A Brief History of the NYC Cannabis Parade

It’s almost May again, which means that soon the annual Worldwide Marijuana March, will be taking place in about 300 cities and towns around the world. This worldwide event, which began in 1999, is a direct descendant of marijuana marches and rallies, sometimes called “Smoke-Ins” that have taken place in New York, Washington, D.C. and other North American cities for more than forty years.

People can still argue about the origins of the smoke-in, and when the first marijuana march was held and where, but the earliest events are pretty clear. In the mid-1960s, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg organized a group called LeMar, for Legalize Marijuana, and picketed outside Jefferson Market Courthouse (now a library) in New York’s West Village, and outside Christadora House, where Federal offices were located in the East Village, opposite Tompkins Square Park.

A few years later, the hippie scene in the East Village was centered in Tompkins Square, with a “Hippie Hill” and concerts by top acts (Charles Mingus, The Fugs, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Jimi Hendrix) at the bandshell. Abbie Hoffman has written about the Memorial Day riots at Tompkins Square with fighting between cops, hippies and Puerto Ricans, and eventual peace with Puerto Rican activists at a concert in the park. Other early “proto-Yippies” on the scene at the time include Jerry Rubin, Dana Beal, A.J. Weberman and Jim Fouratt.

It was at a Grateful Dead concert at the bandshell in the park in the Summer of 1967 that the first “Smoke-In” can be said to have taken place. According to the tale, Provo Dana Beal took a bunch of weed and rolled up a bunch of joints and passed them around at the concert. Some say he got the crowd going when he threw joints in the air from the stage, a tried-and-true tactic.

The next year saw the Yippies founded and pounded, at the Chicago police riot outside (and inside) the Democratic Convention. With the conspiracy trial and defense over the next few years, the original Yippies built up a network of followers and fellow travelers that formed numerous chapters around the country and into Canada. (Indeed, Vancouver was one of the most active and militant chapters. They actually invaded America, at Blaine, WA!) These Yippies could be counted on to show up at presidential appearances around the country and at anti-war rallies and the like. There was even a Yippie! invasion of Disneyland!

What brought them to Washington, D.C. on July 4, 1970 was an event called “Honor America Day,” with comedian and military favorite Bob Hope and the Rev. Billy Graham as co-hosts to be held outdoors on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, and so thousands of Yippies and Hippies gathered at the Washington Monument, smoking copious amounts of marijuana, and then marched on the stage, with Yippie! and Vietcong/NLF/NVA flags flying. When cops blocked them in the aisles, they waded through the Reflecting Pool, some people stripping down for a skinny-dip. Tear gas grenades flew through the air, affecting protesters and “pro-Americans” both. The event degenerated into chaos as arrests were made, fistfights broke out and gas wafted through the night.

On the next July Fourth, the Yippies gathered again on the Capitol Mall, for what is now recognized as the first actual July 4 Washington, D.C. Smoke-In, an event that has endured for forty years, with no interruption. Even when the Yippie! cabal decided to skip D.C. in favor of national Bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia, a crowd of stalwarts from D.C. and Maryland maintained the tradition.

As to the “March” part of Marijuana March, the first march probably took place in New York in the early 1970s. Whether it was 1970, or 1973 is hard to pin down, but by the mid-1970s, the Yippies were domiciled in their offices on Bleecker Street and organizing national and local events, including a quadrennial presence at the national political conventions, smoke-ins, and by 1979, annual Rock Against Racism concerts at Central Park’s bandshell.

Enough credit can’t be given, as well, to the movement of Yippies, rock-and-rollers and others that grew in response to the 1969 arrest of White Panther founder John Sinclair. Many events in 1971, especially the Free John Sinclair Rally, in Ann Arbor, Mich., with John Lennon performing his song (“John Sinclair” aka “Ten For Two”), took place around the country, including a money-losing “benefit” at the Hotel Diplomat in New York City.

Without personally scouring the mountain of underground papers in the Yippie Museum archives, the best source for early smoke-in and marijuana march history is the guide to “Every Smoke-In Ever Reported to the Alternative Press 1970–1983” in the back of Volume II of the the Yippie! book, Blacklisted News, Secret Histories from Chicago to 1984. And it’s typical Yippie! history.

Listed among the smoke-ins for New York are the aforementioned benefit at the Diplomat, and what was probably a seminal event, the “1st new YIP meeting” at the Underground Press Syndicate loft in November 1970.  No other events for New York City appear until 1973. The Ann Arbor Hash Bash appears for the first time in 1972, and July 4 that year in D.C. is listed as a “spontaneous gathering.”

In 1973, the New York smoke-in occurs on “May Day,” (hence, May Day is Jay Day) and is listed as “Natl. Marijuana Day” from where we get the first-Saturday-in-May worldwide event of the 21st Century. (Except…the first Saturday in May 1973 was May 5; May Day — May 1— was a Tuesday, so the mystery continues.) The event took place in Washington Square Park, which has become the traditional ground for the annual rally with huge crowds in the late 1970s and mid-1990s, and fights with the city, including being banned from the park, in many other years. The 1973 rally “visited John and Martha Mitchell’s” according to the listing, perhaps the first “marijuana march,” ending appropriately at the home of the U.S. attorney general.

