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The History of Marijuana in New York

Part II: From the Turn of the Century to the 1930`s

Mexican Immigration & Prohibition

It wasn`t until after the turn of the century that the term marijuana came into use. The change in terminology coincided with a change in the type of people that were seen as using marijuana.

Previously, smoking marijuana was considered a vice of the "better classes," and although it was disparaged it was accepted. Recreational marijuana was then referred to as hashish for its exotic appeal. Cannabis was the term most often used for medical marijuana.

However, after the end of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, large numbers of immigrants fled Mexico and came to the American Southwest. They brought with them, the custom of smoking what they called, "marijuana."

The Harrison Act, which had been passed in the early 20th century to restrict the sale and use of opium and heroin, had mostly been aimed at demonizing Chinese immigrants in the American West, who were stereotyped as drug addicts and a threat to American society.

This 1899 cartoon (left), show a Chinese immigrant with a smoking opium pipe in his left hand who has just murdered a white woman. This image shows that popular opinion that opium would send users into a murderous rage. These sentiments were used to turn public opinion against an immigrant group that was already much maligned.

Marijuana use became associated with Mexican immigrants. While most states did not make marijuana illegal until the late 1920`s and 1930`s, many states had enacted laws against marijuana in the decades before. Of the 22 states at the time that were located west of the Mississippi river, 16 had enacted local laws against marijuana before 1930.

Considering these were the areas with the largest populations of Mexican immigrants and that local newspapers regularly ran stories about crimes committed by immigrants driven insane from smoking marijuana, it seems that this prejudice was the driving force behind local legislation making marijuana illegal. One New York Times headline from 1925 read as such; "KILLS SIX IN A HOSPITAL.; Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife" (left).

Marijuana was thought to drive individuals into a crazed state of "blood lust". A 1905 piece in the Los Angeles Times, entitled "Delirium or death: terrible effects produced by certain plants and weeds grown in Mexico," described the effects of marijuana as such as such; "Not long ago a man who had smoken a marihuana cigarette attacked and killed a policeman and badly wounded three others; six policemen were needed to disarm him and march him to the police station where he had to be put into a straight jacket. Such occurrences are frequent… People who smoke marihuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of times suddenly."

Marijuana continued to be characterized this way throughout the era, despite contemporary scientific evidence to the contrary. Specifically, one 1926 study conducted by Panamanian authorities concluded that marijuana smoking was relatively safe, and it was "recommended that no steps be taken by the authorities of the Canal Zone to prevent the sale or use of marijuana and that no special legislation on that subject was needed."

Despite these facts, during the debate over an anti-marijuana law put forth in Montana in 1929 the testimony of one Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County read as such; "When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff, he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his political enemies." It was thought that these Mexican "marijuana-addicts," would be driven to violence, when using the drug (An advertisement distributed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1935, left).

New York was one of the first states outside of the Southwest to pass anti-marijuana legislation although the rationale behind the legislation was different. The first bill regulating marijuana in New York was passed in 1914 and made it a misdemeanor to sell marijuana to customers without a prescription. Marijuana was added to the state`s general narcotics statue, called the Boylan Bill, in 1927, which added it to the list of other "habit forming drugs" prohibited by law.

Since Mexican immigrants were not as prevalent in the Eastern U.S. in the 1920`s, race was not as much of a factor in the anti-marijuana movement; instead, marijuana was seen as a possible alternative to alcohol and opium which had already been outlawed. As one New York Times editor wrote about the law, "[T]he inclusion of cannabis indica among the drugs to be sold only on prescription is only common sense. Devotees of hashish are now hardly numerous enough here to count, but they are likely to increase as other narcotics become harder to obtain."

In fact, during prohibition, marijuana did gain popularity, especially in New York City, where establishments called "Tea pads" began popping up in the 1920`s. These "Tea pads" were similar to opium dens or speakeasies except prices were far lower:

"A man could get high for a quarter on marihuana smoked in the pad, or for even less if he bought the marihuana at the door and took it away to smoke. Most of the marihuana, it was said, was harvested from supplies growing wild on Staten Island or in New Jersey and other nearby states; marihuana and hashish imported from North Africa were more potent and cost more. These tea pads were tolerated by the city, much as alcohol speakeasies were tolerated. By the 1930s there were said to be 500 of them in New York City alone" (Brecher, 1972).

Marijuana use was widespread in other metropolitan cities as well, including in southern cities near the Mexican border, where the effects of Mexican immigration and prohibition collided. In 1926, two New Orleans newspapers ran a series of "exposes" on the "marijuana menace," reporting that "sailors from Cuba and the South American countries were importing large quantities of cannabis into New Orleans and that marihuana smoking had become widespread, even among children. The Waif`s Home, at this time was reputedly full of children, both white and colored, who had been brought in under the influence of the drug. Marihuana cigarettes could be bought almost as readily as sandwiches" (Brecher, 1972).

