How NYC wiped out wild cannabis plants
In the early days, c annabis and hemp grew wild in North America after being imported by colonizers. Before the 1930s, seeing a field of six-foot cannabis plants in an abandoned yard wasn’t uncommon, even in crowded New York City. But 60-odd years ago, weed ended up hidden from public view almost entirely.
Not long after the very first mention of cannabis in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on—wait for it— April 20th, 1924 , the city began to address its wild cannabis problem with a little help from the Sanitation Department. An old school slash-and-burn effort sought to get rid of it on the mean streets of NY. And yes they called it “loco weed.”
When some see a cannabis leaf, real, cartoon, imagined, or otherwise, they recoil as if presented with a skull and crossbones or something terribly poisonous. This reaction is the conditioning of decades of drug education which have demonized the plant. Headlines like “ Some Nice Ladies Discover Marijuana ” and “ Robt. Mitchum Held With Pal, 2 Girls at Movie Reefer Party ” were common in the 1940s, showing that it was a commonly used intoxicant, much like today.
Understanding why the plant left our consciousness and entered the counterculture is critical. The disappearance of cannabis and feral hemp from our byways, abandoned lots, commodity supply, and pharmacological tool kit has helped fuel a disconnect with the plant.
The White Wings
Weeding out operation–Police Inspector Peter Terranova, commanding officer of the narcotics squad, flanked by Anthony Cristiano, a Department of Sanitation workman, and Frank Creta, general inspector of the department, exhibit part of a haul of more than 100 pounds of marijuana found growing at 82 Butler St. The dope weed was burned in department incinerators. (Brooklyn Public Library)
In 1950s New York, the Department of Sanitation was helping to fuel that disconnect. NPR called it a “historic removal effort” in a 2014 article , saying:
“Weed grew everywhere, with seven-foot high plants sprouting in fields from Williamsburg to Cobble Hill to East New York. In 1951 alone, a division of the Department of Sanitation called the ‘White Wing Squad’ confiscated and destroyed 41,000 pounds of the plant.”
This war on open-air cannabis in Brooklyn was first mentioned in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 20th, 1951 with a photo and caption of the deed: “EVIL HARVEST—Sanitation workers launch war of eradication on lush crop of marijuana growing in city’s vacant lots.” And for a bit of super-potent historical context, the headline under it touts a rounding up of communists by the FBI.
Later that year, the White Wing squad was finally mentioned by name, reportedly taking three to four days to destroy the “biggest crop yet” in world famous Coney Island, where Sanitation Inspector John E. Gleason notes plants “the size of Christmas trees.” Clearly no Santa’s helper, Gleason is even reported helping the Narcotics Division discern who may have planted the field.
Having felt satisfied with their program, it seems that after the ‘50s, cannabis enforcement fell primarily to the New York Police Department.
Who were they so afraid of?
After World War II’s brief reprieve of cannabis hysteria, it picked right back up with a renewed fervor. Chasing once again after jazz musicians and urban black folks, new targets were sought beginning in the 1950s, namely immigrants from the Caribbean, leftists—including but not limited to socialists and communists—and the emerging literary movement of the time, the Beat poets.
The culture of the era was based on the prosperity of the post-war society, and the triumph of capitalism and middle-class values were cemented. Madison Avenue may have had the Mad Men during this time, but Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side had Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs.
Writer Anthony Gramuglia sums up the connection quite well:
“Society’s treatment of marijuana led to it becoming a taboo, which led to similarly taboo jazz music to embrace it. In turn, the counter-culture embraced both jazz and marijuana as pillars to its anti-establishment movement. And so on, appropriating other literature and mindsets to further expand their objectives.”
New York City was always a hub of counterculture, and as long as it has welcomed waves of new residents and new ideas, nativism has reared its ugly head in ugly ways. We’ll never know how far the ripple effects of the campaign to cut cannabis out of New York spread, but it coincided with waves of enforcement targeted first at Mexican immigrants in the 1930s, communist, leftist, and civil rights groups in the 1950s, and well into the 1970s .
