Dr. John P. Morgan was an extraordinary man. He knew more than anybody. To ask John a question – about anything – was to tap into a seemingly limitless storehouse of knowledge. What do you want to know about marijuana? Or methamphetamine? Or MDMA? How about PCP? Just ask John, because everything ever written on the topic appeared to be stored and filed in his wonderful brain. What about baseball? (And I’m not just talking about his beloved Cincinnati Reds.) Ask John. What about music? (And I’m not just talking about the thousands of songs that made mention of marijuana and cocaine, whether directly or elliptically.) Ask John. What about the latest popular novel or an obscure one written decades ago? Ask John.
That’s right. Ask Dr. John P. Morgan – and don’t forget that middle P for Paul. John loved many things but right at the top was to teach. Give him an audience – a classroom, a boardroom, a conference, a television studio, or just yourself – and he was off and running. He’d persist in explaining the molecular structure of a psychoactive drug to audiences that just wanted to know its effects, and insist on explaining the importance of “set and setting” to those who just wanted to hear about molecular structure. When John spoke, eyes opened wide and minds changed, not least because of his great pleasure in challenging any conventional wisdom that failed to square with the facts.
But of course John P. Morgan was not content to serve simply as the drug policy reform movement’s favorite encyclopedia. He was the activist intellectual par excellence. As drug testing spread like wildfire in the 1980s and 1990s, John rapidly emerged as the nation’s leading expert witness raising questions in courthouses throughout America about the its limits and unreliability. When drug enforcement agencies and ill-informed medical boards targeted compassionate doctors for prescribing opioid medications in unconventional but medically appropriate doses, John was among the first who stood up boldly for science. To describe the irrational fear of opiates in the
One of my favorite memories of John was at a DPF conference in the late 1990s. He was paired with the comparably contrarian Dutch professor and drug expert, Peter Cohen, debating “Are cigarettes addictive?” Professor Lynn Zimmer brilliantly moderated. Watching those fiercely competitive friends, both Szaszians at heart, go at it with passion and precision, to the delight of the activist audience, I thought of Bill Russell’s autobiography, “Second Wind,” in which the basketball legend described the rush of those rare moments when both teams peak together and competition turns into beautiful dance.
John’s humanity bubbled out ceaselessly. His love was legend. He was easy to cry, easy to rejoice, sometimes (only sometimes) quick to anger, and even quicker to apologize. And there was so much more: his fierce loyalty to his beloved wife, Claudia; his profound pride in his children Jennifer and Zachary, both now professors of history; his pure delight in his granddaughter, Emma; his extraordinary partnership with Lynn Zimmer, whose originality, brilliance and commitment to principle matched and complemented his own; his abundant friendships with so many who treasured his warmth, wit and wisdom — all these also defined John Morgan.
John could sing, John could dance, and John could dress the dandy, starting with a well chosen pair of socks and perfecting his way to the hat atop his head. He loved to perform, no question about that. One hundred people’s last memory of John will be his stunning presentation, just two months ago in
For me, one memory will prevail over all others: of a summer night in 1994 (I think it was), sitting in the highest seats of Meadowlands stadium, at a Grateful Dead concert – John holding a cup of ice cream as my daughter Lila, then six, ate tiny spoonfuls, not to be rushed as the vanilla cream melted and overflowed, white lines running down John’s forearm, as he moved not a muscle, for ever and ever.
And then there’s another story, as told by John. That he could talk, and talk and talk, we all knew, as did he. Asking him a question was like pushing a button releasing a geyser of fact, analysis and opinion — and it could be tricky to cut him off. Except, John revealed, when the person asking the question was his young granddaughter Emma. Once, she’d asked him a question on the phone and off John went. “OK, Papa,” she said, after a moment. “Bye, bye.”
Bye bye, John.