Friday, February 3, 2023

Will It Ever Be Legal? A Deep-Dive Into New York’s Marijuana History

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for officials to study the impact of legalizing marijuana in a manner similar to beer. If all goes according to plan, recreational marijuana in the Empire State could soon join eight other states and the District of Columbia.

Some believe that legal weed in New York would give the federal government no option but to consider legalizing the herb, the same as it has done with alcohol and tobacco. But it has been a long process getting to this point. One with an interesting history.

Marijuana was thrown into the pits of prohibition after propaganda campaigns sent White America into a downward spiral of fear. US officials like Harry Anslinger made it their life’s work to convince the nation that pot users (mainly jazz musicians at the time) were a scourge that should be dealt with law enforcement action. Key health officials in New York went against the grain of the government’s philosophy on this matter. These were the folks discussing “treatment,” rather than incarceration for those lost to the grips of “marijuana addiction.”

But marijuana was not shutdown so easily.

A decade later, weed had made its way from the jazz clubs into the white arts scene. Beat poet Jack Kerouac, who penned novels On the Road and Big Sur, reportedly got his first taste of marijuana while hanging around black jazz musicians. A report from the New York Times suggests that this Kerouac may have been introduced to the herb at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early 1940s. Jazz musician Lester Young is said to have been the person to turn him on.

While marijuana was being demonized, medical professionals were still not convinced the herb was all bad. In fact, the New York Academy published a report in 1944 discounting claims that marijuana was turning users into “murderous fiends.” The study showed that the average pot 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.” Researchers, however, found no evidence that pot makes people want to kill.

Marijuana was grown all over New York in the 1950s. The New York Times says “Cannabis plants grew as tall as Christmas trees in vacant lots and underpasses in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.” But eradication efforts were beefed up shortly after, eliminating 41,000 pounds of plants. These anti-marijuana activities eventually lead to some of the first pro-marijuana marches. Perhaps the most infamous was the one conducted by Allen Ginsberg in 1965 outside the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village.

In the 1980s, marijuana was being discussed as an alternative treatment for AIDS. Martin A. Lee, the director of Project CBD, said 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.”

Within the next decade, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani got busy trying to clean up New York. The police tactics that followed like stop-and-search disproportionately targeted blacks and Hispanics. Although Mayor Bill de Blasio said a few years ago that he was eliminating these types of racist policies, the practices never really changed.

So, will New York be one of the next states to legalize marijuana? It’s hard to say. But one thing is certain – what the state does next with respect to the cannabis plant will be considered either a cultural milestone or reflection of its lack of courage.



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