BY BEN THOMAS
Carl Sagan was one of the 20th century’s best-known and most widely admired scientific celebrities—and with good reason. As a planetary scientist, he contributed visionary insights on the atmospheres of Mars, Venus, and Jupiter’s moon Europa (which may harbor extraterrestrial life). As host of the documentary series Cosmos, he took millions of viewers on a guided tour of the universe, becoming a TV personality as beloved as Bill Nye and Bob Ross. And as an advocate for medical cannabis, he was decades ahead of his time.
However, as a public figure living at the height of the “war on drugs,” Sagan wisely kept his pro-cannabis stance under wraps. Among trusted friends, on the other hand, he professed his love of the leaf with passionate eloquence—even going so far as to pen an anonymous essay (under the pseudonym “Mr. X”) for the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered.
Much of Sagan’s cannabis correspondence has only come to light in recent years, revealing a long-hidden side of this man’s complex life—a side in which cannabinoids helped him reconnect with early childhood memories, arrive at new mathematical insights, expand his appreciation of art and music, and deepen his empathy and love for his wife Ann.
Let’s take a deeper dive into Sagan’s cannabis journeys, and hear—in his own words—how these experiences convinced him of this plant’s vital importance for humanity’s future.
Sagan’s first cannabis experience proved to be a bit of a letdown. Around 1959, his anonymous essay recounts, he’d reached a “relaxed period in life” after years of intensive scientific work. During that period, he became friendly with a group of people who smoked cannabis “irregularly, but with evident pleasure.” For months, Sagan politely declined every joint passed his way—until one evening, he finally decided to take an experimental toke.
After a half-hour or so, Sagan was feeling “no effect at all” (a common experience among first-time smokers), and he began to wonder if cannabis might be a placebo: a sort of “sugar pill” whose effects were entirely imaginary. However, his friends’ “euphoric” smoke sessions convinced Sagan to keep trying—and by his sixth or seventh attempt, the chemistry clicked:
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... I suddenly realized that I was examining an intricately detailed miniature Volkswagen, distinctly outlined by the shadows... When I closed my eyes, I was stunned to find that there was a movie going on the inside of my eyelids... a simple country scene with a red farmhouse, a blue sky, white clouds, yellow path meandering over green hills to the horizon… exquisitely deep hues, and astonishingly harmonious in their juxtaposition.
Though he clearly understood he was hallucinating, Sagan was still “convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis.” He soon became a regular (though relatively light) smoker, and would remain so until the end of his life. While his public persona continued to author popular-science books and host TV specials, Sagan pursued his own lifelong line of research in almost complete secrecy—diligently documenting the extraordinary mental phenomena he experienced while on cannabis.
Sagan’s trip reports sometimes read more like software manuals than spiritual texts—but then, that’s a big part of their unique appeal. Above all, Sagan was a clear and precise science communicator, and that’s the perspective he brought to his cannabis journeys. What other human being, for example, would describe their closed-eye visuals in these terms?
Another interesting information-theoretical aspect is the prevalence… of cartoons: just the outlines of figures, caricatures, not photographs. I think this is simply a matter of information compression; it would be impossible to grasp the total content of an image with the information content of an ordinary photograph, say 108 bits, in the fraction of a second which a flash occupies.
Then there was the time he took a shower while high, and ended up sketching statistical diagrams in soap on the wall tile—then translating those ideas into academic essays:
I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves… 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.
Of course, cannabis wasn’t solely responsible for these productions. Sagan’s view was that the plant helped streamline mental cross-pollination among the diverse scientific and mathematical disciplines he’d studied at the graduate level. His prodigious memory, curiosity, and rationality provided the raw materials, while cannabis connected and molded them into meaningful realizations.
Sagan was especially keen to disprove the widespread “myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning.” He was “convinced that this is an error, and that the… insights achieved when high are real.” The main problem, as he saw it, was “putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.” He addressed that problem by documenting his “highdeas” in painstaking detail—then analyzing and refining the good ones in the days to follow.
Sagan’s prodigious memory, curiosity, and rationality provided the raw materials, while cannabis connected and molded them into meaningful realizations.
As thought-provoking as Sagan’s scientific highs could be, some of his most touching trip reports focus not on rational calculations, but on emotional and aesthetic experiences: discovering music, exploring art, reliving childhood memories, and connecting more deeply with his wife through the sense-enhancing magic of cannabis.
For much of his life, Sagan had been (by his own admission) pretty clueless about music. But with the help of cannabis, he wrote, “For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint.” Along similar lines, he wrote, “the cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before.” He discovered a newfound ability to translate real-world scenes into colorful abstract paintings in his mind’s eye—an ability he’d never even conceived of, much less tried to develop, before cannabis awakened it.
Sagan also found that through cannabis, he could “penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era.” He discovered he was able to “reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time.” In other words, cannabis enabled him to re-experience childhood memories in vivid detail, from his full-grown perspective—granting him fresh insights into half-forgotten episodes from his early life.
“Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds.” – Carl Sagan.
Perhaps most profoundly of all, Sagan discovered that cannabis heightened his empathy for the people around him—particularly his wife Ann (a fellow partaker and legalization advocate), with whom he spent many happy hours “sharing talk and perceptions and humor.” In the bedroom, they found that cannabis lent sex “an exquisite sensitivity” that strengthened their physical bond, too. In moments like these, Sagan wrote, cannabis enabled him to “give [his] full attention to [each] sensation,” keeping him centered in the present.
For all these reasons, Sagan was firmly convinced that the “serenity and insight, sensitivity, and fellowship” fostered by cannabis were “desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.” Today, in a world just as mad and dangerous as ever, we can be grateful that Sagan followed his gut, and—in an era of brutally harsh drug prohibition—secretly chronicled his cannabis experiences for future generations who (he hoped) would someday be ready to read about them with open minds.
As in so many other areas, his instincts were right on point—just far ahead of their time.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.