Carl Sagan -- he was an astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and great popularizer of science. He was also, it turns out, a lifelong smoker of cannabis. In 1999, and just three years after Sagan's death, Keay Davidson published Carl Sagan: A Life, a biography that made headlines for revealing how Sagan wrote an essay in 1969, using the pseudonym "Mr. X," where he outlined the personal benefits of smoking marijuana. The essay eventually appeared in the 1971 book Reconsidering Marijuana. 35 years old at the time, Sagan explained how the drug heightened his sensory experience, gave him an appreciation for the spiritual realm ("a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate"), enhanced his enjoyment of sex, and allowed him to achieve some "devastating" insights into scientific, creative and particularly social questions. The drug also gave him a newfound respect for art and music. He wrote:
The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before. The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I’m down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse.... A very similar improvement in my appreciation of music has occurred with cannabis. For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint. I have since discovered that professional musicians can quite easily keep many separate parts going simultaneously in their heads, but this was the first time for me.
You can read the complete essay here.
A quick footnote: later in life, Sagan advocated legalizing medical marijuana, as you can hear below. And his wife, Ann Druyan, who made substantial contributions to the PBS documentary series Cosmos, has since pushed for the outright legalization of cannabis. She served on the Board of Directors of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws for a decade.
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Carl Sagan believed that smoking weed could profoundly heighten curiosity, self-awareness, perception and interpersonal communication.
He’s got an eponymous strain, but you don’t see him emblazoned on tapestries like Bob Marley.
Pulitzer Prize-winning astronomer Carl Sagan was nothing if not skilled and prolific, working in science, publishing, television, and science fiction as well as writing nearly 600,000 papers that are archived in the Library of Congress. He was also an avid pot smoker, proof that you don’t have to be couch-locked when you’re baked.
Sagan was so enthralled by pot that he spoke about it at length when given the chance. Before he went public as a smoker, an essay was published in “Marihuana Reconsidered” in 1971 written by one Mr. X, a scientist the book’s editor revealed to be Sagan. This editor, Professor Lester Grinspoon, toldMarijuana.com that he “thinks Sagan smoked marijuana ‘nearly every day, except when he had to travel.’” Sagan’s words make clear that he developed some of his ideas while he was stoned, saying,
“There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.”
He developed theories even about his own highs with the scientific curiosity and philosophical clarity befitting someone of his abilities:
“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. Another interesting information-theoretical [aspect] is the prevalence—at least in my flashed images—of 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 bits, in the fraction of a second which a flash occupies. And the flash experience is designed, if I may use that word, for instant appreciation. The artist and viewer are one.”
Carl Sagan loved getting stoned and entering the cosmos.
For Sagan, weed provided not only an altered consciousness but also a pathway into things that made him realize that “there was more to living than science.” He learned to appreciate music and art, an “understanding of the intent of the artist” that he felt “sometimes [carried] over to when [he was] down.” He even seemed to approach ego death, feeling a “religious aspect to some highs” despite the fact that he himself was not religious “in the usual sense.” He wrote,
“The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men.”
With this came an understanding of “social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one [he is] generally known for.” He acknowledged that the lapses in our interpersonal communications stem from “defects of our society and our educational system” and can be “unavailable to us without such drugs.”
“I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis (and probably with other drugs). […] Such a remark applies not only to self-awareness and to intellectual pursuits, but also to perceptions of real people, a vastly enhanced sensitivity to facial expressions, intonations, and choice of words which sometimes yields a rapport so close it’s as if two people are reading each other’s minds.”
Sagan’s adamantly fought against marijuana prohibition and the War on Drugs.
Besides enjoying his recreational and spiritual experiences, Sagan was also a major proponent of legalizing medical marijuana. He said,
“There are people [with] terminal cases of cancer of AIDS who are given, for example, huge doses of chemotherapeutic agents which force them to be nauseous, to be unable to take food, which then leads rapidly to their dwindling away. […] It’s well established that marijuana counteracts this nausea, and in the few cases where it’s permitted, or in which it’s done illegally, remarkable benefits accrue. 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? It seems madness to say, “We’re worried that they’re going to become addicted to marijuana”—there’s no evidence whatever that it’s an addictive drug, but even if it were, these people are dying. What are we saving them from?”
Sagan spoke out against the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, asking in a 1990 letter to the Drug Policy Foundation,
“How much money is spent every year on the planet on illegal drugs? Does the existence of such enormous amounts of money inevitably lead to corruption in police and military enforcement agencies, legislators, intelligence agencies, and the Executive branch?”
Even his books featured scenes where marijuana came into play; his 1985 novel “Contact” has “a scene where a store in fictionalized future 1999 France is selling cannabis imported from California and Oregon,” demonstrating a prescience about the most bustling locales in our market that only someone like Sagan could have. His writings in the Library of Congress contain “four boxes strictly focused on drug policy alone,” writes Tom Angell for Marijuana.com. Generally, his advocacy was relegated to small-time comments about pot, unlike the outright activism of his life and work partner Ann Druyan. Druyan told Angell that she was doing the pro-marijuana, anti-drug war activism,
“For both of us. He was an employee of NASA and there’s no question that he wouldn’t have been able to do his work exploring the solar system and searching for life elsewhere if he [took] as public a stand as I did. […] Marijuana made it possible for both of us to be far more creative. The things that people find distinctly unique about Carl’s work […] were certainly influenced by the perspective that was made possible by knowing what it was like to be high.”
As prohibition falls across the United States, more and more people are having access to the increased consciousness offered by marijuana. It’s exactly what Mr. X hoped for, writing,
“I hope that the time [of legalization] isn’t too distant; 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.”