• Summer 2010
“LaGuardia in the Jazz Age” inThe Politics of History by HowardZinn; Beacon Press, 1970.The Marihuana Problem in theCity of New York by Mayor La-Guardia’s Committee on Marihuana.1944. (Reprinted in 1973 by the NewYork Academy of Medicine.)
By Fred Gardner
Fiorello LaGuardia was the mayor of New York City when Howard Zinn wasgrowing up in Brooklyn during the GreatDepression. Zinn admired LaGuardiaand in the end would have importantthings in common with him. LaGuardiahad flown bombing missions for the U.S.Army over Italy during World War One.Zinn flew bombing missions over occu-pied France in World War Two. Bothmen would come to reconsider the worthof those missions. Both would spendtheir lives speaking for people whosevoices hardly got heard.
LaGuardia in Congress
es-tablished Zinn’s reputation asa historian.
Zinn wrote his PhD dissertation onLaGuardia’s years as a Congressmanrepresenting the tenement dwellers of East Harlem. (LaGuardia served in Con-gress from 1917 through 1933, minus hisstint in the Army and two years as Presi-dent of the New York City Board of Al-dermen.)
LaGuardia in Congress,
published byCornell University Press in 1959, estab-lished Zinn’s reputation as a historian.It debunked the prevailing text-book image of the 1920s. Its themes were en-capsulated in an essay, “LaGuardia in theJazz Age,” which Zinn published in
ThePolitics of History
(Beacon, 1970).“In the United States, the twentieswere the years of Prosperity, and FiorelloLaGuardia is one of its few public fig-ures who suspected to what extent thatlabel was a lie,” Zinn asserted.Nor did LaGuardia mistake the twen-ties for “a time of quiet isolation fromforeign affairs,” Zinn wrote. “The UnitedStates was established as a dominantpower in the Caribbean having pur-chased the Virgin Islands during the war,possessing a naval base in Cuba, andexercising such control over the Repub-lic of Panama, Nicaragua, Haiti, and theDominican Republic as to make them‘virtual protectorates.’ American influ-ence in the Far East extended from theAleutian Islands to Hawaii and acrossthe western Pacific to the Philippines.”
For Howard Zinn:
LaGuardia and the Truth About Marijuana
LaGuardia opposed sending 5,000U.S. troops to Nicaragua in 1927 to up-hold a government subservient to U.S.lumber and fruit interests. “The protec-tion of American life and property inNicaragua does not require the formi-dable naval and marine forces operatingthere now,” La Guardia declared. “Giveme 50 New York cops and I can guaran-tee full protection.”Zinn wrote that LaGuardia did not seethe 1920s as a time of “national politicalconsensus, when a general mood of well-being softened political combat.” An-gered by Rep. Fred Vinson of Kentucky’sreference to New York’s “Italian bloc”of voters, LaGuardia “denounced thedrastic restriction of immigration andparticularly the ‘national origins’ methodof determining quotas... The restrictionbills were ‘unscientific,’ LaGuardiacharged, the ‘result of narrow-minded-ness and bigotry’ and ‘inspired by influ-ences who have a fixed obsession onAnglo-Saxon superiority.’”By 1937, when Congress passed theMarihuana Tax Act, LaGuardia was inhis fourth year as mayor of NYC. Hisnemesis, Vinson of Kentucky, was theTreasury Department’s key ally in push-ing marijuana prohibition through theHouse Ways and Means Committee.Vinson conducted a hostile interrogationof the only witness who understood andstrongly opposed prohibition, Dr. Will-iam Woodward of the American Medi-cal Association. When the Act came be-fore the full House, instead of explain-ing its provisions, Vinson recountedHarry Anslinger’s “reefer madness” tes-timony as undisputed fact.The question of whether the Ameri-can Medical Association supported theMarihuana Tax Act was answered thusby Vinson: “Our committee heard testi-mony of Dr. William Wharton —
—who not only gave this measure his fullsupport, but also the approval from theAmerican Medical Association which herepresented as legislative counsel.” TheAct passed on a voice vote and was en-acted into law in September of 1937.Fred Vinson, brazen liar, went on to be-come Chief Justice of the U.S. SupremeCourt.
Marijuana prohibition might not have sailed through Con-gress if Fiorello LaGuardiahad still been a member in1937.
