When Weed Grew Wild in Williamsburg

Email a Friend
Evil harvest--Inspector John E. Gleason of the Sanitation Department supervises as departmental workers load uprooted marijuana onto truck. Weeds found growing near Williamsburg Bridge.

Remember when New York City was covered in weed? Well it turns out that even as the city oversaw historic removal efforts in the 1950s, there were already some in government urging swift legislative reform.

In this notably candid episode of WNYC's Campus Press Conference from 1951, not only does State Supreme Court Justice John Murtagh reject punitive solutions to drug problems, but he also says that science supports the notion that marijuana is non-addictive and potentially safer than cigarettes.

The interview is surprising for two reasons.  First, it debunks the perception that people were completely freaked out by weed in the 1950s. Between mass hysteria-inducing cult films like Reefer Madness and the shock and awe of educational television, it's interesting to learn that our views about marijuana haven't changed all that much.

Secondly, there was a HUGE marijuana crackdown in New York in 1951.  At the time, 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. These photos and corresponding story from the Brooklyn Public Library go a long way to help us understand the marijuana jungle that was New York City in 1951. To hear the entire Campus Press Conference, visit the full catalog record here. Audio courtesy of New York City Municipal Archives.

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. photo: Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

Plenty of dream stuff--There seems to be no end to the marijuana 'plantations' unearthed in the borough. Here Sanitation Department Chief Inspector John E. Gleason examines a plant taller than he, found in a lot at 81 N. 4th St. photo: Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection