Mayor Fiorello La Guardia Slams Federal Drug War (1939-1944)

La Guardia pouring beer in office during Prohibition. (LaGuardia Wagner Archives.)

La Guardia pouring beer in office during Prohibition. (LaGuardia Wagner Archives.)

Fiorello La Guardia is widely regarded as the best mayor in New York City’s history, and on 4/20 we remember his impressive and forward-thinking approach to marijuana. La Guardia served as mayor from 1934 to 1945, and during the early years of his administration, weed use barely registered as an issue. Annual arrests for sales and use numbered in the hundreds annually.

In 1937, however, Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which banned the substance federally, mostly on “reefer madness”-style claims that the drug was being pushed by Mexican drug cartels and led to violence, addiction and anarchy. La Guardia, who intuited that this was not the case, convened the Mayor’s Committee on Marijuana, a blue ribbon commission run by the New York Academy of Medicine, to do a thorough investigation of marijuana and its effects.

The La Guardia Committee, as it was known, became the first thorough American study into the use of marijuana. Though its methodology was far from perfect by modern standards, the committee spent five years collecting data, testing the effects of marijuana in controlled environments, and observing public marijuana use.

La Guardia’s skepticism over the new war on drugs drew the attention of Harry Anslinger, head of the federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger held a hearing in New York, during which he got into a public spat with La Guardia’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Walter Bromberg, in which Bromberg challenged Anslinger’s claim of a causal relationship between marijuana use and crime. The relationship between La Guardia and Anslinger remained strained throughout his mayoralty.

The La Guardia Committee Report on Marihuana, finally published in 1944, made some startling conclusions:

“The practice of marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word… The sale and distribution of marihuana is not under the control of any single organized group…The use of marihuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction… Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of crimes… Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marihuana…Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of crimes.”

This Brooklyn Public Library image shows the White Wing Squad cracking down on a grow site within site of downtown Brooklyn.

This Brooklyn Public Library image shows the White Wing Squad cracking down on a grow site within site of downtown Brooklyn.

The La Guardia Committee flatly rejected the federal government’s argument that marijuana was a gateway drug, a cartel drug, a corrupter of youth, creating an addiction crisis, and responsible for a crime increase. In 2015, we know that this is largely correct, except perhaps that Mexican cartels have become more involved with the marijuana trade because of prohibition-induced supply scarcity. The report concluded, “the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated.” (You can read the full report here.) Unfortunately, the La Guardia Committee Report had minimal impact; La Guardia stepped down after three terms in 1945, and the federal government warned the city not to conduct further research.

Anslinger reacted to the report scathingly, arguing that it was not based on sound science. This critique was ironic, of course, since Anslinger’s unsubstantiated fear mongering and completely unscientific “studies” were the entire premise for launching the war on drugs. In 1972, a national commission established by President Nixon admitted that Anslinger’s attacks on marijuana had been baseless, and advised an end to marijuana prohibition.

Meanwhile, the war on drugs didn’t come to New York City right away. By the early 1950s, marijuana cultivation was rampant, especially in abandoned lots, leading to the creation of the White Wing Squad, a collaboration between the NYPD and Department of Sanitation that uncovered and incinerated literally tons of weed (41,000 pounds).

During the 1970s, a pair of New York legislators, Senator Jacob Javits and Congressman Ed Koch, sponsored a federal bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, but the Carter administration was not interested. Not waiting for federal action, In 1977, New York State Governor Hugh Carey signed the Marijuana Reform Act, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of weed, severing the drug from the otherwise draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Until Mayor Giuliani’s second term, which sowed the seeds of stop & frisk, marijuana arrest and conviction numbers in New York City were pretty low. During the Bloomberg era, the 1977 law was rampantly ignored or abused by the NYPD, who arrested people for possession by the thousands.

NYPD Commish Bill Bratton holds up what looks like oregano. Photo by DNA Info.

NYPD Commish Bill Bratton holds up what looks like oregano. Photo by DNA Info.

In the aftermath of a loud public debate about the wisdom and legality of stop & frisk, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced he would no longer prosecute low-level marijuana arrests. Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton then announced a de-emphasis on marijuana arrests in late 2014, and marijuana arrests have plummeted since then.

Unfortunately, New York State’s marijuana laws remain embarrassingly backwards, allowing only a very small number of licensees to provide medical marijuana, with no dispensaries open yet. While New York inches towards decriminalization, other states across the country are allowing new industries in medical and recreational marijuana to grow and mature, leaving New York in the dust. Hopefully Mayor de Blasio, who has openly admitted to smoking weed during college, will see the moral, rational and economic incentives behind ending the war on drugs within city limits. After all, he need look no further than the city’s great progressive leader from another era, Fiorello La Guardia.

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