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  • Marijuana in La Guardia’s New York City:The Mayor’s Committee and Federal Policy, 1938–1945
  • Emily Brooks (bio)

In 1938, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia wanted to talk about marijuana.1 The mayor, whom President Franklin D. Roosevelt had once described as “the most appealing man I know,” frequently got what he wanted.2 La Guardia had been a staunch opponent of the prohibition of alcohol, and he questioned the danger posed to New York City by the drug that the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) had dubbed the “surest road to insanity.”3 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 article explores the story of the 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 occurred primarily in committee meetings and the pages of academic journals, and it bore little direct [End Page 568] connection to the concerns of a broader public. It did, however, show that in the late 1930s marijuana policy was a contested arena between local and federal agendas. The conflict also reveals the multiplicity of perspectives and motivations operating within the state around marijuana policy, illustrating that, as scholar Wendy Brown notes, “The state is at once an incoherent, multifaceted ensemble of power relations and an apparent vehicle if not agent of massive domination.”4 While Brown emphasizes the scope and complexity of the state, Margot Canaday suggests that state power is expressed in the actions of its employees, representatives, and agents, who each may be motivated to act in the best interest of their own respective agencies.5 In the late 1930s and 1940s, two separate entities within the state engaged in a conversation over marijuana. Each actor in the conversation sought to interpret marijuana policy to meet his or her own agenda, illustrating the competing interests sometimes contained within the state, and presenting one example of the role of bureaucracies in influencing the outcome of policy processes.

The conversation about marijuana was not the only one that concerned Mayor La Guardia in 1938. The “maestro of city hall” raced around the city, inserting himself into its problems and barking orders in his brash, high-pitched voice.6 Unlike his predecessor, Jimmy Walker, Mayor La Guardia delighted in attacking problems that fell under his responsibility—and many that did not. La Guardia brought a frenetic energy to his first term as mayor. He spent long hours rooting out corruption, bullying city employees, and evaluating municipal needs. In his second term following reelection in 1937, La Guardia’s ambitions moved beyond the city limits as he contemplated a run for president. After 1937, he was frequently absent from the city, and whiffs of favoritism and corruption circulated around his administration.7 La Guardia’s office memos and letters, however, continued to include notes to friends and colleagues on issues that had struck his interest, demonstrating that his energy and demanding nature had not waned.

Prior to his terms as mayor of New York City, La Guardia had brought this same level oftenergy and impertinence to Congress, where he had served regularly since 1917, taking breaks to serve in World War I and as president of the New York City Board of Aldermen in 1920. While in Congress, La Guardia had acted, according to Howard Zinn, as “a cog who refused to stay in place,” defying the traditions of the House of Representatives and the desires of party leaders when he saw merit for himself or his constituents in so doing.8 La Guardia represented Manhattan’s fourteenth and later twentieth districts, both of which housed large numbers of immigrants from southern [End Page 569] and eastern Europe. Inspired in part by his constituents, his own ideals, and his status as the first Italian American elected to Congress, the outspoken representative expressed concern for...