The New York City Marijuana Massacre

Key Points

  • Until the early 1950s, cannabis grew wild in New York City – primarily in Brooklyn
  • 10 ft tall plants were a common sight in Williamsburg and other east New York neighborhoods
  • New York Police did little to curb free-growing marijuana in the city, despite it being a banned substance since 1927
  • The city’s sanitation department established a rogue “White Wing Squad,” with the sole aim of eradicating cannabis from the streets
  • The White Wing Squad destroyed an estimated 20 tons of marijuana in the summer of 1951

Bhutan, an isolated Central Asian country in the middle of the Himalayan mountains, is perhaps the richest geographical region on earth when it comes to wild-growing cannabis. The relatively few people from the West who visit Bhutan are often stunned at what they see, with literal forests of cannabis towering in every direction. In fact, cannabis is so prevalent in the country, the Bhutanese people consider it an actual weed!

Indeed, it is rather funny to see marijuana growing on the roof of a person’s house. Astonishingly, however, cannabis is illegal for human consumption in Bhutan, and citizens are not allowed to grow it aside from designated agricultural purposes (some farmers are allowed to cultivate it to feed their pigs).


Given the difficulty that most Americans have growing cannabis, a Bhutan-like situation seems impossible. Believe it or not, however, weed once grew wild in many locations in the U.S. – and in some parts of the country, it still does! In places like rural Minnesota and Indiana, for example, it’s not uncommon to see “ditch weed” growing on the side of interstates.

In major urban areas, of course, wild-growing cannabis is all but non-existent. Approximately 70 years ago, however, New York City literally resembled parts of modern-day Bhutan, with huge marijuana plants growing wild and free all over the city. Sadly, everything changed in the early 1950s (1951, to be exact), as authorities cracked down on the situation in response to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

In this article, we take a look at the rogue “White Wing Squad” of the NYC sanitation department, which was put together in 1951 with the sole purpose of eradicating “urban weed farms” from the Big Apple. Before we discuss the actual New York Marijuana Massacre, however, let’s look at a brief history of cannabis in NYC.

When New York Led the Way in Cannabis Tolerance

In 1857, the New York Daily News published a letter praising the effects of Cannabis indica. The letter said that the plant, also called East Indian hemp, was “a sure counteractive to the poison of rabies.” In 1876, the New York Times reprinted a story from the Boston Globe, which said marijuana was a medicine that “has been used by the faculty here with great success in cases of dropsy.”

In any event, cannabis was a popular and relatively common medicine in New York City in the later parts of the 19th century. In the early 1900s, however, negative connotations in media publications began to pop up, probably as a result of the increasing stigma surrounding cannabis in other parts of the country.

In 1901, for example, the Times wrote that, while cannabis was “a harmless-looking drug,” it had a tendency to “send its victims running amok.” Then, 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 had previously welcomed medicinal use of the plant with open arms.



Drug bottle for cannabis indica, 1906.

“Mexican Family Go Insane”

Still, up until 1927, New Yorkers could get a prescription relatively easily and enjoy cannabis medicinally.

Then, the New York Times went full Reefer Madness over a decade ahead of time. In February 1925, the newspaper claimed that a Mexican called Escrado Valle killed six people after “running amok” in a hospital. Valle had become “crazed from smoking marihuana.” To be fair, this was part of an era where ludicrous anti-marijuana propaganda was the norm.

On July 5, 1927, the Times published an article with the scary title: “Mexican Family Go Insane.” According to the report, a Mexican widow and her four children were “driven insane” after eating a cannabis plant. The report said the mother would remain insane for the rest of her life, and that there was “no hope of saving the children’s lives.”

What’s fascinating is that the story clearly stated the family accidentally ate raw cannabis. As you probably know, the raw marijuana plant isn’t intoxicating. Therefore, there is no way the drug could have caused such devastating consequences.

Oddly, it is worth noting that in November 1926, in between the stories about marijuana causing people to commit murderous actions, the Times ran a story with the headline “Marijuana Smoking is Reported Safe.” The paper discussed the findings of an advisory panel created by the Panama Canal Zone’s governor. The panel found that the influence of the drug when smoked was likely greatly exaggerated, with no evidence that it caused users to commit acts of violence or resulted in insanity.

In 1929, Panama’s Supreme Court declared that marijuana wasn’t a dangerous drug, and that it would not be banned in the nation. The Times dutifully reported this story, but ultimately, like almost every other American publication, it took the side of prohibition and viewed the drug as evil and dangerous.

Prior to the anti-weed hysteria of the 1920s, New York City media publications were largely positive in terms of their coverage on cannabis and its medicinal use.

A Change of Opinion in New York

Whether it was the article about the widow in the Times or something else, New York state banned cannabis altogether in 1927. A decade later, the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act effectively prohibited the plant across the United States.

Oddly, in the years that followed the Marihuana Tax Act, New York City became one of the few “voices of reason” in the country in terms of acquiring more knowledge about the plant. A popular doctor at the Manhattan Detention Complex, for example, urged treatment rather than prison time for cannabis “addicts.”

Ultimately, New York City became a hub for recreational marijuana use throughout the 1940s. Popularized by NYC’s famous jazz clubs and pop culture icons like Jack Kerouac, weed was everywhere in the Big Apple – regardless of the fact that it had been federally outlawed less than a decade prior.


In direct opposition to New York City’s thriving recreational cannabis scene, the Times continued to stir the pot in the 1940s. In 1941, the magazine ran a story claiming that a sailor murdered someone at sea after using cannabis.

