Albany lawmakers have just legalized cannabis in New York State. For cannabis lovers across the state this is a huge victory, as a few decades ago this type of legislation seemed impossible and improbable. The great city of New York was simply a terrible place for weed enthusiasts. Criminal consequences, high prices and dubious dealers awaited anyone who dared to incorporate cannabis in their lifestyle.
Legalization is often a matter of life and death
The stakes were even higher for denizens of the city who weren’t White. People in predominantly Black, Puerto Rican and other non-White communities were subjected to sadistic stop & frisk policies. Being in possession of even a small amount of marijuana would lead to outlandishly severe criminal consequences. If a victim of police brutality was said to have been in possession of marijuana that somehow justified the victim’s abuse. In September of 1983 the tragic story of Michael Stewart exemplifies this. Stewart was a 25 year old Black artist who was beaten to death in a while detained by police. He was arrested for allegedly writing graffiti in a Manhattan subway station and for being in possession of marijuana.
A YouTube search on Michael Stewart’s story generates a few interesting videos including this CNN piece from that period: . While this video doesn’t give any specific details about Michael’s marijuana possession it does shine light on how marijuana was criminalized in NYC.
Our world has continued to change since the early 1980s, yet this very moment in human history signals a seismic pivot point. COVID-19, new cannabis legislation and new technology are just a few of the hallmarks of the rapid changes to American life.
My Story Begins
As we collectively move into the unknown tomorrow I’d like to take a moment to share a personal anecdote. This is a story of a youthful misadventure and societal attitudes during New York’s cannabis prohibition era.
From awkward and out of place to an amazing headspace
In the fall of 1999 I transferred from St. Francis College and began my sophomore year at the University at Albany (SUNY Albany). This was an important moment because in the previous year I attended St. Francis as a commuter, riding the local R train a few stops away from my mother’s apartment in Park Slope to the Court Street station for class in Downtown Brooklyn. Transferring to SUNY Albany marked the culmination of my newfound adult independence. It was the beginning of life on a college campus in a college town, all of which I knew little about.
My new school was renowned for being a party school, however, I was mostly disinterested in the party scene. I was on a mission of self discovery as a 19 year old who seized an opportunity to escape the confines of my family’s old and cramped tenement unit. Academia was an incubator for my adulthood and I was eager to start a new life.
After my first few weeks as a student at SUNY Albany I had trouble adapting and experienced some culture shock. As a child of Haitian immigrants I didn’t have a solid point of reference as to what life at an American university would be like. I was a little disappointed, because I felt like I didn’t fit in.
Students frequently binged copious amounts of alcohol, smoked a lot of weed and an assortment of drugs were readily available. Needless to say, things got wild on campus. I enjoyed a good time as well but I wasn’t very wild. I didn’t drink or smoke and most of the time I was too overwhelmed with my own nervousness and awkwardness to speak to the young ladies I deemed attractive on campus. What was most enjoyable for me was going to a record shop and discovering a piece of jazz or soul music that was sampled into a Hip Hop classic by the likes of Pete Rock, DJ Premier or J-Dilla. I was a young Hip Hop nerd; impressionable, naive and inexperienced. However, I still managed to make friends and possess some semblance of street smarts.
My shift in perspective regarding weed
During my teens, I associated weed to lazy unambitious and perhaps dangerous people. These ideas were fueled by prohibition and government sponsored propaganda that taught my generation to “Just Say No!” This personal attitude ran concurrent with a deep obsession for Hip Hop; which by the early 90’s started to feature an infectious stream of marijuana themed songs, albums and videos. The airwaves and video shows of the day put a spotlight on cannabis counterculture with artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Redman, Wu-Tang Clan and Cypress Hills.
By the time senior year came around I had some personal revelations. I discovered I was an artist and I discovered that I loved smoking marijuana! Cannabis provided some introspective healing for me in an environment where I constantly felt overwhelmed. I also developed a worldview in which weed was a sacramental and spiritual plant, opposite of being a criminal narcotic. I simply loved the headspace weed put me in as it helped unlock my consciousness as well as my creative and social sensibilities.
On one hand I didn’t know how being an artist would help create a stable life, yet I poured myself into my creativity. I made Hip Hop beats in my dorm room, DJ’d at my school’s radio station and minored in Film Studies. Weed often provided a common thread between myself and people with shared interests. It was often a catalyst to some profound intellectual conversations about life . Sometimes it just helped us enjoy the moment with laughter and a feeling of freedom.
A shameless visit to the Trap House
During my last semester in 2002 there were rumors floating around campus for a few days about a weed drought. At that time I recall several of my herb contacts were completely tapped out. On one of those nights after completing a day of class I developed an insatiable desire to smoke a spliff and listen to music. I was going through a new challenging period as my mother had recently passed away. Still mourning her loss, weed helped me cope with the complexities of that moment.
I was seemingly out of options until suddenly I recalled a recent conversation with a classmate named Sammy. A few weeks prior as we drove through downtown Albany Sammy said “Do you know about the Knock Spot?” He then pointed at a decrepit blue house seated in the shadows of the bright lights that shined on the state buildings downtown. I asked him what he was talking about and he explained that it was a place where I could buy weed. All you had to do was knock on the door and tell the person who answered what I wanted. Given my personal dilemma I decided to take a bus ride to the Knock Spot and attempt to replenish my stash.
If only cannabis were legal
When I arrived at the house I was admittedly scared by the scenery and the unnecessary risk I was taking. I was aware something could go terribly wrong but for some foolish reason I was willing to take a chance with my life and freedom. The streets seemed darker on that night and the Knock Spot carried an even more ominous appearance than it did the last time I saw it. Not wanting to waste time I hurried up the flight of stairs that lead to the front door and knocked. A man’s voice shouted, “What do you want!”. I attempted to play it cool and responded “I want a 20 bag of weed”. I could see a faint shadowy figure emerge on the other side of the door’s peephole. “Put the money in the mail slot” he responded. I did so. “Ok, hold on” said the voice behind the door. About 10 seconds later he dropped something out of the mailbox slot. I looked on the ground and through the dim light I could see a small plastic baggie covered in prints of ganja leaves.
Mission accomplished! It was now time to walk back to the bus stop and go home to enjoy the fruits of this endeavor. I nervously walked away from the Knock Spot clutching my $20 goods. While it was customary for me to smell and visually inspect my herb before I purchased it, that scenario didn’t afford me such an opportunity. As I walked away that night I was more concerned with getting out of that neighborhood because it simply felt dangerous and I was an outsider. When I got to the bus stop a few blocks away I felt relieved. I stood directly underneath a bright street light that shined onto the sidewalk and decided to inspect what I just bought. I opened the baggie and took a whiff and it smelled nothing like my beloved ganja. What I thought was a bag of weed was a bag of potpourri deceptively placed in the type of packaging many street dealers in New York used at that time. I was swindled!
Rather than returning to the Knock Spot and demanding a full refund I decided to take my goofy ass home and accept the loss. Considering the risks I just took this was far from the worst possible consequences for my actions.
I currently reside in Los Angeles. I’m an entrepreneur who works as a vegan chef, fine artist, as well as a music and events producer. Legal cannabis is one of the reasons that attracted me to Southern California and I decided to share this story to illustrate the dangers and inconveniences of prohibition. As New York and potentially the entire nation dissolve archaic policies perhaps we can better identify our societal flaws and legislative missteps and carve out a better tomorrow.