High Society: Carl Sagan gained a “rich array of insights” from cannabis use

“For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint”

Carl Sagan, 1994. Photo by Michael Okoniewski/licensed by CC BY 2.0

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Welcome to High Society, a new regular feature in which CannCentral will turn the spotlight on the movers and shakers of history or pop culture—with a special emphasis on their relationship with our favourite herb. This week, we take you off of this pale blue dot and into the very cosmos…

Smithsonian magazine calls Carl his generation’s gatekeeperof scientific credibility”. 

His official C.V. shows that in addition to being highly intelligent, he was also highly productive: astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, Harvard and Cornell professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author for a book he “didn’t mean to write”, science communicator, and creator of hugely influential TV series Cosmos

His unofficial C.V. rounds out the picture of this man of many, many hats: ardent feminist, anonymous cannabis advocate “Mr. X”, supporter of nuclear disarmament, and inspiration to countless millions. 

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934 Sagan developed a fascination with space at an early age, and went on to attend the University of Chicago, where his doctoral research computed the first model of Venus’s atmosphere. He also went on to study Mars and Jupiter extensively.

In 1960, he became a fellow at U.C. Berkeley, before landing an assistant-professor position at Harvard. Internal politics prevented him from becoming a tenured professor there, but Cornell University was not afraid of his burgeoning celebrity status and he accepted a full professor position in 1968 and remained there for nearly 30 years, until his death. 

He also worked as an advisor to NASA on Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo missions and briefed astronauts for moon voyages. 

In addition, Sagan laid groundwork for two new scientific disciplines in planetary science and exobiology, served as trustee for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, and cofounded the Planetary Society.

Despite his success in these fields, Space.com says Sagan “was far more visible as a scientific educator than as a researcher. He was gifted at breaking down scientific concepts into explanations that the public could readily understand, while avoiding talking down to them.”

On the subject of explaining to the public, he made 26 Tonight Show appearances over 20 years (Johnny Carson was an astronomy hobbyist), calling it “the biggest classroom in history.” Calm, thoughtful, well-spoken, and bursting with facts and data, he became a public face for science, with Britannica saying, “In the 1970s and ’80s he was probably the best-known scientist in the United States.”

Meet “Mr. X”

What is less known is his appreciation for cannabis. His frustration at being unable to publicly discuss his thoughts on the matter for fear of derailing his career led him to pen an incredible essay that was included in the 1971 publication Marihuana Reconsidered under the pseudonym “Mr. X”.

Sagan begins the essay by describing his first altered perceptions after using cannabis as being primarily visual, and continues by discussing his “greatly improved appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before.”

He moves on to music, stating “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.”

He also mentions his enjoyment of food and sex as being enhanced, speaks  generally of the “rich array of insights” that his “cannabis trips” afford him, and offers the following observations regarding these insights the following day:

“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. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing.

“Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.”

Sagan also discusses a kind of mental safety net: “In the cannabis experience there is a part of your mind that remains a dispassionate observer, who is able to take you down in a hurry if need be. I have on a few occasions been forced to drive in heavy traffic when high. I’ve negotiated it with no difficulty at all, though I did have some thoughts about the marvelous cherry-red color of traffic lights.

“If you’re high and your child is calling, you can respond about as capably as you usually do. I don’t advocate driving when high on cannabis, but I can tell you from personal experience that it certainly can be done.”

He also speaks to quantifying dosing, which is still a work in progress in the ever-evolving cannabis industry of today. “Each puff is a very small dose; the time lag between inhaling a puff and sensing its effect is small; and there is no desire for more after the high is there. I think the ratio, R, of the time to sense the dose taken to the time required to take an excessive dose is an important quantity. R is very large for LSD (which I’ve never taken) and reasonably short for cannabis. Small values of R should be one measure of the safety of psychedelic drugs.”

The essay includes the following powerful statement of yearning for change: “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.”

A lasting legacy

The Library of Congress has exhibited Sagan’s personal correspondence, and we now know that he privately expressed considerable opposition towards the drug laws of his time from four boxes of his letters that focus on policy reform.

Sagan also publicly discussed his disapproval of the “irrational official government position” regarding terminal patients not being allowed cannabis because of addiction risks, and added, “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?”

In his own final days of battling cancer, his cannabis use helped him “refocus on the beauty of life in the midst of such torture,” according to his wife, Ann Druyan. 

Since his death in 1996, Druyan has continued to support cannabis advocacy. From 2006 to 2010, she served as president of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and remains on the advisory board.

Druyan: “For me it is a sacrament, something that should be used wisely in the context of a loving family existence.”

Sagan’s rich legacy will leave much for future generations to examine, and his finest accomplishments include his thoughtful and reasoned perspective on cannabis and its place in an enlightened society. 

Key quotes:

“My high is always reflective, peaceable, intellectually exciting, and sociable, unlike most alcohol highs, and there is never a hangover.”

“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

“We need intellectual resources in these perilous times. Complex and subtle problems require complex and subtle solutions.” 

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