The relatively few people from the West who visit Bhutan are often stunned at what they see. The mountain nation is seemingly the ideal location to grow marijuana, given that the plant is everywhere!
In fact, cannabis is so prevalent there that the Bhutanese consider it a weed! It is rather funny seeing marijuana growing on the roof of a person’s house! However, cannabis remains illegal for human consumption in Bhutan. You are also not supposed to cultivate it. Nonetheless, farmers sometimes use it to feed their pigs!
Given the difficulties some Americans have growing cannabis, a Bhutan-like situation seems impossible. However, weed once grew wild in many locations in the U.S., and still does! In places such as Minnesota and Indiana, you may even see ‘ditch weed’ growing on the side of the road.
As you’re doubtless well aware, this isn’t the situation in urban areas, at least, not today. It seems impossible now, but approximately 70 years ago, New York City resembled parts of Bhutan! The Big Apple contained huge marijuana plants that grew wild and free. Sadly, everything changed in 1951, as the authorities finally cracked down, some 14 years after the Marihuana Tax Act.
In this article, we look at the New York Marijuana Massacre that removed weed from the city. First, let’s take a look at a brief history of cannabis in NYC.
When New York Led the Way in Cannabis Tolerance (Not That Kind!)
There are calls for New York state to legalize adult-use marijuana. Experts in the field believe that NY will allow recreational cannabis sooner rather than later. Governor Andrew Cuomo is a supporter of the herb. He included weed legalization in his latest budget proposal and will work with neighboring states. Cuomo is the man who signed legislation to permit a medical marijuana program in New York in 2014.
It ended a century of prohibition in the state, which was among the first to act against the plant. In 1914, New York started restricting marijuana by requiring citizens to get a prescription to use the drug. It was a volte-face by the state, which initially welcomed the herb in the 19th century. In 1857, the New York Daily News published a letter praising the effects of Cannabis indica. The letter said that the herb, also called East Indian hemp, was “a sure counteractive to the poison of rabies.”
We know that Americans were in favor of the herb in the 1800s. Things changed when a considerable number of Mexicans moved into the country in the wake of that nation’s revolution. These immigrants used cannabis recreationally. As America turned against the new arrivals, opportunists such as Harry Anslinger used racism to demonize marijuana. The activity of Anslinger and the Bureau of Narcotics resulted in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. A piece of legislation that effectively outlawed the herb across the United States.
“Mexican Family Go Insane”
Being fair to New York, the state’s anti-marijuana stance began before the influx of immigrants. In 1901, the New York Times wrote that cannabis was “a harmless-looking drug.” However, the publication also said it “sends its victims running amok.” This use of language, such as the term ‘victims’ is fascinating. The Times was already describing the herb in an extremely negative fashion.
On a national level, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. It ensured that citizens were permitted to use cannabis with a prescription. This was eight years before New York state implemented a specific prescription protocol. Up until 1927, New Yorkers could get a prescription relatively easily, and enjoy cannabis ‘medicinally.’
Then, the New York Times went full Reefer Madness (a decade ahead of time). On July 5, 1927, it published an article with the scary title: “Mexican Family Go Insane.” According to doctors, a widow and her four children were “driven insane” after eating the cannabis plant. The physicians went on to say that the mother would remain insane for the rest of her life. Also, there was “no hope of saving the children’s lives.”
What’s fascinating is that the story clearly says the family accidentally ate raw cannabis. As you probably know, the raw marijuana plant isn’t psychoactive. Therefore, there is no way the herb could have caused such devastating consequences.
This story came two years after the Times ran an even worse anti-cannabis story. In February 1925, it claimed that a Mexican called Escrado Valle killed six people after ‘running amok’ in a hospital. Valle had apparently become “crazed from smoking marihuana.” It began an era of ludicrous anti-cannabis propaganda, culminating in Reefer Madness in 1936.
A Change of Opinion in New York
Whether it was the article in the Times or something else, New York state banned cannabis in 1927. A decade later, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act effectively prohibited the herb across the United States. While New York was as guilty of anti-marijuana hysteria up until 1937, it began to take a step back. Soon enough, it became a leading light in the quest for more knowledge about the plant.
While the rest of America was busy ostracizing those who used the herb, there were voices of reason in New York. A doctor at the Manhattan Detention Complex in the 1930s urged treatment rather than prison time for cannabis ‘addicts.’ Despite the best efforts of the authorities, weed moved out of jazz clubs and into the mainstream. The likes of Jack Kerouac helped popularize cannabis in the 1940s.
The Times continued to stir the pot, however. In 1941, it ran with a story claiming that a sailor murdered someone at sea after using cannabis. However, common sense started to prevail within the state. The Mayor of New York, Fiorella LaGuardia, assigned a committee to look into cannabis in the city in 1939. Five years later, the LaGuardia Report found that the ‘gateway theory’ was primarily false. It also suggested that cannabis was not widely associated with use by children, addiction, or juvenile delinquency.
