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The History of Marijuana in New York

One can hardly walk the streets of today's New York City without catching the wafting odor of burning marijuana. With the sudden relaxation of the laws against marijuana possession, it seems more and more common to catch the scent of some high quality skunk as you stroll through one of New York's many diverse neighborhoods. From the Brownstone-lined streets of Harlem, to the lofts of Chelsea, to the quiet residential street of Queens or the high rise apartment buildings of the Bronx and Brooklyn--it seems like everyone is toking up.

But is this collective cloud of weed smoke surrounding the city really a new phenomenon? Or is it as old as the city itself?

Part I: Early America to the Turn of the Century

Colonial & Revolutionary America

Marijuana was first introduced in North America by European settlers, who cultivated the crop for it useful fibers. Hemp cultivation made up a sizeable portion of the economy in the New World. Along with tobacco, hemp was a major export for pre-Revolutionary farmers

In the 1700's the English Crown granted subsidies to a number of states, including New York, where the hemp industry thrived. In parts of the country where hemp cultivation was common, it was not unusual for farmers to set aside some of their crop to smoke at the end of the day.

According to Edward Brecher's research on drug use in early America, George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon in 1765, and it has been argued that Washington was not only interested in hemp for its useful fibers but was also interested in increasing the medicinal or intoxicating potency of his marijuana plants.

Before the 20th century, there was almost no regulation of intoxicating substances in New York or any of the American colonies. Marijuana and other drugs, such as alcohol, opium and cocaine, were readily available and widely accepted for both recreational and medicinal use and could easily be purchased at any pharmacy of general store.

The term marijuana did not come into use until the early 1900s (which will be discuss in Part II). It was referred to as hemp, cannabis or hashish, hashish being the resin of the marijuana plant that was used for smoking.

The Civil War to The Turn of the Century

From 1850 until 1942, the United States Pharmacopeia, a publication which listed the most widely-accepted drugs, listed marijuana or Cannabis Extractuum as a legitimate medicine to treat neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea and hemorrhage.

An 1869 edition of Scientific American, commented on the recreational uses of marijuana, stating that "The drug hashish, the cannabis indica of the U.S. Pharmacopeia, the resinous product of hemp, grown in the East Indies and other parts of Asia, is used in those countries to a large extent for its intoxicating properties and is doubtless used in this country for the same purpose to a limited extent."

Recreational use of marijuana, in general, was not very common during this time with tobacco and alcohol remaining, by far, the most common recreational drugs until the Civil War era. It was only in the late 19th century that marijuana began to gain popularity as a recreational drug, especially in major cities.

New York was one of the epicenters for the growth in marijuana use. One 1876 issue of the Illustrated Police News featured a drawing entitled, "Secret Dissipation of New York Belles: Interior of a Hasheesh Hell on Fifth Avenue," showed five exotically dressed, New York ladies crowded around hookahs smoking "hasheesh." The image was clearly meant to show the unsavory aspects of recreational drug use.

A similar picture from 1868 (left), shows upper middle class ladies after a session of hashish smoking. The picture is entitled, "Modern methods of intoxication.—'A hasheesh party' in the City of New York—Young ladies 'under the effect' of a preparation of Indian hemp." These images clearly show that hashish smoking was an opportunity for upper and middle class men and women to gather socially and get "high". (Photo: Courtesy of US Customs and Border Patrol)

At this time, smoking hashish was largely a middle class phenomenon, with mostly wealthy individuals partaking in the activity. Hashish was an exotic new drug, newly introduced from Europe's Middle Eastern colonies, and was often smoked out of Turkish hookahs. It was this exotic experience that was appealing to middle class Americans, who had come into wealth in the newly industrialized nation.

The November, 1883, issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine included an piece by an anonymous investigator of New York`s "hashish dens," which read as such:

"There is a large community of hashish smokers in this city [New York], who are daily forced to indulge their morbid appetites, and I can take you to a house up-town where hemp is used in every conceivable form, and where the lights, sounds, odors, and surroundings are all arranged so as to intensify and enhance the effects ...[The hashish smokers] are about evenly divided between Americans and foreigners; indeed, the place is kept by a Greek, who has invested a great deal of money in it. All the visitors, both male and female, are of the better classes, and absolute secrecy is the rule. The house has been opened about two years, I believe, and the number of regular habitues is daily on the increase... Smokers from different cities, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and especially New Orleans, tell me that each city has its hemp retreat, but none so elegant as this"

While the recreational use of marijuana or hashish was generally demonized, most activists of the time were more concerned with opium and alcohol use compared to marijuana use which was relatively rare. While all these drugs were legal, the more common drugs, like alcohol and opium, were considered more dangerous to society and would remain the focus of temperance and prohibition activists until the early 1900`s.


READ MORE in Part II to see how marijuana went from a legal, but uncommon drug, mostly used by upper middle class or individuals seeking its medical benefits to a drug, demonized as an insanity-inducing drug, used by Mexican immigrants and Jazz Musicians.


From Facts About Drug Abuse - Participant Manual -The National Drug Abuse Center for Training Resource and Development. Publication No. 79-FADA-041P (1978)

Brecher, Edward M. and the editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Micit Drugs. The Consumers Union Report on Narcotics, Stimulants, Depressants, Inhalants, Halluncinogens, and Marijuana--including Caffeine, Nicotine, and Alcohol. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1972.



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