Nineteen-seventy-four shows a listing for May 18 in New York, no specific location mentioned, for the “3rd Annual Pot-Heads Parade on Natl. Marijuana Day.” Five thousand people are said to have attended, with three arrests. Was this the first, or third, true marijuana march? And where did it “parade”? No other info is offered and no hints can be found in the book’s preceding chapters. After a cryptic listing at the bottom of 1974 in all caps: “THE ANN ARBOR HASH BASH WAS OVERSHADOWED BY VOTE HELD ON DECRIM ISSUE,” there are no listings for 1975 except for the July 4 “Independence Day Smoke-In.”

So, in 1976 we find for New York City on the rain date of May 15, the “6th Annual” event, with a “Guess How Many Joints in the Jar” contest. Now, if 1973 is the first listing, and 1974 is the “third annual” and there’s no event for 1975 (and there probably was one), how is 1976 the “sixth annual”? Typical Yippie! bullshit. But it was the beginning of regular listings of a consistent history of annual marijuana events in New York ever since.

The years 1978 and 1979 were perhaps the high point for the national movement of Yippie! chapters and associated groups of marijuana activists putting on smoke-ins. Some lasted into the 1990s, including San Francisco, Madison, Ann Arbor, and a few others besides New York. The New York events were often large events in Washington Square Park, with parades including punk bands playing on a flatbed trailer, marching up Fifth Avenue to a Rock Against Racism concert on Central Park. Often these were organized by the Yippie! front group, “The Fifth Avenue Marijuana Parade Coalition,” a take on the 1960s anti-war Fifth Avenue peace parade group.

By the early 1980s, the Rock Against Racism organizers split off from the marijuana activists and had the concert follow the smoke-in by a day (though leftover joints from the previous day often made the concert a pretty hazy experience). This opened up the opportunity to use the march to make a political point by protesting at various sites in Manhattan and then marching to Washington Square, or vice-versa. These sites included the United Nations (1983 and later years at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, easily the worst place for a smoke-in ever), Rep. Charles Rangel’s office (a long walk down the East Side), the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (the Chrysler Building) and others. (The wisdom of Saturday protests outside Mon.–Fri. offices was never really debated.)

In some years in the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s the event was banned from Washington Square Park for various reasons. Failing to clean up after the event could lead to losing the cleanup bond placed for the event, and a ban from the park for the next year. In other years, the city, the police and the community board hated the idea of hippies and Yippies and punks descending on their pristine little park and smoking pot openly. They banded together, formed front groups and worked the process to snatch up the permits for any weekend that might be open, especially the first Saturday in May. Often, they would book an event billed as “Family Day” with booths and clowns, face-painting and a petting zoo.

Around the country, other cities held their annual events, often the first Saturday in May, or on other dates due to weather or other political considerations. In 1984, San Francisco had a marijuana march the weekend before the Democratic Convention there with more than 200,000 participants. Conversely, at the Republican Convention in New Orleans in 1988, a mere thirty-five people marched and no joints were smoked. The annual event in Madison, Wisconsin, became legendary for the march from campus down to the State Capitol building and smoking on the steps of the building. Their march and rally in 1983 and 1984 coincided with the Rock Against Reagan tour, with the 1983 event featuring Yippies and blues band Magic Slim and the Teardrops hitting a huge glass jug water-pipe on the Capitol’s portico, as well as the only verified airdrop of joints ever to occur at a smoke-in.

While attendance in the annual New York event had peaked in the late 1970s at about 20,000, annual crowds ranged from a few hundred to several thousand, with crowd size fluctuating between the event and the march (usually smaller on the march). Smoking at these events was not without risk, even given the rumors that “pot was legal on May Day” and “the helicopter will be dropping joints at two p.m.” People were often busted on the periphery of the crowd, while Yippies circulated in the inner core, lighting joints and passing them on, or tossing them in the air once in a while.

Organizers were sometimes hauled in after a speech or in a dispute over permits. The smaller the crowd, the more likely people got busted for smoking. (Hey, to be honest, the larger the crowd, the more likely to get busted too! The cops don’t care.) There was also the risk taken by organizers from the crowd, as once happened when someone showed up with a shopping bag full of joints and had it grabbed out of his hands within seconds of arriving on the scene. Those joints were later being sold all over the park.

By the mid-1990s crowd size had started building again, with thousands present in 1994 in Washington Square for a concert with the Chambers Brothers performing their immortal hit “Time.” This event was memorialized in a New York Times photograph by Dith Pran (the Cambodian journalist whose nightmare life was portrayed in The Killing Fields). The photo was reproduced and distributed to thousands by Cures Not Wars, the successor organization to the Yippies, who had finally faded as an organization in 1984 after a last gasp protest at the Republican Convention in Dallas (the march that ended in the flag-burning that went to the Supreme Court).