The report effectively debunked most myths attributed to marijuana. It also revealed the stupidity of the hysteria that surrounded the plant. Sadly, anti-cannabis campaigners such as Anslinger were able to convince the public to dismiss the report. America had pressing matters to attend to during World War II, so the anti-weed sentiment died down for a while. Meanwhile, cannabis continued to grow all over New York City!
When Weed Grew Wild in NYC
Despite the prohibition, New York officials were unable to crack down on the use of cannabis completely. One reason was the existence of gigantic marijuana plants within the city! It wasn’t unusual to spot a field of six-foot plants in abandoned yards in NYC in the first half of the 20th century. In 1924, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the city’s Sanitation Department started to address the issue. They decided to ‘slash and burn’ every cannabis plant they could find.
It wasn’t a particularly successful effort, nor did they keep it up for long. By 1951, parts of New York City resembled Bhutan! Newspaper reports from the summer of that year wrote about 10-foot tall Cannabis sativa plants. You could find them in Bronx underpasses and sparsely populated avenues.
The Sanitation Department, led by John E. Gleason, had enough of seeing the plant growing without restriction in their city. He founded a ‘White Wing Squad’ that was charged with harvesting and burning the illegal plants. Despite the spectacular sounding name, the White Wing Squad consisted of sanitation workers. They had no specialized training. Their orders were simple: Find and destroy every single cannabis plant they could.
The ‘white wing’ name came from the 1890s. At that time, the head of the Sanitation Department, Colonel George Edwin Waring Junior, had a bright idea. He decided to dress the garbage men in white duck cloth uniforms in a desperate bid to instill military-style order. Waring was concerned about the department’s ill-discipline. He also banned the men from using foul language or entering saloons. Quite why he believed that dressing garbage men in white uniforms was a good idea is an utter mystery!
The New York Marijuana Massacre Eliminates Wild Cannabis From NYC
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the beginning of the massacre with the headline ‘EVIL HARVEST.’ Over the next few months, the White Wing Squad worked incredibly hard to complete their task. Newspapers began mentioning the squad by name towards the end of 1951. One report spoke of a mission in Coney Island to remove the biggest crop yet. Reportedly, some of the plants were the size of Christmas trees! There are a host of cool images showing White Wing Squad members standing beside plants that completely dwarf them!
During the summer of ’51, the squad uprooted and destroyed an incredible 41,000 pounds of marijuana. The largest haul came from Brooklyn at 17,200 pounds. The Daily Eagle estimated the value of the destroyed crops in that borough alone at approximately $6 million.
What’s fascinating is that in some of these photos, you can see a few unusual facial expressions. One showed a young lady who looked suspiciously high. The squad found 100 pounds of weed in her yard! There are other pictures of White Wing workers looking a little too happy in their work! You can also see images of laborers with odd-looking cigarettes.
Not everyone in NYC was enthused with the crackdown. John Murtagh, the State Supreme Court Justice, was against the move. He pointed out that studies had already shown that cannabis was not addictive and arguably safer than tobacco cigarettes.
Incidentally, Gleason was in the news two years later. He was found guilty on four counts of lying to a Grand Jury regarding an extortion racket in the Fire Department. The White Wings leader received a 3.5-year prison sentence!
Marijuana in New York Today
The ‘massacre’ wasn’t so much a turning point as a turning of the screw in the war against cannabis. Their work completed; the Sanitation Department was only too happy to leave future enforcement in the hands of the New York Police Department (NYPD). Usage of the herb increased in the state during the 1960s and 1970s. Even so, the drug was now ‘taboo,’ and officials across the nation were determined to punish users.
The Supreme Court ruled that the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional in 1969. However, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 placed cannabis on a list of controlled substances. It remains a Schedule I substance today. New York wasted little time implementing its own crackdown.
In 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation that became known as the ‘Rockefeller Drug Laws.’ It increased the penalty for selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of cannabis. The law also applied to substances such as cocaine, heroin, and morphine, and involved a minimum prison sentence of 15 years! The maximum sentence was 25 years to life.
In 1977, the state decriminalized possession of fewer than 25 grams of cannabis. It led to a dramatic slide in low-level arrests. However, the figure grew exponentially larger from the mid-1990s onward. A brief respite occurred after Mayor Bill de Blasio asked police to stop arresting people for minor weed infractions in 2014. However, the arrest rate soon racked up again.
Governor Cuomo signed legislation to introduce a medical marijuana program in New York in 2014. The tide is very much turning in favor of cannabis in NY now. However, the state has stopped short of full legalization at the time of writing.
Final Thoughts on the New York Marijuana Massacre
The rise and fall of cannabis in New York is mirrored in many parts of the nation. However, NYC, in particular, has always enjoyed a reputation as a hub of counterculture. The long-time prohibition of cannabis there remains terrible news for the industry. Perhaps the New York Sanitation Department had the best of intentions in 1951. The workers probably thought they were doing residents a favor.
In reality, it was yet another ugly episode in the futile drug war. Its shameful legacy of racism and exclusion continues to affect society today.