Galvanized by relentless anti-cannabis scrutiny in the media, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia formed a research committee to understand whether cannabis was indeed a murderous, hysteria-inducing plant as the Times (and many other media outlets across the country) reported it to be.

Ultimately, LaGuardia’s report found that most anti-cannabis publications in the media were unfounded, and that cannabis was in fact not widely used by children, was not addictive, and did not result int juvenile delinquency as many articles claimed it did.

The report effectively debunked most myths attributed to marijuana. It also revealed the absurdity of the hysteria that surrounded the plant. Sadly, anti-cannabis campaigners such as Harry Anslinger convinced the public to dismiss LaGuardia’s report. Then, with the onset of World War II, America had much more pressing matters to attend to, so the anti-weed sentiment died down for a while.

In the meantime, cannabis started growing wild all over New York City!

When Weed Grew Wild in NYC

In the late 1930s and 1940s, it wasn’t unusual to come across a field of six-foot cannabis plants in abandoned yards in NYC – primarily in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamstown and Cobble Hill. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the city’s Sanitation Department intended on “slashing and burning” every cannabis plant they could find, but ultimately their efforts did not come to fruition.

In 1936, New York Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine drew media attention by pouring gasoline on free-growing marijuana in an abandoned lot in Brooklyn. According to the police, Valentine burned approximately $3 million worth of the drug. The commissioner said that law enforcement would “do everything in their power” to stamp out marijuana.

The White Wing Squad

Despite the best efforts of the police, parts of New York City started to resemble Bhutan by the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Newspaper reports from the summer of 1951 wrote about 10-foot-tall Cannabis sativa plants that were growing wild in Bronx underpasses and along seldom-visited 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” charged with harvesting and burning every single plant they could. (Despite the spectacular sounding name, the White Wing Squad consisted of sanitation workers that had no specialized training. Their orders were simple: find and destroy every cannabis plant possible).

The “White Wing” name came from the 1890s, when Colonel George Edwin Waring Junior (head of the NYC Sanitation Department at the time) decided to dress sanitation workers in white duck cloth uniforms to instill military-style order within his department. Concerned about ill discipline among workers, the uniforms were supposed to galvanize strict, zero-tolerance discipline among employees on their trash collection routes.


Waring also banned his men from using foul language or entering saloons. Exactly why he believed that dressing sanitation workers in white uniforms remains a mystery – especially considering that, at the time, the main job of NYC sanitation workers was cleaning up horse manure.

The White Wing Squad consisted of sanitation workers who had a simple goal: Eradicate marijuana from New York City.

The New York Marijuana Massacre Begins

On June 20, 1951, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the beginning of the White Wing Squad’s marijuana plant massacre with the headline, “EVIL HARVEST.” Beneath the report was another story with the headline, “Ask Death Penalty for Dope Peddlers.” Over the next few months, the White Wing Squad worked incredibly hard to complete their task; newspapers began mentioning the group by name towards the end of 1951, and on September 19 of that year, Gleason claimed in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle that his ten-man team would have marijuana entirely eradicated from New York City within four days.


Oddly, one of the biggest fields of marijuana was found to be growing in Coney Island, where images showed Christmas-tree sized plants dwarfing sanitation workers that stood next to them.

Ultimately, during the summer of 1951, the White Wing Squad uprooted and destroyed an estimated 41,000 pounds of marijuana. The largest haul, at 17,200 pounds, came from an abandoned lot in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle estimated the value of the destroyed crops in that borough alone at approximately $6 million.

What’s fascinating is that you can see a few unusual facial expressions in some of the report’s photos. One showed a young lady who looked suspiciously high after the squad destroyed over 100 pounds of weed in her yard. There are even pictures of White Wing workers looking a little too happy in their work! (You can also see images of laborers with odd-looking cigarettes).

Of course, not everyone in NYC was enthused by the crackdown. John Murtagh, New York City’s State Supreme Court Justice, was against the move. He pointed out that studies had already shown cannabis was not addictive, and was arguably safer than tobacco cigarettes.

Incidentally, two years after the heroic efforts of the White Wing Squad, Gleason (the Sanitation Department head that was responsible for the massacre) was convicted of a 3.5-year prison sentence for extortion, lying to a Grand Jury, and racketeering in the New York Fire Department.

The White Wing Squad destroyed an estimated 20 tons of marijuana in New York in 1951.

The Long Road to Legalization

The “massacre” wasn’t so much a turning point as a turning of the screw in the greater war against cannabis. With its job completed, the Sanitation Department was happy to leave future cannabis enforcement in the hands of the New York Police Department. Usage of the drug increased in the state (as it did in the rest of the country) during the 1960s and 1970s, and NYC authorities took a hard-lined stance against any and all forms of cannabis use, possession, and cultivation.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was unconstitutional. However, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 placed cannabis on a list of controlled substances, where it remains a Schedule I substance today. New York wasted little time implementing its own crackdown.

In 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed a piece of legislation called the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which 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, which 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, and more recently, the state legalized recreational weed in March 2021. The adult-use law also involved the expunging of previous marijuana-related criminal records in the state of New York, marking a dramatic turn of events compared to the marijuana massacre of 1951.

Final Thoughts on the New York Marijuana Massacre

The rise and fall of cannabis in New York are mirrored in many parts of the nation. However, NYC has always enjoyed a reputation as a hub of counter-culture. While the New York Sanitation Department likely had the best of intentions during its 1951 “special mission,” the reality is that the marijuana massacre was just another ugly episode in the futile drug war, spurred on by racism and exclusion that continues to affect society even to this day.

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