Marijuana prohibition might not havesailed through Congress if FiorelloLaGuardia had still been a member in1937. It was based on false facts that noone in Congress questioned, but whichLaGuardia recognized as baloney —no-tably that marijuana is addictive andleads to insanity and violent crime. In1938 LaGuardia, as mayor, assigned theNew York Academy of Medicine(NYAM) to investigate the premises of marijuana prohibition. A blue-ribboncommittee of 31 scientists was as-sembled. Physicians from the city De-partment of Hospitals supervised clini-cal research involving 77 patients.“My own interest in marihuana goesback many years,” LaGuardia wrote ina foreword to the committee’s report, “tothe time when I was a member of theHouse of Representatives and, in thatcapacity, heard of the use of marihuanaby soldiers stationed in Panama. I wasimpressed at that time with the report of an Army Board of Inquiry which em-phasized the relative harmlessness of thedrug and the fact that it played very littlerole, if any, in problems of delinquencyand crime in the Canal Zone.“The report of the present investiga-tions covers every phase of the problemand is of practical value not only to ourown city but to communities through-out the country. It is a basic contributionto medicine and pharmacology. I am gladthat the sociological, psychological, andmedical ills commonly attributed tomarihuana have been found to be exag-
gerated...“The scientific part of the researchwill be continued in the hope that thedrug may prove to possess therapeuticvalue for the control of drug addiction.”In other words, the NYAM investigators—and Mayor LaGuardia himself— werehip to the harm-reduction potential of marijuana as a substitute for hard drugs!A key chapter of the report by Drs.Samuel Allentuck and Karl Bowman,“The Psychiatric Aspects of MarijuanaIntoxication,” was published in the
American Journal of Psychiatry
in Sep-tember 1942. It specifically refuted theFederal Bureau of Narcotics character-ization of marijuana as an addictive drugthat led to insanity.An exhaustive investigation into theextent of use by New Yorkers was con-ducted by a Police Department squad—“two policewomen and four policemen,one of whom was a Negro,” accordingto Dudley Schoenfeld, MD, who de-scribed their findings in the LaGuardiaCommittee Report.
(See excerpt on next page.)
“While on duty the squad actually‘lived’ in the environment in which mari-huana smoking or peddling was sus-pected. They frequented poolrooms, barsand grills, dime-a-dance halls, otherdance halls to which they took their ownpartners, theatres —backstage and in theaudience‚ roller skating rinks, subways,public toilets and parks and docks. Theyconsorted with the habitués of theseplaces, chance acquaintances on thestreet, loiterers around schools, subways,and bus terminals. They posed as ‘suck-ers’ from out of town and as students incollege and high schools.”The full Report,
The Marihuana Prob-lem in the City of New York,
was pub-lished in 1944. Its conclusions, verba-tim:• Marijuana is used extensively in theBorough of Manhattan but the problemis not as acute as it is reported to be inother sections of the United States.• The introduction of marijuana intothis area is recent as compared to otherlocalities.• The cost of marijuana is low andtherefore within the purchasing powerof most persons.• The distribution and use of mari- juana is centered in Harlem.• The majority of marijuana smokers
continued at bottom of next page
The Canal Zone Papers
Studies by the U.S. Army of soldiersusing marijuana in Panama in the1920s had been collectively ignored bythe Congress during the debate on Pro-hibition. The first study was conductedin April 1925 by a committee chairedby Colonel J.F. Siler of the MedicalCorps. A group that included soldiers,doctors, and police officers was ob-served smoking cannabis.One officer who participated con-cluded, “I think we can safely say,based upon samples we have smokedhere and upon the reports of the indi-viduals concerned, that there is noth-ing to indicate any habit-forming ten-dency or any striking ill effects. All of the statements to the effect that two orthree puffs produce remarkable effectsare nonsense, judging from our expe-rience.”The U.S. government printing of-fice published Col. Siler’s report (“Ca-nal Zone Papers,” 1931), which foundno evidence that marijuana was addic-tive or that it had “any appreciable del-eterious influence on the individualsusing it.”According to “the Great Book of Hemp” by Rowan Robinson, “Somecommanders disagreed with thecommitteee’s findings and ordered anew investigation in 1929. The surgeongeneral who directed the inquiry dulyreported that ‘use of the drug is notwidespread and... its effects upon mili-tary efficiency and upon discipline arenot great.’ A third investigation, initi-ated in June 1931, found no link be-tween cannabis and delinquency ormorale problems” in the U.S.-run Ca-nal Zone.
The 220-page LaGuardia Commit-tee Report was reprinted in full in
The Marijuana Papers,
an anthology editedby David Solomon, published byBobbs-Merrill in 1966 and in paper-back the following year by Signet.