Can We Reschedule? In Praise of Carl Sagan, Iconic Pothead

In 1971, a year after Ronald Reagan signed into law the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act—a statute that, amongst other things, created the five federal schedules for drugs we still have today and greatly exacerbated America’s War on Drugs—a curious book about cannabis appeared under the title Marihuana Reconsidered.

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Primarily written by Lester Grinspoon, a former opponent of cannabis, the book and its title may appear tame today, but in 1971, it seemed incendiary. Under Reagan’s then-new legislation, cannabis—which had exploded in popularity in America in the 1960s—was placed in Schedule I, the most restrictive category of narcotics, reflecting the widespread belief at the time that marijuana was the lethal, life-and-society-destroying drug portrayed so baroquely in the propaganda film Reefer Madness four decades earlier.

Grinspoon, however, had spent years studying marijuana without observing these putative detrimental effects, and the book—along with a 1969 article by Grinspoon in Scientific American—represented a literary-scientific turning point in understanding cannabis at a crucial moment.

Despite its sociopolitical significance, the book is perhaps best remembered for a brief personal essay by the beloved popular scientist Carl Sagan, penned under the pseudonym Mr. X, on the effects of cannabis. Sagan, who was a close friend of Grinspoon’s, smoked weed for much of his life, though he kept it private to avoid the societal stigma. Grinspoon’s studies actually began in part to dissuade Sagan’s cannabis usage, yet, as Sagan knew well by the time of the book’s release, marijuana not only was fairly safe; it was also, as Sagan suggested, a kind of heart-and-mind-opener, a herb that, with patience and a willingness to learn from rather than fighting or predefining the high, could show one the world as if for the first time.

I’ve long found Sagan’s essay charming, partly because Sagan is so rarely depicted in pop culture as a pothead, partly for its unassuming simplicity, partly for the obvious love Sagan displays for his subject—and, notably, his repudiation of the drug’s illegality. In the wake of the Biden administration’s historic bid to reschedule cannabis to the less restrictive Schedule III (along with ketamine and codeine), I find myself returning to the essay, which was gently historic in its own right.

Cannabis has offered me things its pop-culture depictions never prepared me for.

If you knew me growing up, this focus might seem out-of-character. For much of my life, I was terrified by the idea of not being in control of my mind. As a weird, closeted, unpopular kid, I was bullied often, and for years I was afraid of even getting drunk, much less high, lest I give my bullies something worse to joke about. If I couldn’t control my life, at least I could—I reasoned—control my mind.

Over time, I mellowed out about drinking, and I experimented on occasion with edibles, which, as Sagan also experienced, made sex and frivolity especially delightful. Under that green enchantment, my wife and I also grew even closer, having special moments where our love for each other felt practically palpable.

But in the last two years, after some unexpectedly transformative psychedelic journeys, my relationship with cannabis has likewise deepened. So often, weed is portrayed simplistically in American pop culture as something that makes you giggle, fall asleep, forget things, or come up with tinfoil-hat-worthy theories, as well as a (divisive) medical tool; while it can do all of those things, and certainly is medicine for many, I see it more as a teacher, a herb that, like any substance, you come to appreciate more when you try to listen to whatever it may be trying to offer you in the moment. This Weltanschauung is more akin to many indigenous traditions surrounding herbal medicine, wherein plants each have unique spirits, unique characters that we can learn from if we take the time.

And cannabis has offered me things its pop-culture depictions never prepared me for. Under that fey haze, it feels so easy to awe at the mundane details of the world, like the fractal patterns in a leaf, or the starlike glister of certain sidewalk blocks, glorious in their own way as Keats’s Grecian urn; or, on heavier trips, to feel inextricably connected to the universe at large, like a leaf growing out of a grand tree, as Alan Watts puts it in The Book, rather than a separate being adrift in an inexplicable cosmos.

I first experienced this on psilocybin trips, and cannabis, to my surprise, helped me explore this sensation anew, like a gentler psychedelic. It’s become a significant feeling for me, one that brings me comfort in a country so sepulchrally polarized—separated—at present.

Marijuana reconsidered, indeed.


