New York is not a drug town. Or, rather, New Yorkers have been doing so many drugs, for so long, completely casually and with total disregard to their legality, that to call it a "drug town" is to risk redundancy. Less than a century ago, entrepreneurial farmers grew ten-foot tall cannabis plants in various neighborhoods in Brooklyn; Cab Calloway sang "Reefer Man" and Ella Fitzgerald sang "When I Get Low, I Get High"; jazz welcomed all users; and heroin and pot provided a multi-racial thread from Harlem to Greenwich Village. The Beats had Benzedrine and Terry Southern had his "diet pills." The 60s were the 60s and, yes, drugs. Cocaine, like porn, became mainstream in the 70s; and even though Nancy Reagan would soon tell us all to just say no to pretty much anything fun, New York collectively decided that both were habits worth holding onto even as Giuliani replaced the Travis Bickle theaters and Gay Talese massage joints in Times Square with TGIF's twelve-buck margaritas and roaming gangs of extortionist Super Marios and Spider-Mans. Crack was undoubtedly a scourge, but I know a couple major dudes who passed up on seeing Nirvana's first NYC show in '89 to smoke crack in a nearby alley. Some would find this sad. I would argue that the value of seeing Nirvana before they were Nirvana is far outweighed by the value of being able to tell the story of skipping Nirvana before they were Nirvana to go smoke crack in an alley. Reasonable people can disagree. There were countless after-hours coke joints, from Kokie's to Brownies (no, not the former rock club on Ave. A…the other one), and after Giuliani said you couldn't smoke pot on the subway any more, you just smoked before you go on.
I'm not diminishing the real-world trauma that accompanied all this drug use but the enforcement––its insanely disproportionate arrests of blacks and Hispanics over whites; the draconian nature of the Rockefeller Laws; the racist, in origin and practice, Cabaret Laws; all that misguided and misapplied "broken windows" hokum––was always more the issue than the substances themselves. (And, while we're here? New Yorkers have been dying from opioids since day one. We OD like it's a job. But it never made us vote fascist.* So.)
Despite being large and in charge for decades, marijuana is now enjoying something of a golden age in New York City. Along with the national push towards legalization and Mayor de Blasio's 2014 directive to cease arrests for possession, there are now four pot dispensaries in the five boroughs and the state is considering loosening restrictions on who qualifies for use of medicinal marijuana. If things keep going like this, would the culture of the city itself be affected? (Again, I need to be clear that we're talking solely of the "culture." Politically and morally, less people, particularly black and Hispanic people, being harassed––if that's indeed a result of these changes––is an inarguable positive.) How will marijuana's increasing accessibility affect a town that takes a perverse pride in its hard drug use but generally looks at pot as something to take the edge off of, you know, being awake?
If New York City is considered more a cocaine town than a pot town, it's only because New Yorkers don't think a lot about their breakfast cereal either. While consistently present in the narrative, there isn't a ton of particularly compelling New York art about marijuana use. Actually scratch that; that's idiotic. There's a lot of New York art about marijuana use, Method Man's Tical possibly being the Sistine Chapel. But there's very little New York art about marijuana where its legality is a factor. It's a given that rappers and ABC No Rio volunteers and Patti Smith and your aunt who dabbles in painting and claims to have dated Amiri Baraka smoke pot. Das Racist did interviews at dispensaries and DGeneration had dreadlocks. Styles P enjoyed good times as he got high and The Strokes smoked pot in the backroom of Mars Bar before they were all old enough to drink (I mean I think so, I certainly never carded them when I worked there). The white artists currently gentrifying Bushwick and the black artists currently being pushed into East New York all smoke pot and their respective drones and murmurs reflect it. But nobody is claiming to have shot the sheriff over pot; it's just not a myth we draw from. Though there's a now High Times bodega pop-up shop that sells marijuana-themed streetwear, I'd still argue that pot leaves on hats has always been something locals saw in the same way they saw "New York Fucking City" shirts; something perhaps a bit too on the nose, good for the tourists, but not something you'd wear to the club, unless it was some sort of theme night and you wanted to be extra cute.
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Now, I'm not what you'd call an authority on cannabis consumption. It makes me scared, and if we're being honest I prefer substances that make me think I'm brave and witty and handsome. So, for some more insight on all of this, I consulted with a man who works in the still-illicit end of the industry. A drug dealer who I've known since he was precocious Murphy's Law fan, who asked to be identified "Sailor Moon," deals large enough amounts of pot and whatnot to have a couple (paid) interns. He bemoaned the fact that legalization will put a number of people, punk curriers and street dealers alike, out of work but, being social justice-minded, is cautiously in favor of a legal-weed-ified NYC. Sailor Moon told me (edited for clarity, as he was drunk as hell), "Personal freedom is paramount, but let's be realistic; it will also further the tiered system where all the white kids who voted for Bernie and all the white kids who voted for Hillary will be fine and everyone (in marginalized communities) will get arrested. As much as it would cripple my industry, most kids will just become bootleggers. People won't want to be registered as pot smokers for insurance purposes. Just like delis in Bushwick sell $7 packs of cigarettes. As long as New York taxes shit, we should be fine."
"Fine" in these circumstances, is the key word. It'll, probably, be fine. New York is largely for the moneyed these days, and legalization will make things a tad more convenient for them, while hopefully alleviating some strain on everybody else, the small-time farmers and dealers who manage to duck the eightball's worth of regulations that legalization will inevitably bring with it. Artists may do an installation about this divide or some band may do a quirky King Missle-esque tribute to forgetting their dick at the dispensary or some shit. But largely New York artists will stick to their usual concerns: rent and death. WE may smoke more pot and so what, it's not like we drive or love school so you might not even. And, god love us, we, more than any metropolis since Sodom or Gomorra, will always be able to get a sandwich at four in the morning.
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*Mo Tucker's Trump support notwithstanding.