“Marijuana in La Guardia’s New York City: The Mayor’s Committee on Marijuana and Federal Policy, 1938-1945”
April 4, 2014
In 1938 Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wanted to talk about marijuana. The Mayor, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had once described as “the most appealing man I know,” frequently got what he wanted. La Guardia had been a staunch opponent of alcohol prohibition, and questioned the danger posed to New York City by the drug the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics had dubbed the “surest road to insanity.” The conversation that La Guardia sparked spanned six years, engaged psychiatrists, police officers, politicians, and criminals, and resulted in the publication of one of the most comprehensive and divisive studies that the country had yet seen on marijuana. This paper explores the story of this conversation, which highlighted the conflicting agendas of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which sought support for marijuana prohibition, and municipal actors led by Mayor La Guardia, who questioned the value to the city of prohibiting the drug. The conflict between these two sets of actors, which occurred primarily in committee meetings and the pages of academic journals bore little direct connection to the concerns or opinions of a broader public. The work of the Mayor’s Committee and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics response to it, however, reveals one set of tensions in policy making and within what scholar Wendy Brown has described as the “unbounded terrain of powers and techniques, an[d] ensemble of discourses, rules, and practices,” that constitute the state.