LaGuardia and the Truth About Marijuana

for Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn greatly admired Fiorello LaGuardia and in the end the two men had important things in common. They grew up in New York City, two generations apart, sons of immigrants. They both flew bombing missions for the U.S. Army -LaGuardia over Italy during World War One, Zinn over occupied France in World War Two- and then reconsidered the worth of those missions. They both spent their lives speaking for people whose voices hardly got heard.

Zinn wrote his PhD dissertation on LaGuardia’s years as a Congressman representing the tenement dwellers of East Harlem (1917-1933, minus his stint in the Army and two years 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. It debunked the prevailing text-book image of the 1920s. Its themes were encapsulated in an essay, “LaGuardia in the Jazz Age,” which Zinn 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 did 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 Marihuana 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 marijuana prohibition 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. (Anslinger owed his position as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to his wife’s uncle, the banker and former Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, another LaGuardia nemesis.)

The question of whether the American Medical Association agreed with the Marihuana Tax Act 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 Act passed on a voice vote 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 might 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 is addictive and leads to insanity and violent crime. In 1938 LaGuardia, as mayor, assigned the New York Academy of Medicine to investigate the premises of marijuana prohibition. A blue-ribbon committee of 31 scientists was assembled. Physicians from the city Department of Hospitals supervised clinical research involving 77 patients. A sociological study on the extent of use by New Yorkers was conducted by a Police Department team. The published report thanks the  “six members of the Force, four men and two women, whose intelligence, interest in the work, and desire to obtain the facts of the situation were of invaluable aid in obtaining the information on which the sociological report is based. The four men and two women assigned to us made painstaking observations and reports, acted as investigators and social workers and not as police officers, and brought to the performance of this task a native intelligence, specialized training, and civic interest…. Thanks are due also to the medical staff of the Riker’s Island Hospital for their assistance in the narcotic addiction study.”

A key chapter of the report by Drs. Samuel Allentuck and Karl Bowman, “The Psychiatric Aspects of Marijuana Intoxication,” was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in September 1942. It specifically refuted the Federal Bureau of Narcotics characterization of marijuana as an addictive drug that led to insanity.

The full report, “The Marijuana Problem in the City of New York,” 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.

“My own interest in marihuana goes back many years,” LaGuardia wrote in a foreword to the committee’s report, “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, the NYAM investigators -and Mayor LaGuardia himself- were hip to the harm-reduction potential of marijuana as a substitute for hard drugs.

Although the LaGuardia Committee provided evidence and documentation in support of its findings, the Report was ignored at the federal level. Other painstaking commission reports would be ignored by the U.S. government and the medical establishment in the decades to follow. Researchers who determine that marijuana is relatively safe and medically useful have been and excluded from the canon as systematically as those who shed light on the oppression of the working class.

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