The Eyes of the City: Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on the Marihuana Problem in New York

Fiorello LaGuardia

I recently attended the Urban History Association conference in Chicago, October 13-16 along with Tina Peabody and Shannon Missick, two colleagues from the University at Albany, SUNY, presenting a panel about the shifting focus of municipal resources toward (and away from) issues of trash collection, food access, and marijuana use. I examined the La Guardia Committee Report on the Marihuana Problem in New York, published in 1944. The committee was tasked with investigating the validity of public hysteria surrounding marijuana use in New York City during the so-called Reefer Madness era, which galvanized political support for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Harry Anslinger

The committee report stands as a clear refutation of Anslinger’s version of the marijuana threat, and though largely ignored at the time, constitutes a rallying cry for advocates of legalization today who use the report to expose the flimsy bases for the drug’s initial prohibition. The report has thus become a hot new source for historians to re-examine. In a newly published article in the Journal of Policy History, Emily Brooks discusses the disconnect between federal marijuana policy approaches and local marijuana policy approaches, centering the La Guardia report within this policy conflict. Brooks argues that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was able to exert its power to shape marijuana policy and along with an assist from the American Medical Association, to circumscribe medical and scientific inquiries into the plant despite the efforts of La Guardia and the New York Academy of Medicine to counter their power in the late 1930s.

For me, (and as Points blog readers know), my research is focused on the users themselves, and it attempts to recast interpretations of marijuana users from a range of traditional and non-traditional sources. So while Brooks appropriately poked methodological holes into both the clinical and the sociological surveys (the two main components of the report) my research attempts to make sense of what we do have, even if significantly flawed. I’m finding that as I do this more and more, a distinctive cannabis subculture in New York (between 1930-1960) is coming into focus.

The central institution in this subculture was the tea pad. These were residential units that served as gathering places for marijuana users that provided the marijuana and various amenities for users. There is perhaps no way of knowing the extent of these networks, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that some sort of disparate network of suppliers, sellers, and users did exist in New York during this time. My larger project attempts to reconstruct this subculture and determine its role in setting the groundwork for the explosion of pot’s popularity in the city (and indeed well beyond) during the 1960s.

The La Guardia committee’s survey opened a temporary window into that community through its sociological survey, and it appears to sharply contrast the assumptions of federal officials that the majority of users were poor migrant workers from Mexico, or poor African American jazz musicians. As Diana Ahmad has discovered in her book about the opium debate in the nineteenth-century West, the focus on stereotyped users ignores the extent of use among members of the dominant demographic group. The clinical study also sheds light on the nature of users, and while this portion also refuted the official position, it is less useful for determining the experience of users on their own terms.

During the clinical study a control group of 5 people was compared to 72 subjects (65M, 7F), all of them then supervision of the New York City Department of Corrections. Of the 72 inmates, 42 men and 6 women had a prior history of use, and all 72 had volunteered to participate in the study. The committee chose subjects from among inmates for two significant reasons. First, the subjects could be “kept under continuous observation throughout the period desired.” Secondly the pool of corrections inmates “constituted an excellent sample of the class in New York City from which the marihuana user comes.” Even the control group was selected to represent a typical user based on some of the very assumptions the study was trying to debunk. This was a person outside the range of “normal” personality, of low socioeconomic status, but possessing above average intelligence. This was “the type of person who would readily take to marihuana were the opportunity offered.” Incidentally, these were almost the exact characteristics used to describe the “crafty foreigner,” supposedly selling all this dope to kids.

The conclusions of the clinical study were perhaps not surprising. The drug tended to produce “feelings of relaxation, lowered inhibitions, and self-confidence” but could also produce “feelings of anxiety.” Not one of the subjects exhibited violent behavior or changes in their foundational personalities. But as Isaac Campos has argued, the effects of a psychoactive substances on individuals are both socially and culturally contingent, this psychoactive riddle remains “a complex tangle of pharmacology, psychology, and culture.” To fully understand the drugs effects on social beings, we have to add set and setting to the clinical results. Despite its flaws, the sociological study can shed light on the set and setting.

This portion of the study was conducted using six NYPD cadets praised in the published report as individuals, “whose intelligence, interest in the work, and desire to obtain the facts of the situation were of invaluable aid in obtaining the information on which the sociological report is based.” These six individuals, “acted as investigators and social workers and not as police officers” further “their immediate supervisors cooperated to an extreme degree by allowing the marihuana squad [who were constantly in contact with violators of law] to report directly to the director of the survey.”

The surveyors determined that there were two ways to find marijuana in the city either from a peddler (street-level dealer) or in a tea-pad. Supplies came in three recognized qualities, each from distinct sources. The least prevalent, highest quality marijuana (likely hashish) was apparently imported from Africa. The most prevalent form was of middling quality and was smuggled into city ports from Mexico and the Caribbean. The lowest grade, or “sass-frass” was grown in the communities surrounding the city proper.

The other significant determination was about the extent and nature of use. The report suggests that as many as 500 peddlers and 500 tea pads operated within city limits. The count was based, obviously not on a painstaking census, but from “general observations” as well as conversations with individual peddlers and tea pad operators. The tea pads were concentrated in Harlem and an area “a little east and west of Broadway and extending from 42nd Street to 59th Street,” but could be found all over the city. The surveyors made most of their connections through simple conversation with people in “poolrooms, bars and grills, dime-a-dance halls, other dance halls, theaters, roller skating rinks, subways, public toilets, parks, and docks.”

My research will continue to uncover this cannabis subculture in New York City between 1930 and 1960. But the findings of the Laguardia report demonstrate the need for comprehensive research on these subjects that take into account the set and setting of use. Though my methodological approach is clearly geared toward the official archives (police, parole, and health records) the issues of legitimacy involved with the concept of drug, set, and setting necessitate a more comprehensive research strategy on my part to challenge the tyranny of the conventional archives. I have begun to lay out this sociological evidence in the Jazz community in Harlem and the theater community in and around Broadway in order to examine these subgroups on their own terms and not filtered through the eyes of the city and its political and medical authorities who often dehumanize the clinical subject into personality types and test results.

But more importantly, the sociological study of the Laguardia committee report on marihuana shows that the deliberate obscuring of the “open secret” the underground networks of growers, distributors, sellers, and users not only existed in New York City prior to the reefer madness era, but also survived reefer madness relatively unscathed. The NYPD did not immediately begin to arrest peddlers and tea pad operators after the six undercover agents returned to active duty. Instead, limited resources continued to focus on drugs considered more dangerous (especially heroin), and on the stereotyped marijuana user (poor Latino and Black men).