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Carl Sagan on why he liked smoking marijuana

Carl Sagan liked to smoke weed. His essay on why is fascinating.

  • Carl Sagan was a life long marijuana user and closeted advocate of legalization.
  • He once wrote an anonymous essay on the effects it had on his life and why he felt it should be legalized.
  • His insights will be vital as many societies begin to legalize marijuana.

The patron saint of nerds everywhere, Carl Sagan was an awesome human being. He wrote and hosted Cosmos, helped select the playlist of the Voyager Golden Records, had a distinguished academic career, and inspired both Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson to become the science educators they are today

Sagan wrote on a wide variety of topics, including astronomy, the need for truth in public discourse, world peace, and climate change. His brilliance is evident even in articles outside his area of expertise, and his insights are often quite meaningful.

One issue that he was forced to write on anonymously is now becoming a subject of debate across the world. Carl Sagan’s ideas on marijuana are a valuable addition to the discussions over how the drug can be used properly and as a case study on how a person who uses it sparingly won’t necessarily decay into a stoned couch potato.

Why did Carl Sagan write an essay on weed?

In an essay written for the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered, Dr. Sagan, writing under the pseudonym “Mr. X” described his history of marijuana use and how he thought it had been a positive force in his life. He wrote under a false name out of fear that he would negatively impact his career and reputation by writing such an article, and it was only after his death that we found out that he had written this essay.

The essay is too long to include here, but can be found in its entirety here or downloaded as a PDF here. We’ll focus on the major points he brings up.

How did he think it helped him?

Sagan argues that his marijuana usage positively impacted several facets of his life. He explains that he was introduced to the drug at a time when he was beginning to branch out from doing nothing but science and was especially open to new experiences. He found the drug to be pleasant and was attracted to it in large part because of the seeming lack of negative physiological effects.

As a result of altering his consciousness by smoking marijuana, he alleged that many things that he was previously unable to appreciate or notice became available to him even when he sobered up. He found the drug to be extremely useful in helping him understand people who he would usually write off as mad, as he describes here:

“A sense of what the world is really like can be maddening; cannabis has brought me some feelings for what it is like to be crazy, and how we use that word ‘crazy’ to avoid thinking about things that are too painful for us. In the Soviet Union political dissidents are routinely placed in insane asylums. The same kind of thing, a little more subtle perhaps, occurs here: ‘did you hear what Lenny Bruce said yesterday? He must be crazy.’ When high on cannabis I discovered that there’s somebody inside in those people we call mad.”

In addition, it helped him to better understand himself:

“When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won’t attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.”

He found that the drug was able to help him understand art and music in ways he had never been able to before:

“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.”

He also thought it dramatically improved his sex life, as he analytically explains here:

“Cannabis also enhances the enjoyment of sex on the one hand it gives an exquisite sensitivity… the actual duration of orgasm seems to lengthen greatly, but this may be the usual experience of time expansion which comes with cannabis smoking.”

Lastly, he argues for outright legalization in light of these benefits:

“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.”

Was he alone in his views on drugs among other academics?

His view on marijuana is similar to the view of Aldous Huxley on harder psychedelics. Both men thought that psychotropic drugs could change our perception from our usual, survival-oriented mode to one that allows for a unique sensory perception and reflective thought patterns which both society and our psychology are structured to keep at bay. Huxley wrote an entire book, The Doors of Perception, on this phenomenon which he called the Mind at Large.”

Did Sagan’s drug use affect his work?

Yes, but he thought it was for the better. He claimed that one high lead to:

“…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 eleven 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.”

He also argued that it allowed him to better understand social issues, which he began to comment on more frequently in his later years. Though it must be noted that he didn’t list any specific instances in his article of any great ideas devised while high. We can only take him at his word.

Of course, these supposed benefits took place because of his temperance and skepticism to the idea that every highdea was brilliant. This means that you shouldn’t think that you’re going to be the next big thing in science education just because you smoke a joint. Sagan’s endorsement also doesn’t negate the adverse side effects of the stuff that comes along with heavy usage; such as reduced motivation, memory issues, and an inability to create long-term plans.

As marijuana becomes increasingly legal, accepted, and commonplace we will have to answer questions about what it can do for us, both good and bad. While individual accounts should always be viewed with caution, the input of as intelligent a smoker as Carl Sagan is a valuable addition to any discussion on the subject.

The famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft. Imagine if Sagan’s famous lecture on the image—one of the most famous passages in popular science—was influenced by his drug use.

  • Carl Sagan on the Virtues of Marijuana (1969) | Open Culture ›
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  • Why Scientist Carl Sagan Embraced Cannabis Throughout His . ›

COVID-19 amplified America’s devastating health gap. Can we bridge it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17, 2020.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America’s health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
  • Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
  • To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.

In the last 100 years, we’ve made incredible advances in health care, advances that would be viewed as miraculous to any previous generation. To pick one example, the U.S. life expectancy in 1950 was 68.2 years. We’ve since added 10 years to that average. Social programs have helped the young and elderly, two of the most health-vulnerable populations, receive unprecedented levels of care and attention. And telemedicine has decoupled many Americans’ health support and monitoring from brick-and-mortar hospitals, expanding access to care.

Yet, despite these advances and despite handily outspending other OECD nations on health care, the United States preserves vast health disparities. As James Madara, CEO and executive vice president of the American Medical Association, wrote on the organization’s site: “The U.S. health system that exists today is a hodgepodge of ideas, programs, and regulations that is both extraordinarily expensive and highly inefficient. And despite its size and technological advancements, our health system is beset by tremendous gaps and inequities that favor some groups while unfairly disadvantaging others.”

Our current predicament has its origins in tectonic sociohistorical forces that have shifted and fractured the health care landscape. For those at the peaks, access to superior care, education, resources, and social networks serve to protect their health. For those in the canyons, the ground continues to weather away with each past and ongoing crisis—consider, for example, the disproportionate fallout from the dissolution of the Mental Health Systems Act.

Then came COVID-19.

COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities

Communities on the pernicious side of America’s health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.

“There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty,” said Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. “That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing.”

Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, food insecurity reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.

The pandemic didn’t create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the Journal of General Internal Medicine suggested that “social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others.”

That’s not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren’t harmed. A paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.

The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. “Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19,” the authors wrote.

“There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated,” Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.

One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. Writing on this gap, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load.

“Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear,” Sapolsky writes. “It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet.”

Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting low-income and young Americans most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As the authors of one review wrote, the pandemic’s effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.

We need to find ways to unify this country because we’re all human beings. We’re all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights.

Working to close the health gap

Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.

Credit: Northwell Health

Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities’ and families’ abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.

How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. “We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us,” she said. “Northwell has not shied away from that.”

“We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michael Dowling, Northwell’s president and CEO. “We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the equity of care that everyone deserves.”

With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build partnerships with leaders in those communities and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis.

“We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next,” she said.

Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.

These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.

While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.

“COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better,” Dr. Salas-Lopez said. “Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.

“We need to find ways to unify this country because we’re all human beings. We’re all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights.”

Carl Sagan liked to smoke weed. He explains why in the most Carl Sagan way possible. He wrote an anonymous essay on smoking marijuana throughout his life and how it changed his thinking, empathy, appreciation of art and music, and made him a more holistic thinker and person.

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