Fiorello Henry LaGuardia, the hugely popular Mayor of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, was known for his leadership on the New Deal and his many public works. Less widely known is that he was also a leader on progressive marijuana policy reform. 70 years ago, the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) released a report commissioned by Mayor LaGuardia that was one of the first systematic reviews of the medical, psychological and social impact of marijuana, investigating many of the same myths that persist about the drug today. In commissioning the report in 1939, LaGuardia was responding to Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, pushed by Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which effectively removed marijuana from the U.S. pharmacopeia and set our country down a disastrous road of marijuana prohibition. LaGuardia understood then that our drug policies should be driven by science -- not stigma, fear and dogma. This Thursday evening and Friday, the Drug Policy Alliance is teaming up with NYAM to host a free conference marking the 70th Anniversary of the report and examining our current marijuana and drug policy reform efforts.
Today, there is increasing awareness that the war on drugs -- which, of course, went beyond marijuana prohibition to include harsh mandatory sentences for low level drug offenses -- has been a terrible failure. The U.S has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world. In 2012 alone, 1.55 million people were arrested for nonviolent drug offenses, and almost half of all drug arrests are for marijuana-related offenses. More and more people also acknowledge the gross racial disparities caused by our drug policies, understanding that racism has been foundational to the war on the drugs -- amounting to what Michelle Alexander has called the New Jim Crow.
New York, despite the its leadership on reducing the numbers of people behind bars and making significant reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws in 2009, remains hopelessly behind when it comes to marijuana policy. Simply put, New York's marijuana policies are broken. New York leads the country in marijuana arrests and over 80 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession are Black and Latino, even though whites use marijuana at comparable or higher rates. And because medical marijuana remains illegal in New York, thousands of seriously ill patients who could benefit from it are forced to needlessly suffer or relocate to one of the 21 state that have legal access to medical marijuana.
It may be, however, the New York is finally ready for change. Just last Friday, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson released a memo saying that he would no longer prosecute people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana to ensure that "individuals, and especially young people of color, do not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice system for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property." In Albany, a medical marijuana proposal known as the Compassionate Care Act, is closer than ever to passage, and Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblywoman People Stokes have recently introduced a bill to tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, following the example of Washington and Colorado. These proposals will be the topics of discussion by leading academics, activists, and lawmakers at the May 1 and May 2 conference taking place at NYAM. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, and New York State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried will be among those making remarks. Like the LaGuardia Commission report itself, the conference is being supported in part by the New York Foundation.
These reforms are long overdue. Thanks to Mayor LaGuardia and NYAM, we knew 70 years ago that "harms of marijuana have been greatly exaggerated," and that marijuana policy is too often driven by ideology, not science. If you are in the New York City area, come be part of the conversation this Thursday evening andFriday and learn how New York can finish what Mayor LaGuardia started and how working together New York can become a state that grounds its drug policies in science, racial justice and compassion.
For more information about how to register for the conference click here.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.