No matter the intent of the Sanitation Department or the NYPD on giving weed the boot from the five boroughs, it’s impact is a legacy that has continuously disadvantaged communities, resulting in consistent inequality, as well as a huge discrepancy in who is making money in today’s legal cannabis market.
Cannabis used to grow wild in the abandoned lots of NYC, until about 60 years ago, when the city launched a slash-and-burn effort to eradicate the weed.
Where does cannabis grow wild?
If pot has one clear advantage over alcohol, it’s that hikers never stumble into a field of wild beer or feral wine
Cannabis growing wild in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
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Ditch weed. Feral cannabis. Wild marijuana. If pot has one clear advantage over alcohol, it’s that hikers never stumble into a field of wild beer or feral wine.
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Where does cannabis grow wild? Back to video
But around the world, tonnes of cannabis can be found growing without any human intervention.
In a viral 2016 YouTube post, travel blogger Gabriel Morris revealed a hillside covered with marijuana plants in the Nepalese Himalayas.
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The sight isn’t all that uncommon in the land of Mount Everest. Cannabis is indigenous to the Himalayas, and while the plant is illegal in both India and Nepal, it thrives in the hard-to-reach corners of the famed mountain range. Several Himalayan villages also make their living on the production of cannabis, and when busted by authorities they can plausibly claim that their cannabis fields are natural.
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Thickets of cannabis can similarly be found across Asia from Pakistan to China. Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany, a 2013 scientific profile of the plant, even found examples of decorative cannabis being grown alongside a public street in Kunming, China.
“Feral Cannabis is highly adaptable and can grow and reproduce in a wide variety of temperate habitats, even under extreme conditions,” it read.
Marijuana can be found growing wild throughout northern Pakistan, where an unmolested cannabis bush can grow as high as a one-storey building. As with a lot of the world’s indigenous wild cannabis, however, these plants are generally quite low on THC and have little to no hallucinogenic effect if consumed.
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In neighbouring Afghanistan, the ease of growing weed in the local soil (as well as the country’s chaotic political situation) is partially how it became the world’s largest supplier of cannabis in 2010.
Cannabis used to grow wild across Europe, according to a recent University of Vermont study of fossil pollen. However, the plant had already begun to die out by the time Europeans started experimenting with agriculture – and there is no evidence that Neolithic humans ever discovered its psychoactive properties.
In Britain, at least, wild pot has begun to return. A group calling itself “Feed the Birds” has begun sowing cannabis seeds into English gardens and planter boxes, with the result that cannabis can now occasionally be seen growing within sight of U.K. landmarks like the The Shard skyscraper.
Feral cannabis is even rampant in North America. Although the plant is not native to the Western hemisphere, wild cannabis has either escaped from early 20th century industrial hemp farms or has been intentionally sowed by marijuana activists. Ironically, it seems to thrive best in conservative states like Iowa, Nebraska or Kansas, where marijuana prohibitions are some of the strongest in the United States.
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Glenn Panik, a California-based medical marijuana blogger, wrote in 2014 about how wild cannabis can frequently be spotted among stands of overgrown vegetation, particularly in urban places like abandoned lots or construction sites.
“I even found a beautiful little plant with purple-tinged buds growing among the yarrow and dandelions in front of a doughnut shop,” he wrote.
Wild cannabis is usually referred to in the U.S. Midwest as “ditch weed.” Much like its feral cousin in Asia, however, ditch weed usually contains too little THC to get high – although it can be crossbred with peppier domestic strains in order to yield more resilient marijuana.
In Canada, winters are a bit harder on wild cannabis, and the country doesn’t have the same history of large-scale hemp cultivation like in the U.S. Nevertheless, according to a 2002 paper by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, all of Canada’s 10 provinces can count a few patches of tough, weedy cannabis.
A 1972 map showing known locations of wild cannabis in Canada. Photo by National Research Council Press
“The ruderal plants pose a minor weed problem to agriculture but a major problem to law enforcement,” it wrote.
At the time, the re-authorization of hemp cultivation was expected to yield an explosion in Canadian feral cannabis fuelled by “escaped” seeds. With legal grow operations now opening across the country, Canada may well be entering a golden age of feral weed.
It’s hard to spot in Canada, but no less than the federal government says it grows wild in all 10 provinces