NYC smoke shops – the backstory

NYC smoke shops bare an interesting backstory of counter culture and an effort to liberate cannabis.


Despite being so relatively young, New York City has already left its’ mark on the world… one that will never be forgotten. NYC has given the world only the greatest contributions to cannabis culture, and it leaves behind a story of counter culture and the smoke shops that followed. Sunflower Pipes is proud to be a part of the history of NYC smoke shops, and even more proud to be a part of an effort to educate smokers. We hope that this backstory will help contribute to a historically backed argument for legalizing cannabis Nation-wide. There is a wealth of knowledge surrounding what makes NYC smoke shops so significant, and the intention of this article is to explore how we got here. Cannabis counter culture reaches deep into the 20th century, and we find it important to acknowledge early socio-political context to truly understand the impact it has on us today. We’re finding that this backstory paints a complex picture of what it means to be one of many NYC smoke shops today. 


NYC smoke shops – St. Marks Place

history of hemp


St. Marks Place has been heralded as one of the earliest sites of NYC smoke shops. This comes to us as no surprise while we do our research as we find that this neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods, such as the Bowery, contributed greatly in setting the stage for what would some day become one of our proudest markets: NYC smoke shops.

First, let’s take a step back. In the mid 1600’s, the farmland that is today St. Marks Place was owned by Dutch General Peter Stuyvesant. Today, the only remnants of this era is his grave, which eventually became a part of St. Marks Church as it was constructed where Stuyvesant’s private chapel once stood. Some time in the 1800’s, Stuyvesant Street and Bowery Road became the only colonial roads that survived the implementation of The Commisioners Plan, which outlined the grid system for NYC. In this era, tobacco farms were common in lower Manhattan up until the 1830’s when wealthier New Yorkers began moving to this area. This was also around the time large amounts of German immigrants moved into East Village up until the Civil War (1861). East Village was known as “Little Germany” or Kleindeutschland. The German populace was moving out of the neighborhood at the turn of the century, as more Russians, Jews, and Polish immigrants moved in. This is when counter culture really began to unfold around St. Marks Place. Around 1917, Leon Trotsky arrives at St. Marks Place and writes “New World” at 77 St. Marks and it is edited by Nikolai Bukharin while living with his family across the street 80 St. Marks. These were not the only counter culture figures to live in this part of town during these times; a few years later, Socialist/Anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman move to St. Marks and start a “Progressive Modern School”. As you can see, New York City was a very important place for counter cultural roots, as it invited some of the most brilliant (and extreme) minds of the 20th century.



NYC smokes shops – War on Drugs

history of hemp


It’s important to note that just after the Great Depression, Hemp was more valuable of a resource than ever while the USA was saddling up for World War II. In fact, the U.S. government even released a film to promote hemp agriculture titled, “Hemp for Victory”. Shortly after, Newsweek reports that over 100,000 Americans use cannabis regularly. As WWII came to a close, even Harry Anslinger declared cannabis to make people peaceful and pacifistic, and yet he was not a supporter. Furthermore, in the 1950’s the UN had estimated 200 million cannabis users worldwide. Clearly these statistics show the importance of cannabis to the people of the world, especially in the United States.


The early socio-political mindset growing in lower Manhattan before WWII had set the stage for New York City to become the spot light for smoke shop history. This counter culture began to adopt cannabis even stronger in New York City after the atrocities of WWII, as peace movements began throughout the 1960’s. This is when the history of NYC smoke shops begins.


During the 1960’s, popular jazz clubs such as “The Five Spot” jazz club located in The Bowery, featured artists like Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker. Thus, the cannabis loving Beatnik culture began taking over the neighborhood. Beatnik counter culture artists like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg settled into these neighborhoods. The neighborhoods of Lower East Side Manhattan began attracting free thinking artists, with St. Marks Place at it’s core. These artists, or “hippies” as the term was coined, began packing the apartments… and that wasn’t the only thing they were packing (hint: cannabis). Shortly after, tour buses began bringing people to St. Marks to marvel at the young “Hippie” types. Keep in mind that in 1961, Anslinger headed the US delegation at UN Drugs Convention, and with his anti-cannabis view, began his push for new international policies to be placed on cannabis aiming to eliminate its WORLD WIDE use within 25 years. This was hardly the beginning of an all out assault on cannabis with “hippie” counter culture a main target.


However, Americans were not ready to give up cannabis. 1964 marks the year that the first head shop opened in San Francisco, California by the Thelin Brothers. These gentlemen brought the art of glass smoking pipes and other psychedelic inspired accouterments to the American market place, and many more stores would soon follow, especially in St. Marks Place. By the mid-60’s, St. Marks was acknowledged world wide, as Andy Warhol was opening his Exploding Plastic Inevitable above The Dom (what was once Arlington Hall), with none other than the house band “The Velvet Underground“. With more artists moving to St. Marks Place there became increasing opportunity for smoke shops to find business. At this time America was going through the throws of psychedelic experimentation, and the demand for “hippie” goods was growing fast. Glass pipes, rolling papers, Greatful Dead tye-dye shirts, etc. Everyone was feeling groovy and they now had access to markets that we take for granted today. 



Unfortunately, by the ends of the 60’s, “The Man” made more extreme moves towards keeping cannabis, and thus counter culture, suppressed. I’m referencing of course to when Jim Callahan introduces “Misuse of Drugs Act“, which prescribes up to five years imprisonment for possession. This act is still in force to this day. Shortly after, the White House passes a $1 Billion anti-drug bill and Nixon declares drug’s as America’s #1 public enemy. Each administration from then on perpetuated this anti-cannabis view, including the Ford administration as they banned government funding of medical research on cannabis. By the end of the 70’s, New Mexico was the only shining beacon for the liberation of cannabis as they became the first state to make it available for medical use. But just as strongly as counter culture was able and willing to fight, so was the DEA. Between the mid 70’s and early 80’s, the DEA began a new program titled “Operation Stopgap”. The official DEA website gives a detailed report of this history:


“As part of this program, DEA pilots flew up and down the coast of La Guajira, Colombia, which was a major source of drug smuggling. They reported suspect vessels to the DA’s El Paso Intelligence Center, which then relayed the information to U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The operation also used U.S. Navy satellites to track the suspect vessels.”


With Operation Stopgap they were able to greatly reduce the incoming “motherships” of marijuana coming in from Colombian smugglers. These drug traffickers were also responsible for bringing large amounts of cocaine as well. This gave the DEA even more reason to clamp down; kill two birds with one stone. Perhaps this relationship with marijuana only made it more convincing for government funds to support projects like Operation Stopgap.


To this day, the DEA targets smoke shops and more recently medical marijuana distribution centers. The success of Operation Stopgap may have also contributed to future operation initiatives such as “Operation Pipe Dreams” which took place in 2003. In Operation Pipe Dreams, the DEA utilized Iowa and Pennsylvania laws around mailing and inter-commerce with paraphernalia to entrap smoke shop owners. By contacting these businesses as fake glass retail buyers, they used these laws to trick smoke shop owners into shipping them paraphernalia, encouraging owners to break the law. The DEA used out-right entrapment.


New York City continues to boast itself as a critical center for counter culture activity to this day. It seems that while counter culture will always be under attack by “The Man”, NYC has stayed strong to its activist roots. This gives even more meaning to the businesses that cater and support these communities… such as NYC smoke shops like our own. It may sound simple, but starting a smoke shop is a daunting and deeply political act, as we can see through reflecting on history. 50 years ago, no one could imagine the prevalence that we have today of smoke shops in the United States. The backstory which paved the way for smoke shops also tells a deeply political story about American counter culture and its love for cannabis.

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