New York Today: A Cultural History of Marijuana


Good morning on this brightening Monday.

Will New York be the next state to legalize marijuana? Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2018 budget plan calls for a study of the pros and cons.

If legal weed comes to New York City, it would finally achieve legitimacy in a place with a long, mixed record of tolerance and crackdowns. Here’s a quick spin through the cultural history of pot here.

• In the 1930s, as authorities nationwide waged war on “reefer madness,” a doctor at the Manhattan Detention Complex urged treatment, not incarceration, for the city’s marijuana “addicts,” including jazz musicians who “find it necessary to take it before playing.”

• Pot moved out of jazz clubs and marginalized communities and into mainstream (read: white) culture with the help of the Beat authors. Jack Kerouac, according to his first wife, took his first hit from the saxophonist Lester Young at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early 1940s.

• The New York Academy of Medicine’s 1944 La Guardia report, commissioned by the mayor, debunked the myth of the murderous marijuana fiend. Researchers found that a typical smoker “readily engages in conversation with strangers, discussing freely his pleasant reactions to the drug and philosophizing on subjects pertaining to life in a manner which, at times, appears to be out of keeping with his intellectual level.”

• By 1950, cannabis plants grew as tall as Christmas trees in vacant lots and underpasses in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. But a 1951 eradication effort yanked up 41,000 pounds of the plant.

• One of the first pro-pot marches took place outside the New York Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village in 1965, spearheaded by Allen Ginsberg.


Allen Ginsberg, with “Pot is fun” sign, marching in New York. Creditvia Getty Images

• And in the late ’80s the underground “green aid” movement, a forerunner to legal medical marijuana, supplied ganja to AIDS patients to ease the effects of the harsh drugs given to patients at the time.

“There’s no question: New York has played a very important role, historically, as a location for the cannabis phenomenon in the United States,” said Martin A. Lee, the author of “Smoke Signals” and the director of Project CBD, a nonprofit that publicizes research on medical uses of cannabis.

• The city cracked down again in the 1990s under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose aggressive policing tactics, like stop-and-frisk, disproportionately affected blacks and Latinos and made New York the pot arrest capital of America.

 Mayor Bill de Blasio — who toked as an N.Y.U. undergrad — promised to cut back on marijuana arrests, but they have barely budged and racial disparities persist.

“Culturally, New York has been way out ahead of the law when it comes to cannabis,” Mr. Lee said. “But politically, New York is certainly not a pioneer or a profile in courage. Now, it’s more toward the caboose instead of the front of the train.”

And Finally…


Yae or nay? CreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

In other marijuana news, here are some of your responses to last month’s request for thoughts on legalization:


“Not only does cannabis have, almost without argument, various medical uses, but the amount of revenue brought in by taxes on cannabis could help pay for things we obviously are having trouble finding money for: maintenance and repair of New York’s fading and failing infrastructure, homelessness issues, affordable housing issues and drug rehabilitation issues.”

 Jamie Legon, 66, Morningside Heights

“Petty arrests for possession of marijuana have disproportionately targeted low-income communities of color for too long. As a step toward making our justice system more fair and modern, let’s rethink how we criminalize drug use.”

— Dylan Lee, 22, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn

“Recreational marijuana should definitely be legal in New York. However, we as a society need to have an honest conversation about the pros and cons of using marijuana — there are many. We also need to remove any and all barriers into medical research of the drug by unbiased scientists so that we can improve our understanding of the effects of this substance that so many of us consume.”

— André Salerno, 32, Williamsburg, Brooklyn


“I am against legalization simply because it smells bad and New Yorkers live and commute in tight spaces. In New York City the skunky stink seeps into my apartment and I can smell it walking on the sidewalk or lingering on the clothes of subway riders.”

— Marianne Harmon, 41, Upper West Side

“I am absolutely against America becoming a nation of potheads. We need our critical thinking more than ever now, and marijuana is scientifically documented to slow reaction time and motivation, cause changes in the brain and negatively affect the lungs.”

— Anne Russell, 80, Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

“I do not support the legalization of marijuana for a simple reason that the cost treating people with potential side effects of the drug is enormous.”

— Howard Zhang, 26, West New York, N.J.

Wait, I’m confused:

“Oh, it’s not legal in New York? I walk down the street smelling its pungent aroma just about everywhere in the city. You can get it delivered to your home in an hour. Why on earth don’t we legalize it? Everyone would be way happier and more chill.”

— Joanne Bernbaum, 59, Williamsburg, Brooklyn