Carl Sagan, drug world's unlikely hero, still inspires

Carl Sagan, drug world's unlikely hero, still inspires

VicesApril 05, 2018 By Reilly Capps

There are heroes in the world of drugs. Most are obvious. Marley, who sang about the herb. Hoffman, who discovered acid. Shulgin, who gave us ecstacy.

And then there's Carl Sagan.  

There are Sagan references all over the drug world. A leader of a harm reduction group plans to name a kid Sagan. A DMT shaman says that he's like Carl Sagan, in that they're both looking for aliens. Sagan shows up all the time as a meme on the druggier parts of Reddit.

Unlike Marley, Hoffman or Shulgin, Sagan was an unlikely drug hero, because he didn't talk much publicly about drugs. Sagan, who died in 1996, wasn't a dreadlocked wook, not a raving hippie. He was a nerdy, turtleneck-wearing professor who had a show on public television called Cosmos, about astronomy and the universe.

But the mere fact that he smoked weed while becoming a stellar astronomer is enough to turn him into a god. 

Maybe nobody showed us the universe and ourselves as well as Sagan. His Voyager craft showed us the Pale Blue Dot, and how small we all are. To try and connect us to the universe, Sagan spent most of his life looking for aliens. And, man, did he go to some lengths. He sent spacecraft to Saturn's moons. He sent a golden record out past the solar system, in case E.T. picks it up and has a gramophone. He turned radio dishes to the heavens to listen for extraterrestrial beeps.

And, after a fashion, one of the tools he used to look for aliens and show us the universe was cannabis.

Sagan's secret, which didn't come out until after his death, was that he loved pot. And it helped him.

It turns out that, most nights, with his wife Ann Druyan, after Sagan was finished with his professor duties or his TV duties or his work at NASA, they'd puff a joint, as casually as you'd drink a glass of wine with dinner. Ann called it their "sacrament."

And he got many of his soaring, elegant, amazing ideas from the plant.

In 1969, Sagan, then in his mid-thirties, wrote an essay about how much he loved weed. He signed it "Mr. X." It's become one of the most important pieces of writing about cannabis ever produced. It shows that a crazy smart person can be made smarter — not dumber — by smoking J's.

Sagan thought cannabis “produced a very rich array of insights.” He thought high ideas are not dumb ideas: "the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights." These insights, Sagan put in peer-reviewed scientific papers. They hold up to scrutiny in the light of day. About "gaussian distribution curves," for example. 

Cannabis — and "probably other drugs" — gives folks, he thought, "genuine and valid levels of perception — unavailable to us without such drugs."

Cannabis helped him dream of what other kinds of life might flourish on strange worlds with bizarre physics, helped him dream of spaceships that could get us there.

“Marijuana made it possible for both of us to be far more creative,” Druyan told Tom Angell of Marijuana Moment. “The things that people find distinctly unique about Carl’s work, and our work together, and my work since, were certainly influenced by the perspective that was made possible by knowing what it was like to be high.”

Some ideas are too big, even for a mind as big as Sagan's. On weed, he'd sometimes feel strange, bizarre, woo-woo things: "that we can become one with the universe," or that "there is a world around us which we barely sense."

Sagan wouldn't publish these thoughts. He couldn't prove them. Oh, he'd try to get himself to take these feelings seriously, to tell the world these thoughts, that there is a world around us we barely sense. "I have a tape in which I exhort myself (while high), to take such remarks seriously. I say 'Listen closely, you sonofabitch of the morning! This stuff is real!'"

Most of the world, still — cops and teachers, politicians and priests — does not think drugs can show you anything real. They just mess with your head. They are dangerous misleaders, they show you only untruth.

But a whole generation taking up Sagan's exhortations to himself. To convince themselves, and the sober world, that "this stuff is real," that the thoughts you get on drugs are "real insights," even a thought as crazy as "there is a world around us that we barely sense."

It's so easy to dismiss these thoughts. The brainwashing of the larger culture demands it. Fifty years of propaganda has put our thoughts in certain patterns. But as we move away from a monoculture, as the Internet allows ideas to travel freely, Sagan's drug-fueled ideas pick up speed.

It's not just cannabis, not by a long shot. This generation is going much, much deeper and further, by doing drugs more powerful than 1970s weed, and in higher quantities, and for longer. All to get higher than Sagan ever did, and to see farther. They are doing psilocybin IV, they are boofing salvia, they are freeze-drying ayahuasca and squeezing the venom out of toads.

On these drugs, you see things far more vibrant and incredible than weed. Shimmering fields of color and light. Matter and sound blooming. If you've never done these drugs all of this sounds impossible, but if you've done them you know these descriptions undersell the experience. There are no words for this stuff.

And while the vast majority of people who hear about these things dismiss them as hallucinations, as being no more important than dreams, there is a small group who say that these experiences tell you something about the world. That the world is brighter, more colorful, and more magical than we now think.

That's what Sagan suggests, at the least. Or at least he asked questions. 

As good scientists do, he asked questions, and once called preventing cancer patients from smoking marijuana a "highly irrational official government position."

While his wife, Ann, was on the board of an anti-drug war group, Sagan questioned the war on drugs quietly, not openly; he worried it would make him look like a raving hippie, not a sober scientist trusted to spend millions to send robots to space.

But he wanted others to talk about drugs more openly, to make a big deal about it. Sagan suggested in a newly-found letter to the president of the Drug Policy Foundation a new TV show about drugs. Not asking the old, "conventional questions." But asking the big ones:

"Why are drugs, including hallucinogenic drugs, so widely distributed among culture of the Earth," Sagan wrote, "and so prevalent as sacraments in the world's religions?"

"Why do people do drugs?"

"Is there something intrinsically immoral about feeling good by taking a molecule?"

"What can we learn from the use of amphetamines for weight loss among well-to-do women in the '60s and '70s, and cocaine in Coca Cola and medical nostrums earlier in the century?"

"Finally, what does it take to apply the scientific method to such questions rather than the repetition of conventional wisdom?"

Carl Sagan. Drugs and science. A hero for the ages.