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The History of Cannabis in New York State

For a while, cannabis has been around. In Asia, the plant was first discovered and finally made its way to America. Cannabis was used in the United States for all its purposes, including its hemp fibers, until the plant was banned entirely by legalization. This took place at both state and federal level but states also started to enact their laws and opinions on Cannabis. New York has a history with the drug that can be traced back to 1857 when the New York Daily News published a letter that it received, “Cannabis Indica, East Indian hemp, most widely known as Hasheesh… a certain counteractive to rabies poison.”

The New York Times first mentioned marijuana in 1901 when it describes it as “a harmless-looking drug” that “sends its victims running amuck.” At that time, however, marijuana was still legal because Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, allowing residents of New York City to have a cannabis prescription. This changed quickly in 1927 when, after eating some of the plants, the entire state of New York banned marijuana when “Mexican Family Go Insane.” Now, marijuana possession in New York is illegal depending on the amount possessed, and medical marijuana has been legal since the 2014 passage of the “Compassionate Care Act.”

  • Cannabis in New York is illegal for recreational use if it contains more than 0.3 percent of THC, but is allowed for medical use, and possession of small quantities is legalized.
  • With nearly 800,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, New York has become the world’s capital of marijuana arrest over the past 20 years.
  • Over 60 people are arrested in New York State on a daily basis for possession of marijuana.
  • While marijuana consumption and sales are similar across racial and ethnic groups, Black and Latino’s people are arrested at highly disproportionate rates for possessing marijuana. In 2016, Black and Latino were more than 80 percent of all those arrested across the state.
  • Arrests of marijuana impede the ability of people to succeed and participate in society by preventing them from obtaining jobs, housing, and student loans.


  • In the 1930s, as national authorities waged war on “reefer madness,” a doctor at the Manhattan Detention Complex urged treatment, not imprisonment, of “addicts” to marijuana in the city, including jazz musicians who “find it necessary to take it before playing.”
  • With the help of Beat authors, Pot moved from jazz clubs and marginalized communities to mainstream (read: white) culture. Jack Kerouac made his first hit at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early 1940s by saxophonist Lester Young, according to his first wife.


  • The 1944 La Guardia Report of the New York Academy of Medicine commissioned by the mayor debunked the myth of the murderous fiend of marijuana. Researchers found that a typical smoker “fairly engages in conversation with strangers, freely discussing his pleasant reactions to the drug and philosophizing on life-related subjects in a way that sometimes seems out of line with his intellectual level.”


  • By 1950, cannabis plants in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens grew as large as Christmas trees in vacant lots and underpasses. But the plant’s eradication effort in 1951 yanked up to 41,000 pounds.


  • In 1965, Allen Ginsberg led one of the first pro-pot marches outside the New York Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village.


  • In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation raising the penalty for selling two ounces (57 g) or more of heroin, morphine, “raw or prepared opium,” cocaine, or cannabis, or four ounces (110 g) or more of the same substances, was a minimum of 15 years in prison for life, and a maximum of 25 years in prison for life.
  • In New York State since 1977, personal possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana has been decriminalized. However, law enforcement officers have still arrested hundreds of thousands of people due to a loophole that allows officers to distinguish between public and private personal possession for possessing marijuana “in public view” –especially people and color.


  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in July 2014 that allowed cannabis to be used for medical purposes after a “long, emotional debate” in the Senate issue and 49–10 Senate vote. The signing of Cuomo started an 18-month window for the State Health Department to implement a medical marijuana program to provide patients with a non-smoked method of cannabis use. Five contracts were awarded to private marijuana growers who would be permitted to operate four dispensaries each.
  • New York became the 23rd state to launch its medical marijuana program in 2016. That’s not enough, though. Patients are still struggling to access their medicine. The law was criticized as one of the country’s most restrictive and burdensome programs.
  • Business starts to thrive in as restrictions on patients getting approved for medical marijuana in New York loosen.
  • Governor Cuomo urged the New York State Legislature to fund a study on the effects of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in his 2018 State of the State address. The proposed study would be conducted by the Department of Health to examine a wide range of issues, including the potential for recreational marijuana in New York to have legal, economic, and social ramifications.
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Written by Nathaniel Fried

Co-founder of Fupping. Busy churning out content and building an empire.

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