Lester Grinspoon RIP
By David Henderson
On Thursday, June 25, Lester Grinspoon, M.D. died, one day after his 92nd birthday. This afternoon, I looked at my markups of two of his books, Marihuana Reconsidered, 2nd ed. 1977 and Cocaine: A Drug and Its Social Evolution, co-authored with James B. Bakalar.
Shortly after I got my green card, in October 1977, I did an academic’s version of “sowing his wild oats.” My particular version was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I loved, these two books by Grinspoon, and a few other books on illegal drugs, including one by Richard Ashley (mentioned below.) I was bored in academia and I wanted to write a piece on the economics of drug legalization. So, of course, the passages of Grinspoon’s two books that I marked up disproportionately were about the economics.
Here are a few.
When it [cocaine] became almost impossible to obtain legally, its associations became criminal; those who had least general respect for the law and conventional society were most likely to be persuaded of its virtues and to know where it could be found. Evidence that criminals use more of cocaine and other illicit drugs than the rest of the population must always be considered in this light. (p. 48)
I wrote in the margin: Self-selection.
Consider the firearms analogy again. We have suggested that the most rational justification for restricting access to a drug is that it is a dangerous instrument, like a gun. The kind of danger from drugs with which social policy should be most concerned, then, is the same kind that concerns us in the case of firearms. But the nations and states that restrict or prohibit the private ownership of firearms do so because of the danger that someone will be hurt or killed by a bullet from someone else’s gun–not because gun dependence is a bad habit, or because grown men who like to play with guns are immature and socially maladjusted, or because the gun habit produces a dangerous personality type (presumably impulsive and aggressive), or because a man may neglect his wife and children while he oils and polishes his gun collection or keep the neighbors awake by indulging in target practice in the backyard, not even because one can use a gun to kill himself. It is difficult to impose any legal restrictions at all on firearms in many parts of the country. One can imagine the outrage if they were suppressed for reasons like these. And yet is considered quite acceptable to suppress psychoactive drugs for analogous reasons. (p. 223)
One of my favorite passages, which is too lengthy to quote, is his analysis of the demand for illegal drugs. The main reason I like it is that he shows a care that an economist would bring to an economic issue. Without using economic jargon, he argues that making drugs illegal can severely cut the supply, thus raising the price, and that the effect of the higher price will be less demanded than at a lower price. In a footnote, he points out that Richard Ashley’s reasoning in his book Cocaine: Its History, Uses, and Effects (1975) failed to distinguish between a movement along a demand curve and a shift in demand. Grinspoon did not use these terms but he took on Ashley’s claim that because per capita use of cocaine in 1973 was the same as when it was legal in 1903, therefore prohibition did not affect consumption. Grinspoon argued for an income effect without, of course, using that term. Grinspoon pointed out that as affluence increased, we would expect more per capita use (a rightward shift in demand) and, therefore, the fact that we didn’t see that was evidence that prohibition was moving us up and to the left of the rightward-shifted demand curve.
Grinspoon, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, was kind of the Julian Simon of medical research. Simon started by thinking that an increase in population would put a real strain on resources. Once he examined the literature, especially H. J. Barnett and Chandler Morse. Scarcity and Growth: The Economics of Natural Resource Availability. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press for Resources for the Future, 1963, he changed his views. (The Barnett/Morse book is referenced in ue Ann Batey Blackman and William J. Baumol, “Natural Resources,” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.) Grinspoon had bought a lot of the claims about how dangerous illegal drugs were but when he examined the evidence, he found they were much less dangerous than he had thought.
Interestingly, Grinspoon retired as an associate professor. Here’s what Wikipedia says about why:
Grinspoon’s allies believe “an undercurrent of unscientific prejudice against cannabis among [Harvard] faculty and school leaders doomed his chances”; in 1975, a dean confided to him that the promotions committee “hated” Marihuana Reconsidered because it was “too controversial.” Dan Adams of The Boston Globe has characterized Grinspoon as “no Timothy Leary […] He was an earnest academic who wore a tie, and insisted he never promoted the use of marijuana, but rather the elimination of draconian prohibitions.”
Former colleagues Ming Tsuang and Joseph Coyle have maintained that the denial of Grinspoon’s promotion was likely predicated on his perceived neglect of “original research” in favor of “[synthesizing] the work of others.” However, Coyle has acknowledged that Grinspoon’s cannabis research “could have been an element” in the decision.
Academics are such open-minded people.
Nick Gillespie, over at Reason, has written a nice appreciation of Grinspoon.