Carl Sagan was an advocate for cannabis use.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Beloved astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author Carl Sagan is best known for his pioneering work on extraplanetary exploration and considering the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Throughout his career, Sagan was involved with the US space program as a NASA scientist and advisor. Later in his life, he produced a number of creative works, like his science fiction book-turned-film Contact and the hugely popular Cosmos television series. But a lesser known facet of Sagan’s life, which he kept secret from the public until his death, was his decades-long appreciation and advocacy for cannabis.

Exploring the Inner Cosmos

In 1969, Sagan wrote an essay for the publication Marijuana Reconsidered under the pseudonym Mr. X, in which he described in intimate detail his introduction to smoking cannabis and the effects it had on him.[1. “Mr. X by Carl Sagan,”]A variety of compelling things stand out in his essay, first and foremost of which is his scientific background. Sagan describes his initial reluctance to experiment with cannabis, but goes on to say why he made the calculated choice to try it: namely, its safety, the lack of physiological addiction, and the apparent enjoyment of it by some of his trusted peers.

As Sagan goes on to describe his first intense cannabis high and subsequent experiences, you can see how his scientifically-trained mind grappled with the effects of this mildly hallucinogenic drug. He recounts both the wondrous subjective experiences he had, and the various ways he used logic and personal experimentation to deconstruct the nature of his sensations and test the validity of the insights gained while under the effects of cannabis. It is a rare treat to read the first-hand account of this renowned scientific visionary as he evolves from skeptic to experimenter to passionate advocate, and it’s unfortunate that he could not voice his support publicly during his lifetime. Due to the social and political climate surrounding drug use and his position as a notable scientist working with NASA, Sagan asked that the identity of Mr. X only be revealed after his death.

Social Benefits of Cannabis

“…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.” – Carl Sagan writing as Mr. X on cannabis

We know today that the medical benefits of cannabis are incredibly broad (with more benefits being discovered every day), but Sagan makes a compelling case for the drug based on its consciousness-expanding and sensory effects alone. He describes how cannabis helped him to appreciate nature, food, sex, art, and music (and the virtuosity of artists and musicians) in much deeper ways, something that was, until then, inaccessible to him. He even speaks about how one particular cannabis experience lead him to write down a deluge of insights on the underpinnings and fallacies of racism.

While skeptics and detractors would minimize these types of insights and sensory pleasures as false, fleeting, or unimportant, we should keep in mind their significance. Stress and a lack of enjoyment or purpose in life can both lead to and exacerbate mental and physical disease. Additionally, an under-appreciation of nature and creative pursuits undermines the development and sustainability of our culture (which ironically seems easier to appreciate in a historical context, but harder to value as it develops in the present). And lastly, thinking outside of the box with new perspectives is hugely important for both self-reflection and creative problem solving. Looking back on Sagan’s incredible contributions to how we consider ourselves as part of the intricate and beautiful cosmos, one could easily assume that his relationship with the psychoactive cannabis plant played no small role in his work and his message.