. In the essay, Sagan discussed his own experiences on marijuana, with his inimitable brand of insight.
In the essay, Sagan addressed his first experiences, and how he didn’t get high the first few times he tried it. Sagan talked about marijuana giving non-artists and non-musicians the chance to know what it is like to be an artist or musician. Sagan wrote about looking at a fire through a kaleidoscope.
In one anecdote from the essay, Sagan recalled a time he was high on cannabis, in the midst of a profound moment of self-analysis, and thinking about how Sigmund Freud was able to conduct his own profound self-analysis without the aid of marijuana. Then it dawned on Sagan, that much of Freud’s insights were probably taken from experiences on cocaine, as the Austrian psychologist famously proselytized it, as Sagan put it.
Sagan considered that there was something to the altered states on marijuana, and he wrote at length in the essay on the importance of the insights he gained while high, and how those insights were fleeting when he came down.
In the Mr. X essay, Sagan said, “I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis (and probably with other drugs) which are, through the defects of our society and our educational system, unavailable to us without such drugs.” One of Sagan’s valuable traits was the depth of his insight.
According to Sagan, “the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
Carl Sagan died of pneumonia in 1996, the year California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Like he said, the world has gotten madder and more dangerous, but Carl Sagan would have probably been happy to see the trend of marijuana legalization sweeping across the country.
Sagan has always put the profound into perspective for his audiences, whether he was talking about the scope of the Universe, or the inner workings of the mind. Any new insights from Sagan on any subject deserve consideration; these new insights on marijuana just happen to be especially timely for legalization efforts.