Marijuana & Jazz

Smoking marijuana became more widespread through the 1920`s, especially amongst jazz musicians. In the 1920`s, common slang terms for marijuana included, muggles, muta, gage, tea, reefer, grifa, Mary Warner, Mary Jane and Rosa Maria, and marijuana smokers were often called vipers.

Louis Armstrong (left), long-time user and defender of the drug was arrested in California in 1930 for possession of marijuana. Armstrong told his biographers, "We always looked at pot as a sort of cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that`s full of liquor." In the 1950`s, Armstrong would write a letter to President Eisenhower, urging him to consider legalizing marijuana saying, "It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro."

Later on his life, the famous jazz trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, would write in his autobiography: "When I came to New York in 1937, I didn`t drink nor smoke marijuana… Charlie Shavers… turned me on to smoking pot. Now, certainly, we were not the only ones. Some of the older musicians had been smoking reefers for 40 or 50 years. Jazz musicians, the old ones and the young ones, almost all of them that I knew smoked pot…"

Many jazz songs contained references to marijuana use, such as Louis Armstrong`s song "Muggles," Cab Calloway`s "That Funny Reefer man," or Fats Waller`s "Viper Drag." Other such examples included the popular songs; "Tea for Two," "Lotus Blossom," and "Smoking Reefers" (Naler, 2007).

Jazz helped popularize marijuana use but also led it to be seen as a counter-culture drug used by "African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites" and, thus, was seen as the drug of social deviants and the "lower races" (Schlosser, 1994). This contrasts with the previous era when "hashish smoking" amongst upper and middle class whites was largely tolerated.

Reefer Madness & the Marijuana Tax Act

By the 1930, numerous studies had been released linking marijuana use by lower class communities with crime and violence. In 1936 the film, Reefer Madness was released, which depicted marijuana driving young people insane with violent results (Watch the Original Trailer Below or the Full Video on YouTube). By 1937, forty-six states and Washington D.C. had some type of law against marijuana and in most of these states, marijuana possession was met with the same penalties as possession of heroin, morphine or cocaine.

In response to propaganda like Reefer Madness and and growing reports of violence caused by marijuana use, in 1937 Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which criminalized marijuana possession and cultivation. A government issued stamp was required to grow or sell marijuana; however, since the government issues no such stamps, marijuana became effectively illegal.

One of the most zealous advocates of marijuana prohibition was the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department`s Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger was known for spreading sensational reports of violence associated with marijuana use. He often used race to demonize marijuana and was specifically disdainful of jazz musicians and the marijuana-smoking counterculture they represented.

One report, co-authored by Anslinger, which appeared in the July 1937 issue of American Magazine, shows how he depicted marijuana`s relation to violent crime:

"An entire family was murdered by a youthful [marihuana] addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an ax he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze… He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crime. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said he had been in the habit of smoking something with youthful friends called 'muggles,' a childish name for marihuana"

He also used race to make "white society," fear marijuana:

"Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy"

"Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis."

In the hearings to pass the Marijuana Tax Act, Anslinger's included a letter from Floyd Baskette, the city editor of the Alamosa (Colo.) Daily Courier in his testimony. The letter said in part, "I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions."

New York & The LaGuardia Committee

One public official, who disagreed with Anslinger`s take to marijuana on marijuana, was New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who commissioned a committee in 1939 to investigate the effects of smoking marijuana. The LaGuardia Commission`s report was compiled by the New York Academy of Medicine and came to a series of conclusion that contradicted the prevailing narrative about marijuana. The report was published in 1944 and concluded, among other things, that:

  • "The practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word."
  • "The use of marijuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marijuana smoking."
  • "Marijuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes."
  • "Marijuana smoking is not widespread among school children."
  • "Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marijuana."
  • "The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marijuana smoking in New York City is unfounded."

In response to the conclusions, Mayor LaGuardia came out for the legalization of marijuana, which infuriated Anslinger, who denounced the committee`s study as "unscientific." In an attempt to find contradictory opinions that would support his position, Anslinger commissioned a study by the AMA, which eventually found that "those who smoked marijuana, became disrespectful of white soldiers and officers during military segregation." Later these studies would be discredited based on inherent bias. Of the 35 subjects in the AMA study 34 were black and only one was white.

Despite, a lack of scientific evidence about the dangers of Marijuana, it would remain illegal. Anslinger and his Bureau of Narcotics would spend the upcoming years trying to eradicate a plant that would could often be found growing on the side of the road. This marked the beginning of a war on marijuana that still persists today.

In the next section we will see how marijuana and the counter-culture associate with its use led it to become more and more popular, until it would play a pivotal role in the social movements of the 1960`s.


THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT AND THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE: AN INQUIRY INTO THE LEGAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN MARIJUANA PROHIBITION. Richard J. Bonnie & Charles H. Whitebread, II. http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/vlr/vlr2.htm

HISTORY OF DRUG USE AND DRUG USERS IN THE UNITED STATES. Elaine Casey. From Facts About Drug Abuse - Participant Manual -The National Drug Abuse Center for Training Resource and Development. Printed: November, 1978 http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/history/casey1.htm

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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