by Paula Bosse
Today is April 20, also known as the cannabis-friendly “420 Day.” So why not take a look at the early days of marijuana awareness in Big D?
The “marijuana problem” in Dallas didn’t really start to be reported regularly in the pages of The Dallas Morning News until the 1930s, but there were a few stories that showed up in the early 1920s, such as this one about a raid on an opium-den-style house in Little Mexico in 1921 (click for larger image).
Heading into the 1930s, the legality of the possessing and selling marijuana was fairly vague. After reading a bit about what was happening in Dallas in regard to “Mexican cigarettes,” I’m still not sure when the possession and selling of marijuana became illegal. The federal, state, and local laws all seemed to be different, and all were constantly in flux. There might even have been conflicting laws on the city and county books. Like I said, confusing. Nevertheless, here are a couple of interesting tidbits from the opening months of 1931 concerning the first charge in Dallas County against a person selling marijuana and the first conviction in Dallas County for a person selling marijuana. (According to the Inflation Calculator, today’s equivalent to the $25-to-$500 fine of 1931 would be, approximately, a $395-to-$7,900 fine.)
A Mexican was placed in the county jail Wednesday after a charge of selling marijuana had been filed against him in County Criminal Court, the first time in history of that body such a charge has been brought against a defendant. […] The Mexican was still ‘smoked up’ when arrested. (DMN, Jan. 29, 1931)
The penalty for selling “Mexican dope weed” was a fine of $25-$500 or a jail sentence of one month to one year.
The first conviction on record in County Criminal Court for selling marijuana, Mexican ‘loco weed,’ was given Thursday when Judge Noland G. Williams sent Manuel Garino to the county jail for thirty days. (DMN, Feb. 6, 1931)
Still, marijuana was considered only a minor annoyance locally — the Asst. D.A. even went so far as to say that there was “little use of the drug in Dallas.”
Actually, throughout the ’30s, a lot of policemen didn’t even know what marijuana plants looked like — one wonders how much marijuana-related activity was going on all around them in plain view? In these early days, when the police did stumble onto large quantities of “loco weed,” it was sometimes merely by accident while investigating something else.
And then, suddenly — around the mid ’30s — marijuana was everywhere. Just in time for the Texas Centennial, when thousands and thousands of potential new customers would be flooding into the city! Enterprising individuals were growing it all over the place — in their yards, in their fields with other crops, and even on a little island called Bois d’Arc Island in the middle of the Trinity River bottoms, a few miles south of Dallas (where 3,000 pounds was seized in July, 1938).
Even though the purchasing, the selling, the use, and the growing of marijuana was going on all over the city — in white, black, and Hispanic neighborhoods — the main areas of enforcement were, unsurprisingly, in Little Mexico and Deep Ellum, areas populated by minority citizens.
Police Sergt. O. P. Wright stopped a 22-year-old Negro languidly puffing a cigarette as he walked in the 400 block of North Central Tuesday.
“What kind of a cigarette is that, boy” inquired the Sergeant.
“Rough cut,” replied the languid one. (“Policeman Sniffs Air, Catches Marijuana Smoker,” DMN, June 22, 1938)
The federal government was attempting to deal with the marijuana problem — by taxing it so highly that it would discourage those participating in the loco weed trade: $100 tax on every ounce! At a time when you could buy a joint for anywhere from a dime to a quarter. Talk about your “sin tax”!
Marijuana/marihuana was generally demonized as a highly addictive drug which caused psychosis and led, inevitably, to all sorts of heinous acts and/or lewd behavior. …Or death. A lot of helpful, cautionary exploitation movies began to appear on Dallas screens, such as Marihuana from 1936 (which, incidentally, had an Oak Cliff child actor — Gloria Brown — in the cast). Below, the pomp and bug-eyed bally-hoo adorning the entrance to the lovely Capitol Theater, beckoning the Elm Street passerby to check out the film. …In order to be well-informed.
George W. Cook Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU
(The full Marihuana film can be viewed free here, although it’s surprisingly dull.)
Even though most marijuana warnings were dire and filled with exclamation marks, I kind of like this more subdued one: “Smoking of the weed gives the subject delusions of riches, success and affability” (DMN, Dec. 21, 1936).
And there you have it, a little slice of unexpected Dallas historical trivia.
Sources & Notes
A few pertinent articles from the archives of The Dallas Morning News:
- “Marijuana Smallest Worry of Dallas in Narcotic Violations” (DMN, March 6, 1931)
- “Uncover Cache of Loco Weed, Lock Up Seven; Police Led to Mexican Dope Trailing Bogus Coin Milling” (DMN, March 30, 1932) — great story about cops who stumbled across marijuana when tracking down counterfeit half-dollar coins (counterfeit 50-cent pieces?!). My favorite part of this story is at the very end: “One of the Mexicans carried twenty-seven of the coins in one of his shoes.” Wow.
- “Stalk of Marijuana Seven Feet Tall Is Found in Oak Cliff” (DMN, Aug. 7, 1934)
- “3,000 Pounds of Marijuana Seized By Raiders on River Bottom Farm; Haul Valued at $25,000” (DMN, July 30, 1938)
- “Marijuana Den With Open Air Resort Raided; 6 Arrested; $100 Worth of Cigarettes Found; Plants in Back Yard Destroyed by Officers” (DMN, June 25, 1936) — “This is the first open-air marijuana den I have ever encountered in all my years of service.”
- “Policeman Sniffs Air, Catches Marijuana Smoker, Three Others” (DMN, June 22, 1938)
Related Flashback Dallas post: “3800 Main: Fritos Central — 1947,” here.
Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.