From Speakeasies to Smoke-Easies

New York City’s Cannabis Culture Then and Now

Even though recreational cannabis use in New York state and therefore New York City still remains illegal, the Big Apple’s cannabis culture is very much alive and well.

A study released last year by the German public relations and communications firm ABCD found that, despite its recreational illegality, New York has the highest cannabis consumption for any city on the globe – at 77.44 metric tons annually.

A long history of pot smoke

Cannabis has been a part of New York’s cultural life — and street life — for decades now.

Pot smoke was seemingly everywhere in New York during the 1960s and ‘70s. The city’s annual Cannabis Parade and Rally traces its roots back to the Vietnam War-era “Smoke-ins” in Washington Square Park, organized by the counter-culture Youth International Party, or Yippies.

On the artistic side, former Beatle and later New York resident John Lennon in 1972 produced an album for David Peel, a self-proclaimed “New York City Hippie” and marijuana activist, called “The Pope Smokes Dope.”

Further back, during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ‘30s, when alcohol Prohibition was in full swing, swinging nightclubs in upper Manhattan kept things lively with ground-breaking music, bootleg booze and marijuana. Cab Calloway, famed bandleader at New York’s legendary Cotton Club, had a hit in 1932 with his song “Reefer Man.”

Looking for a safe place to light up

That tradition of the Prohibition speakeasy remains in NYC to this day for cannabis enthusiasts.

Although New York lawmakers recently decriminalized cannabis, the state failed in its latest attempt to legalize recreational cannabis use. New York cannabis activists say that, as cannabis legalization grows around the country, there’s a unique need in NYC for safe and legitimate spaces where people can consume cannabis.

Benjamin Leiner, the executive director for New York City NORML, points out that the hundreds of thousands of people living in city public housing aren’t allowed to smoke cannabis.

“If they are caught smoking cannabis, even if they are medical patients, they can be evicted,” he tells DOPE. “Also, there are a lot of people who don’t have a place to smoke at home, so they smoke outside, and smoking outside can turn into a serious offense, a criminal offense for the New York Police, and those people [can] end up in the criminal system. Having a safe place for people to consume cannabis […] protects those people.”

The new “smoke-easies”

That’s where New York’s underground cannabis social clubs come in. Over the past several years, the city has reportedly seen a quiet boom in the number of places where people can gather with other cannabis enthusiasts and get elevated in good company.

A gentleman called Stan (a pseudonym) was DOPE’s guide into the world of New York’s cannabis speakeasies or, as he prefers to call them, “smoke-easies.”

“There is definitely a scene going on around the city,” he says. “Consumption spaces in various forms that have been popping up pretty quickly. Some have apparently been around longer than others. Some move around, some are stationary. But the scene is evolving very, very rapidly.”

A visit to an underground club

Stan got DOPE entrée into one such, members-only club, but only if we adhered to stringent restrictions regarding information about the place; to the point where we promised to not even mention in which of New York’s five boroughs it was located.

This club was away from the street; in a series of rooms where, after paying a voucher charge, the customer could come in and get comfortable on oversized couches. People either brought their own cannabis or could purchase flower, edibles and other forms of weed via a voucher at the club’s dispensary, located in one of the venue’s many rooms.

The mood was accentuated by subtle lighting and a great sound system. It was a welcoming atmosphere, where it didn’t take long for strangers to get comfortable and start chatting with their neighbors on the couches while rolling potent joints on conveniently-located coffee tables.

To access the club Stan says a person has to be introduced to the venue’s principal members, then approved and added to the members’ list. It has a 21-and-older age requirement, with soft drinks and CBD-infused drinks only; no alcohol. It also has a very diverse list of members and what Stan describes as an educational program for people unfamiliar with cannabis.

“The club was born from the need for us to congregate,” he adds, “and almost everyone that uses cannabis is an activist in some way. So we started doing as much community outreach as we could.”

Cannabis and cabaret

Stan says there is now a wide spectrum of underground cannabis venues in New York, from some with memberships in the thousands to much smaller organizations. He also introduces me to Fred (a pseudonymn), who runs one of the city’s 420-friendly entertainment venues.

Fred is the director of a cabaret where patrons can openly light up and then enjoy a variety of acts, from music and magic to comedy and burlesque. The cannabis is bring-your-own, and the events are only advertised via word-of-mouth. The cannabis-friendly cabaret, Fred says, has a very diverse clientele and a real sense of community.

“It’s a vibe, it’s an energy,” he continues. “The main ingredient really is the laughter. People live such stressful lives; life is stressful in the city. It’s a place to release your stress and enjoy yourself in a relaxed environment. Also, to be challenged with ideas but encouraged to laugh and think beyond the quotidian.”

Everyone’s gone to the movies

There are also a variety of above-board artistic events for cannabis enthusiasts in New York City.

High NY bills itself as a community organization and educational platform for people interested in cannabis.

“We produce events in New York that are designed to bring people together through networking, education and to raise public awareness about cannabis issues,” says founder Michael Zaytsev, aka Mike Z – who stresses that High NY is not just for people looking to get into the legal cannabis industry.

Mike Z is also the founder of the annual NYC Cannabis Film Festival, which showcases movies dealing with cannabis culture. The mission of the event, he says, is to “normalize and celebrate cannabis culture and undo the stigma which is largely perpetuated through films and the media.” While people might get elevated before the films, he says, “We have really good snacks, available free, but no open consumption.”

He also believes that there is a huge demand in New York City for not only cannabis but also for cannabis-related art experiences.

“I’m a little spoiled because I have easier access to these things,” he continues. “But there’s a huge appetite for these kinds of experiences for the average (cannabis) consumer.”

“We don’t have to be hidden”

For now, New York State appears to have kicked the issue of recreational cannabis legalization down the road for at least another year. But people involved in NYC’s cannabis culture sense a growing acceptance of cannabis legalization in the city, and a need for cannabis-centric spaces.

After all, says Stan, one of the best parts of living or being in New York is going out and enjoying the city’s culture. And that’s true for NYC’s cannabis culture.

“There’s a lot of good stuff happening for our community,” he adds. “We can get together in venues, locations and socialize. We don’t have to be hidden in the corners, the alleyways and the door fronts.”

Bruce Kennedy

Bruce is an award-winning communications professional and multi-media journalist who has years of experience in nearly all aspects of international and business news. He’s been covering the legal cannabis industry since 2010, and has written for a wide variety of U.S. and international news outlets.

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