Marijuana and Drug Policy Reform in New York: 70 Years After The LaGuardia Committee Report

A Symposium Hosted by The New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance
May 1 – 2, 2014 | New York City


In 1939 -- on the heels of the national 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which established federal marijuana prohibition --  New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia called upon The New York Academy of Medicine to produce a report about marijuana. The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York was published in 1944 as one of the nation’s first systematic studies addressing many of the myths about marijuana, including: the alleged connection to “madness;” addictive potential; supposed role as a ‘gateway’ to other drug use; usage patterns; and potential relationship to crime and violence. The NYAM published report concluded that “the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated.”

Unfortunately, this groundbreaking report had minimal impact on local or national policy, and marijuana prohibition stood largely intact for almost 70 years. Today, recent changes in marijuana policy in the U.S. suggest we may be entering a new era. An increasing number of national political figures – from President Obama to Texas Governor Rick Perry – are calling for experimentation in reform; twenty states have enacted medical cannabis programs for patients; nearly fifteen states have removed criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana; and in two states – Colorado and Washington – voters have ended marijuana prohibition entirely, creating tax-and-regulate systems for adult access.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the LaGuardia Report, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) are hosting a day-and-a-half symposium on May 1st and 2nd. This symposium will take a look back on the LaGuardia Report and its implications to inform a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts, both nationally and in New York. With history as our guide, we’ll explore the deeper context to the ongoing public debates and actions.

Conference objectives:

  • Provide a historical context for the LaGuardia report and the drug wars, generally, as a way of understanding contemporary debates about marijuana and drug policy reform
  • Review the research agenda and evidence that helps shape and inform current policy proposals and explore that ways that politics drives this research
  • Facilitate discussion about the current cannabis policy reform proposals currently under debate in New York and how they are connected to broader drug policy reform efforts

Outline and session descriptions:

Thursday, May 1: Hosack Hall, The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10029

6:00 PM – 8:00 PM | Lattimer Lecture and Panel Discussion:
Richard Bonnie, a law professor, advisor on drug policy to Nixon and Carter Administrations, member of the Shafer Commission (aka National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse) and author The Marijuana Conviction, will give a keynote address on his efforts to persuade the Nixon Whitehouse to legalize marijuana and the current climate and changes in contemporary marijuana policy.

His address will be followed by a panel discussion and audience Q&A.  The panel will feature historians and policy experts who will reflect on how the historical precedent of the LaGuardia report helped shape marijuana policy and broader drug policy reform efforts.

6:00 PM: Introductions

Jo Ivey Boufford, M.D., President, The New York Academy of Medicine
Paul Theerman, Ph.D., Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine, The New York Academy of Medicine

6:15 PM: The John K. Lattimer Lecture:

“The Surprising Collapse of Marijuana Prohibition: What Now?”
Richard Bonnie, University of Virginia School of Law

7:00 PM: Discussion

Moderator: gabriel sayegh, Drug Policy Alliance
Sunil Aggarwal, M.D., Ph.D New York University
Alexandra Chasin, Ph.D., The New School
David Herzberg, Ph.D., University of Buffalo
Maurice Lacey, LMSW, MS Ed., Executive Director, Faith Mission Crisis Center

Friday, May 2: Room 440, The New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10029

10:00 AM – 11:30AM | Drug Wars Past & present:
This panel will examine the impact of our prohibitionist past on contemporary drug policy reform efforts. How has drug war influenced our current policy responses to marijuana and other substances?  What impact have these policies had on different communities? What, if anything, do changes in marijuana policy herald for broader drug policy reform efforts?

10:00 AM: Welcoming Remarks

Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker, New York City Council

10:10 AM: Session 1: Drug Wars in the United States, Past and Present

Moderator: Paul Theerman, Ph.D., The New York Academy of Medicine
Jeffrion Aubry, Speaker Pro Tempore, New York State Assembly
Jason Glenn, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
Sam Roberts, Ph.D., Columbia University
Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains
Bobby Tolbert, Community Leader and Board Member, VOCAL-NY

11:30 AM – 1 PM | Lunch on your own

1:00 PM – 2:30 PM | The contemporary research agenda for drug use and abuse:
Seventy years after the LaGuardia Commission report found that the harms of marijuana had been greatly exaggerated, what is the current state of our knowledge about marijuana’s risk and benefits? What don’t we know and why?  How have politics shaped research and our knowledge of marijuana and other substances? And what do these gaps in knowledge and research biases mean for drug policy reform?

Moderator: Julie Netherland, Ph.D, Drug Policy Alliance
Helena Hansen, Ph.D., M.D., New York University
Julie Holland, M.D., psychiatrist and author
Amanda Reiman, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance, San Francisco
Maia Szalavitz, journalist

2:30 PM – 3:00 PM | Break

3:00 PM – 4:30 PM | New York Marijuana Policy Reform in 2014
There are currently four major marijuana policy proposals pending before the New York State legislature: 1) creating legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill patients; 2) decreasing racially biased marijuana arrests by expanding the decriminalization of marijuana; 3) taxing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol; and 4) creating a legal hemp industry.  What are the prospects for these proposals and how might they influence one another?  How does New York compare in its reform efforts to other parts of the country? How can these efforts be linked to broader drug policy reform goals?  What are the racial politics of each of these proposals?

Moderator: Kassandra Frederique, M.S.W., Drug Policy Alliance
Richard Gottfried, New York State Assembly, 75th District
Hakeem Jeffries, United States Congress, 8th District
Harry Levine, Ph.D., Queens University
Art Way, J.D., Drug Policy Alliance, Denver
Vanessa L. Gibson, Chairperson, Committee on Public Safety, New York City Council

4:30 PM – 5:00 PM | Closing Presentation: Looking back and looking forward Where do we go from here?

David T. Courtwright, Ph.D., Presidential Professor of History, University of North Florida

5:00 PM |  Final Remarks – gabriel sayegh, Drug Policy Alliance

The New York Academy of Medicine
Drug Policy Alliance

Drug Policy Alliance
The John K. Lattimer Fund of The New York Academy of Medicine
The New York Foundation
Open Society Foundations

The Antiracist Alliance
BOOM! Health
Bronx Defenders
The Eisenhower Project
Five Boroughs Defenders
Justice Strategies
Legal Aid Society
New York Civil Liberties Union
Washington Heights Corner Project
Youth Represent

LaGuardia Conference Archive

Key recordings from the Conference

Day 1

Day 2: