New York City Should Have Always Smelled Like Pot

The smell of weed in the streets is a sign of progress and tolerance, not decline.


"​​The degree to which Manhattan air is now just saturated with the aroma of marijuana is frankly absurd," tweeted writer Thomas Chatterton Williams back in January. "New York Smells Like a Declining City," declared The Wall Street Journal last month. "It's like everybody's smoking a joint now," New York City's own mayor, Eric Adams, commented last year.

Though New York state legalized recreational weed in 2021, it's taken two years for the cannabis industry to actually get it off the ground. Just a few dispensaries have opened up in the city so far, but much has been made about its alleged transformation into either a Reefer Madness hellscape or a stoner Xanadu, depending on who you ask.

"Let's be blunt—legal weed is turning New York workers into zombies," wrote Steve Cuozzo for the New York Post just days ago, complaining of worse customer service than he encountered yesteryear. "the weed / garbage / piss cocktail of smells in parts of manhattan is truly nauseating," one Twitter user chimed in. "The biggest change is the smell of marijuana. It's EVERYWHERE. Inescapable. It's made the city a lot grimier, and much more unsafe," added another.

Now that they no longer have to fear arrest, more people may indeed be lighting up in public. As with many things in New York, private behavior—a couple's fight, a parent disciplining their child, a group of friends who are too boisterously drunk—spills into public spaces. We're tasked with learning how to tolerate, or at least look past, the low-grade deviancy and etiquette missteps we encounter in streets and subway stations, shared hallways and stoops. "For the record, I don't care if people smoke (or drink!), but the imposition of the odor all over public spaces is weird and feels deeply unserious," Chatterton Williams (one of the more reasonable pot critics) added.

Still, many of the tweets and articles in this genre clumsily attempt to underscore the same idea: New York is getting worse by the day—and pot must be to blame.

But the aroma of weed in the air ought to be interpreted as people relishing their newfound freedom, a sign that tolerance toward people's mind-alteration preferences has rightfully prevailed.

It's true that the city has seemed especially lawless in recent years, and some data lend credence to this perception. "Surges in robbery, burglary and other crimes drove a 22 percent increase in overall major crime in New York City last year compared with the year prior despite a significant drop in shootings and murders," wrote The New York Times' Chelsia Rose Marcius and Ed Shanahan back in January. Over the last five years, shoplifting complaints have doubled while arrest rates have gone down.

In terms of whether there's a correlation specifically between legalized weed and crime rates—a correlation a few, but not all, pot naysayers have claimed—a 2019 study in Justice Quarterly looking at both violent and property crime rates in post-legalization Colorado and Washington found no statistically significant jump. "While both states saw statistically significant increases in property crime immediately after legalization, those changes were short-lived," wrote Reason's Jacob Sullum of the study. "Compared to the control states, violent crime rose slightly in Colorado and Washington after legalization, but the differences were not statistically significant. After retail sales began, violent crime rates remained essentially the same in both states."

I'll grant that the streets of New York do seem to have gotten less safe since the pandemic. But you can be worried about this while still realizing that pot is not to blame.

Fellow New Yorkers who have long tolerated cigarette smoke clogging up the public airways should offer the same grace to weed, understanding that rolling back the war on drugs is no small feat. "Critics of prohibition need to guard against the temptation to merely tinker with the drug laws," wrote Sullum back in 1991. Just the year prior, Milton Friedman had argued for reform at a Hoover Institution conference: "We all recognize that drugs are currently doing a great deal of harm. What divides us is our judgment about the best means to minimize the harm done by drugs."

And so much harm has indeed been done by policies that throw peaceful users in jail. "In New York City during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, annual arrests for the lowest-level marijuana possession offense, which had averaged fewer than 2,500 under the two mayors who preceded Giuliani, skyrocketed after 1996, peaking at more than 50,000 in 2011," wrote Sullum in 2020.

New York decriminalized weed in 1977. But cannabis that was "burning or open to public view" was still a misdemeanor and, as Sullum noted, "defense attorneys frequently complained that cops were manufacturing misdemeanors by patting down young men, ostensibly for weapons, and pulling out joints or bags of weed, which were then exposed to 'public view.'" Stop-and-frisk resulted, at its height in 2011, in cops stopping some 700,000 people annually, saddling a chunk of them with criminal records for low-level pot-related crimes.

Some of today's stoners do have a bit too much chutzpah, like the guy I saw on the G train rolling a joint at 9 a.m. on an especially packed train car, or the dude who smokes a blunt inside my subway station, or the seedy smoke shop proprietors who sell gross shake and delta-8 alongside ugly Rick & Morty bongs.

In old New York, you had discreet delivery services like Mister Nice Guys or Private Jet, where a courier would be dispatched to your home address after sending a message via an encrypted app. You had lower-tech delivery guys on bikes, a la High Maintenance. You had the Pineapple Express format: the burnout dealer with a gross tapestried apartment who wrongly interpreted a commercial relationship as a friendship, expecting you to pay him not just in money but also in time.

Though pot smell may not be your favorite, this new New York is far better than the one it's replaced, one in which the cops were empowered to stop you, frisk you, and arrest you for possessing a mostly innocuous plant. Bringing use out into the open frequently imposes small costs, but the nuisance at hand is not so severe that it warrants such incessant complaining—or the political backlash sure to follow once people get sufficiently incensed.

Let the city's stoners take their victory lap, and enjoy an occasional toke on a fire escape outside a party—a toke once denied.