Beyond his scientific work, Carl Sagan is best known for his books and documentaries that poetically explore the cosmos and humanity’s place within it. It’s less known that the near-legendary astronomer and science communicator secretly penned an essay in 1969 describing his personal history of marijuana use.
The account appears in the 1971 book "Marihuana Reconsidered" by Dr Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard psychiatrist who became a leading proponent of legalizing marijuana. Sagan, however, wrote the essay under the pseudonym "Mr. X.” It was only revealed that Sagan was the author after his death when the biography "Carl Sagan: A Life” publicly spilled the beans (many, however, suspected Mr X was Sagan all along).
Although he was only an occasional user of the drug, Sagan richly describes how marijuana enriched his life, both superficially and on a profoundly deeper level. After his first positive experience getting high in his mid-thirties, Sagan writes: “Since then I have smoked occasionally and enjoyed it thoroughly. It amplifies torpid sensibilities and produces what to me are even more interesting effects.”
Not only does Sagan describe how he enjoyed marijuana in a purely recreational sense, but he also shares insights into how it helped to deepen his understanding of social issues and art.
He writes: “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 that cannabis has helped me traverse. There also have been some art-related insights – I don’t know whether they are true or false, but they were fun to formulate.”
"For example, I have spent some time high looking at the work of the Belgian surrealist Yves Tanguey. Some years later, I emerged from a long swim in the Caribbean and sank exhausted onto a beach formed from the erosion of a nearby coral reef. In idly examining the arcuate pastel-colored coral fragments which made up the beach, I saw before me a vast Tanguey painting. Perhaps Tanguey visited such a beach in his childhood.”
The short account also features some great anecdotes, such as Sagan taking a shower with his wife while high and certainly becoming enlightened on the origins and stupidity of racism.
Sagan wraps up the essay by talking about the decriminalization of cannabis, which he appears to think is inevitable, casually stating “when cannabis is legalized.” For him, marijuana lacks the physiological addiction seen with many illicit substances and is notably less harmful. Furthermore, he argues marijuana has the potential to be a useful tool for coping with the "increasingly mad and dangerous world" that we've somehow found ourselves in.
“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous," he concludes, "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.”
You can read the full essay here.