“The Yippies were there. The Yippies are always there,” is what the Village Voice said after the Tompkins Square Park police riot in 1988. And they were right, the Yippie had never quite faded away in New York, with rival factions jockeying in the late 1980s as the East Village/Alphabet City neighborhood near the Yippies’ Bleecker Street HQ became politically hot, largely due to the proliferation of anarchist and punk squatters in the area. Fights with the police became commonplace with Yippies and their friends being arrested leading protests or pushing concerts past the permit expiration time. Fights between Yippies also happened with the leading figures of the East Village and Bleecker Street factions (the “local” vs. the “national”) coming to blows in the aftermath of the 1988 riot.

The factional split saw the odd occurrence of “dueling” smoke-ins and parades, where one group might have the early time slot at Washington Square and marching, while the other group gathered elsewhere and marched to the square for a later time slot. Once, both marches met at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, opposite the New York Public Library. Some of the younger Yippies tried to get both crowds to join together and take over the intersection, but the leaders were hard to shift, and the cops were prodding people on, and the moment passed.

Some of the best years in New York were the 1990s, specifically 1994 to 1999. Two of the biggest crowds were in 1995 and 1996 with estimates of up to 30,000 in attendance, and more than 300 arrests on the peripheries. At the end of the 1996 event the pavement in and around the park was covered in empty nickel and dime bags and the detritus of thousands of cigars cannibalized for blunts. The Parks Department’s failure to provide for trash pick-up that year saw the rally banned from the park the next year, except as a dispersal point for the parade. When one of the organizers jumped up on a trash can with a bullhorn, the cops grabbed him.

The park was often off-limits over the next decade, the closest corner at Greene and Washington was often a gathering point. (Interestingly, it’s the same corner as the historic Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and was recently the site of the 100th anniversary ceremonies, with more than 10,000 in attendance.) Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, with its stunning view of the Statue of Liberty, became a preferred second choice for the smoke-in, and saw some large events, especially 1999 and into the next decade. Of the 1999 march, the Village Voice reported that, “the police claim it was 4,000 people while organizers say 20,000.” Some years saw mass arrests, and these have been blamed for the decline in crowds over the next few years.

Someone else should probably write the history of the march from 1999 on, when Cures Not Wars first took it global. Dana Beal will probably include it in his book, Letters of Transit, the Ibogaine Story Continues, whenever he gets around to actually writing it. High Times, other drug- and pot-oriented magazines, and local and national media occasionally reported on the marijuana marches and rallies. Others can probably give a year-by-year analysis of the event in New York; which years the march went to Battery Park, the “special event” (lighting up) at City Hall, the return to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, etc. But there is no single consistent source for this kind of information.

For an idea of the global spread of the marijuana march (Global Marijuana March, Worldwide Marijuana March, Million Marijuana March, Global Cannabis March, Cannabis Peace march, Drug Peace March and various other permutations for searches) there is the Internet, especially YouTube, and websites like the Weed Wiki that EcoMann maintains. A graph can be created from the Wiki data that shows the growth in cities around the world from a few dozen to more than three hundred in 2010. There are also FaceBook pages, newsgroups and e-mail newsletters  that help organizers with contacts and information.

The effort to globalize grew, in part, out of the efforts of leaders of Cures Not Wars in traveling the country and the world attending NORML events and other conferences on the drug policy and harm-reduction circuit. There they met other like-minded souls and identified those who were organizing or could organize events in their areas. This activity became viral in the mid-2000s as hundreds of activists joined the network. At the same time, many of these activists were spearheading initiatives and referenda in their communities and states to legalize medical marijuana and to decriminalize recreational marijuana.

Putting out a common graphic with a unified set of demands was another thing Cures did, printing and mailing thousands of posters each season, so that local organizers had something to work with. Some of the early posters were quite striking (e.g, 2001’s Space Odyssey), while later in the decade the long list of cities often overshadowed the graphic.

London was one of the first international cities. Paris and others soon followed and some of these marches have become the biggest pot events in the world. (London, Toronto and Rome routinely have crowds with tens of thousands of participants, even if they are not always the most politically oriented.) Bans have been implemented in countries like Israel and Russia, skinheads attacked the marchers and were beaten back in the Ukraine, and events have been advertised from Jakarta to Kathmandu to Medellin.

Ironically, while Cures was expanding the network and building a list of more than 300 cities around the world, the New York City event was often neglected. Local organizing was minimal and disorganized, and crowds in the mid and late-2000s averaged about 200 people. Late starts in the organizing effort meant that permits were available only for the darkest and most windswept corners and plazas.

During these years, New York City police activity was stepped-up, with half a million police stops a year (stop-and-frisks), and increasing numbers of arrests for marijuana possession — to the tune of 50,000 a year. In both cases the affected community was largely African-American and Latino, though all surveys show that whites are more likely to be smoking marijuana. So, as it became easier in other states and countries to grow and smoke medical or recreational marijuana, in New York the news got worse.

Also ironic: the event in New York in 2011 began in Washington Square Park, just two weeks before city legislation takes effect banning all smoking in city parks, beaches plazas, etc. It looks like the Yippie! concept of the “Smoke-In” may eventually get co-opted by the tobacco smokers if they can ever get themselves organized.

By A. Yippie!