Perhaps fittingly, Sagan—famed for his sentiment that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”—first approached weed as a skeptic. “My initial experiences,” he wrote, “were entirely disappointing; there was no effect at all, and I began to entertain a variety of hypotheses about cannabis being a placebo which worked by expectation and hyperventilation rather than by chemistry.” But after a few attempts, “it happened. I was lying on my back in a friend’s living room idly examining the pattern of shadows on the ceiling cast by a potted plant (not cannabis!). I suddenly realized that I was examining an intricately detailed miniature Volkswagen, distinctly outlined by the shadows.”

Sagan began recording his ideas while stoned, convinced that “the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights…”

From here, Sagan realizes he, without warning, has become intoxicated—an experience I immediately recognized, whereby weed can begin to work its witchery long before you’re aware. You may not realize you’re high until you’re, well, high, silly and tautological as that may sound—and that, in of itself, feels somewhat magical.

The gentle marvels continued for Sagan with eyes shut. “When I closed my eyes,” he muses, “I was stunned to find that there was a movie going on the inside of my eyelids,” wherein he saw “a simple country scene” in flashes, filled with “exquisitely deep hues… astonishingly harmonious in their juxtaposition.” I recognized this, too, the striking hypnagogia-esque imagery high doses of cannabis can produce.

From there, Sagan notes that cannabis has allowed him to experience almost everything more deeply: connections between art and life (the way a beach conjures up a surrealist painting by Yves Tanguy); music; sex; mundane acts; and even, during “religious”-feeling highs, the nature of reality. Being high often yielded unceremonious, unexpected insights, notions that seemed so obvious and simple while high but which were difficult to remember while sober, so Sagan began recording his ideas while stoned, convinced 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.”

It’s that sentiment I appreciate most—that the curious epiphanies we have while high are no less valid than the ones we have while sober. It’s easy, after all, to dismiss such insights—especially ones that challenge notions ingrained in the West, like the idea of oneness with the universe, or animism—by terms like “woo-woo,” “hippie,” or statements like “you’re just really high,” as if to suggest that nothing of intellectual value can come from intoxication, a patronizing response that reflects how casually certain and incurious about the murk of reality all too many such critics claim to be.

Certainly, not every thought one receives while high remains compelling when sober. But if we treat cannabis as a potential educator rather than a drug that solely does x or y, to commune with it becomes a special, ever-evolving experience, a time to take in and consider the wild fullness of things with the illusory walls of the self—that is, the walls we instinctively erect to separate I from not-I, then tend to forget we’d ever erected—finally, blissfully, lowered. “Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds,” Sagan writes, and it’s difficult not to agree.


Sagan, of course, was far from the first Westerner to attempt to capture the magical atmospherics of cannabis. While opium, nitrous oxide, and ether—and, towards the end of the 19th century, mescaline and cocaine—featured prominently in Western writing about intoxication, a number of authors found themselves under the spell of cannabis, particularly hashish (a concentrated form of the plant’s trichomes, terpenes, and resin). It’s hard not to smile while reading Louisa May Alcott’s short story, “Perilous Play,” which follows a group of bored girls and a male doctor who eat cannabis-infused bonbons, the story’s transformation of the quotidian into arch-drama undoubtedly familiar to readers who’ve gotten extraordinarily high in public.

I enjoy, too, the work of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who—in the tradition of Thomas de Quincey’s influential narcotic autobiography, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater—penned a popular account of his experiences in The Hasheesh Eater (1857), which depicts Ludlow’s hashish-altered adventures. I was introduced to Ludlow by the polyhistor ethnobotanist Terence McKenna—whose erudite, McLuhanesque, and just plain enjoyably out-there work I’ve also come to love—who occasionally read passages from Ludlow’s phantasmagoric adventures aloud and explored cannabis deeply himself.

Much as I cherish these and many other literary works on weed from around the globe, Sagan’s reflections still move me. It’s partly because he argues that marijuana, when used with a mixture of open-hearted reverence and open-minded skepticism, can grant us new, transformative ways of understanding, of being in the world—an acknowledgement that this oft-dismissed-and-denigrated herb, the subject of so many senseless arrests, arguments, and cultural oversimplifications, is, at its core, one of the things we have communed with and should have the birthright to commune with since time immemorial, trying, whether in firelit caves or apartments aglow with LEDs, to make sense of those old Mysteries.


Rescheduling cannabis is long overdue, and I ultimately want full legalization. Until federal legalization, far too many remain at risk of needless arrest or incarceration. As such, the final, damning words of Sagan’s essay still resonate today:

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.


Gabrielle Bellot’s My Year of Psychedelics is available now from Everand.

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