LaGuardia and the Truth About Marijuana

for Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn greatly admired Fiorello LaGuardia. Zinn wrote his PhD dissertation on LaGuardia’s years as a Congressman representing the tenement dwellers of East Harlem (1917-1933, minus a stint in the Army Air Service and a term as President of the New York City Board of Aldermen.)  “LaGuardia in Congress,” published by Cornell University Press in 1959, established Zinn’s reputation as a historian. Its themes were encapsulated in a brilliant essay, “LaGuardia in the Jazz Age,” which was published in “The Politics of History” (Beacon, 1970).

“In the United States, the twenties were the years of Prosperity, and Fiorello LaGuardia is one of its few public figures who suspected to what extent that label was a lie,” Zinn wrote. Nor did LaGuardia mistake the twenties for “a time of quiet isolation from foreign affairs… The United States was established as a dominant power in the Caribbean having purchased the Virgin Islands during the war, possessing a naval base in Cuba, and exercising such control over the Republic of Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic as to make them ‘virtual protectorates.’ American influence in the Far East extended from the Aleutian Islands to Hawaii and across the western Pacific to the Philippines.”

LaGuardia opposed sending 5,000 U.S. troops to Nicaragua in 1927 to  uphold a government subservient to U.S. lumber and fruit interests. “The protection of American life and property in Nicaragua does not require the formidable naval and marine forces operating there now,” La Guardia declared.  “Give me fifty New York cops and I can guarantee full protection.”

Zinn wrote that LaGuardia not see the 1920s as a time of “national political consensus, when a general mood of well-being softened political combat…  He denounced the drastic restriction of immigration and particularly the ‘national origins’ method of determining quotas… The restriction bills were ‘unscientific,’ LaGuardia retorted, the ‘result of narrow-mindedness and bigotry’ and ‘inspired by influences who have a fixed obsession on Anglo-Saxon superiority.’ Angered by a reference to the ‘Italian bloc’ from New York made by Kentucky’s Fred Vinson, LaGuardia referred to the illiteracy of the Blue Ridge mountain folk.”

By 1937, when Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, LaGuardia was in his fourth year as mayor of New York City. His nemesis, Vinson of Kentucky, was the Treasury Department’s key ally in pushing the Marihuana Tax Act through the House Ways and Means Committee. Vincent hostilely interrogated the only witness who understood and strongly opposed prohibition, Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association. When the Act came before the full House, instead of explaining its provisions, Vinson recounted Harry Anslinger’s “reefer madness” testimony as undisputed fact. The question of whether the American Medical Association agreed with the bill was answered thus by Vinson: “Our committee heard testimony of Dr. William Wharton -sic- who not only gave this measure his full support, but also the approval from the American Medical Association which he represented as legislative counsel.” The Marijuana Tax act passed without a roll call and was enacted into law in September of 1937. (Fred Vinson, brazen liar, went on to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Marijuana prohibition would not have sailed through Congress if Fiorello LaGuardia had still been a member in 1937.  It was based on false facts that no one in Congress questioned, but which LaGuardia recognized as baloney -notably that marijuana leads to insanity and violent crime, is addictive, etc.  In 1938 LaGuardia, as mayor, assigned the New York Academy of Medicine to thoroughly investigate the premises of marijuana prohibition. A blue-ribbon committee of 31 scientists was assembled. A sociological study on the extent of use by New Yorkers was conducted by an NYPD team. Two physicians supervised clinical research involving 77 patients at Bellevue Hospital. The “LaGuardia Committee Report,” as it has come to be known, was published in 1944. Its conclusions are summarized thus on Wikipedia:

•  Marijuana is used extensively in the Borough of Manhattan but the problem is not as acute as it is reported to be in other sections of the United States.
• The introduction of marijuana into this area is recent as compared to other localities.
• The cost of marijuana is low and therefore within the purchasing power of most persons.
• The distribution and use of marijuana is centered in Harlem.
• The majority of marijuana smokers are Blacks and Latin-Americans.
• The consensus among marijuana smokers is that the use of the drug creates a definite feeling of adequacy.
• The practice of smoking marijuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.
• The sale and distribution of marijuana is not under the control of any single organized group.
• The use of marijuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction and no effort is made to create a market for these narcotics by stimulating the practice of marijuana smoking.
• Marijuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.
• Marijuana smoking is not widespread among school children.
Juvenile delinquency is not associated with the practice of smoking marijuana.
• The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marijuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.

In a foreword to the committee’s report LaGuardia wrote,

“My own interest in marihuana goes back many years to the time when I was a member of the House of Representatives and, in that capacity, heard of the use of marihuana by soldiers stationed in Panama. I was impressed at that time with the report of an Army Board of Inquiry which emphasized the relative harmlessness of the drug and the fact that it played a very little role, if any, in problems of delinquency and crime in the Canal Zone.

“The report of the present investigations covers every phase of the problem and is of practical value not only to our own city but to communities throughout the country. It is a basic contribution to medicine and pharmacology. I am glad that the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated… The scientific part of the research will be continued in the hope that the drug may prove to possess therapeutic value for the control of drug addiction.”

In other words, Fiorello was hip to harm reduction.

I last spent time with my old friend Howard Zinn a year ago, when he was staying with a granddaughter in Berkeley, getting away from the cold Boston winter. One of my new friends asked me if Howard smoked pot. I said of course not. He was one of those people whose own acuity is more important to them than escaping from their own acuity.

Project CBD Update

O’Shaughnessy’s has been reporting for years on studies involving cannabidiol -a non-psychoactive component of cannabis with potentially significant medical benefits. The Society of Cannabis Clinicians has been developing a data collection strategy with an eye towards evaluating the efficacy of high-CBD strains. As of today, Harborside Health Center in Oakland has processed flowers that are 7.63% CBD, 6.1% THC. A grower is seeking an outlet for three lbs of “Cotton Candy,” which contains about 6% CBD and 5% THC.  Another has 3lbs of Soma A-plus that is 4.1% CBD and 7.3% CBD. The pipeline is no longer empty.

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, The Journal of Cannabis in Clinical Practice. He can be reached at



Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at