Who would ever have thought that setting fire to a tiny amount of a common herb could lead not only to a better sex life and jazz but also to several years in prison? Such was the paradoxical history of cannabis use in the twentieth century.
In several ways, since the controversy over the use of cannabis erupted in the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New York has been an epicentre of cannabis use, control and legislation.
Historical cannabis use in New York
The main places in the USA where the use of marijuana became a focus of heated discussion in the media were firstly New Orleans (Sloman 1998:44) and subsequently in the southern states bordering Mexico, and New York. From around 1910, when the ten-year-long revolution began in Mexico, tens of thousands of workers from Mexico migrated to the southern states of the USA, many of them bringing cannabis culture to the USA. Around the same time, many immigrants from the Caribbean region settled in New York, similarly bringing cannabis culture with them (see my blog on ‘Jamaica’). The use of marijuana undoubtedly influenced the burgeoning jazz scene in the early 20th century, particularly in New Orleans and New York (Lee 2012:9–13, 56–57).
Hashish was used by some of the most important, early figures in Western esotericism. Born in New York, Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875), a spiritualist, occultist and self-proclaimed master of ‘sex-magic,’ discovered hashish in France in 1855. He returned to New York in the same year and began lecturing there on spiritual topics. He founded the first branch of the Rosicrucian order in north America, in San Francisco in 1861, and became the largest importer of hashish to the USA. During his lecture tours he hawked his homemade cannabis elixirs as ‘invigorants’ and as sex tonics. It was largely due to Randolph that hashish entered spiritualist circles, first in New York (Lee 2012:34). Randolph was also the first author clearly to incorporate sexual practices into a system of esoteric ‘magic’ (Pasi 2019:211).
The flamboyant Russian immigrant Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), together with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) and others, founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. Theosophy is system of metaphysical spirituality developed primarily by Blavatsky, which was very influential in India in the early 20th century (see Lubelsky 2012).
Blavatsky regularly smoked hashish mixed with tobacco, which she probably discovered during her travels in Egypt in the 1850s.
In an article in Harper’s Monthly of November 1883, H. H. Kane recounts visiting a hashish den by the Hudson River, and estimates that there were around six hundred occasional hashish users in New York. He attributed the spread of the habit to the Greek immigrant community (Jay 2011:102). By the 1930s there were around 300 to 500 ‘tea pads’ in New York, where marijuana was available in an atmosphere of music and generally libertarian attitudes to sex.
In another, more recent snippet of New York history, it was in the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan, on 28th August 1964, where Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to weed; they had never tried it previously (Lee 2012:80).
International cannabis legislation framed in New York
It was partly the visible presence of cannabis in New York that led to the campaign of demonization of it by Harry J. Anslinger (1892–1975), the person most famous—though not the only influential person—in the history of its global control. Anslinger became the first commissioner of the newly-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), in the Department of the Treasury, which he headed for thirty-two years, from 1930 to 1962. His campaign is now legendary (Sloman 1998:29–125; Smith 2018). Anslinger was the most influential person on drug policy throughout most of his tenure at the Bureau (Nicholas and Churchill 2012:601). His demonization of marijuana went hand-in-hand with negative propaganda against jazz, Mexicans and black immigrants who smoked weed.
While Anslinger’s campaign was conducted from the Bureau’s headquarters in Washington D.C., the location of the headquarters of the UN from 1946 onwards was in New York (it has been at its current address in Manhattan since 1951). The UN was significantly influenced on cannabis policy by Anslinger’s campaign and has been at the heart of international drug legislation, in the form of numerous international conventions, since its inception.
The significance of cannabis legalization in New York
Just recently, in December 2020, the UN finally reclassified cannabis as a potential medicine (see the blog ‘Historic vote sees UN finally recognize medical cannabis’); and in a remarkable turnaround, the authorities in New York voted on 30th March 2021 to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, becoming the fifteenth US state to do so; the bill was signed into law on 31st March (see the blog ‘New York legalises cannabis, focusing on social equality’; Mendez 2021).
Sales of recreational cannabis are due to start in New York sometime next year, a market that has been calculated to be worth annually $4.2 billion (Ferré-Sadurní 2021), second only to California. Legal sales are expected to top between $2.5 to $2.7 billion in the first year. Curaleaf Holdings, based in Wakefield, Massachusetts, is the largest cannabis cultivator and retailer in the world, with over 100 dispensaries in twenty-three states in the USA; through an acquisition it has also recently expanded into the European market. The company’s CEO, Joseph Bayern, considers legalization in New York to be a significant milestone for the cannabis industry; he now expects that Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland will follow suit (Khan 2021).
Despite legalization in New York and other places, the illicit market is unlikely to disappear, as unlicensed operators can retail cannabis at 30% less than charged by legal outfits, such as Curaleaf (Yakowicz 2021). Nevertheless, the legal change in New York, which has a high profile internationally, has prompted discussion about reforming cannabis policy at the UN (Khan 2021). The business and tax opportunities in both medical and recreational cannabis use, and the related social benefits derived from freeing both courts and police from cannabis cases, are now plainly evident in states that have legalized.
What is perhaps remarkable is that even though the UN has recently reclassified cannabis for medical purposes, it has not yet done so for recreational cannabis use, which is still illegal globally under international UN conventions. The USA has been signatory to all the historical controls on cannabis decreed by the UN, which are supposed to be legally binding internationally. Yet, in New York, right under the noses of the UN (quite literally), New York is technically flouting international law.
It seems that, once again, New York may be pivotal in global changes in attitudes to cannabis policy and law.
Ferré-Sadurní, Luis (2021). ‘New York Reaches a Deal to Legalize Recreational Marijuana’. New York Times (25th March).
Jay, Mike (2011) . Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century (revised edition). Sawtry, UK: Dedalus.
Khan, Shariq (2021). ‘New York’s pot legalization adds urgency to UN reform calls. Reuters (31st March).
Lee, Martin A. (2012). Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical,Recreational, Scientific. New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/New Delhi: Scribner.
Lubelsky, Isaac (trans. Yael Lotan) (2012). Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism. Sheffield/Bristol. Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Mendez, Rich (2021). ‘New York State legislature passes bill to legalize recreational marijuana’. CNBC (March 30th).
Nicholas, Phil, and Andrew Churchill (2012). ‘The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and the Origins of Modern Drug Enforcement in the United States, 1950–1962’. Contemporary Drug Problems, vol. 39(4), pp. 595–640. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/009145091203900402
Pasi, Marco (2019). ‘What does esotericism have to do with sex?’. In Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Peter J. Forshaw, and Marco Pasi (eds.), Hermes Explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism, pp. 207–215. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Sloman, Larry “Ratso” (1998) . Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Smith, Laura (2018). ‘How a racist hate-monger masterminded America’s war on drugs’. Timeline (28th February).
Yakowicz, Will (2021). ‘Why New York Legalizing Recreational Cannabis Won’t Kill the Illicit Market’. Forbes (19th March).