El Paso, Texas’ 1915 Marihuana Ordinance: Myths and Rumors...article by Bob Chessey

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Molly Molloy

Oct 25, 2013, 12:42:09 AM10/25/13
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A nice article on an important piece of local history. Thanks to Bob for sending it to the Frontera List. 
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El Paso, Texas’ 1915 Marihuana Ordinance:

Myths and Rumors

By Bob Chessey, El Paso, TX




The May 13, 1915 El Paso Morning Times has an article titled “NOT UNLAWFUL TO SELL MARI JUANA”.  In it Chief Deputy Sheriff Stanley Good, Sr., discussed his intention to have the El Paso city government pass a law prohibiting the sale of marihuana (Indian hemp).

Chief Deputy Good points out that though there are laws against “the sale of morphine, cocaine and kindred drugs”, there is no law against the sale of marihuana, “considered the most deadly in its effect of any known drug”. 

In addition to the claim that marihuana is lethal, another stated cause to ban marihuana was its alleged proclivity to incite violence in people who smoke it:

“The most atrocious crimes which have come under the notice of the local police and sheriff’s departments have been attributed to mari juana (sic) fiends.  One under its influence is devoid of fear and as reckless of consequences or results.  There are instances where the drug crazed victim has been placed in jail, but in many cases officers have been compelled to slay the fiend in order to save their own lives.”

El Paso Morning Times, May 13, 1915, page 3

 The following day he gave a quote to the El Paso Herald on page 16 which escalated marihuana’s role from being involved in “The most atrocious crimes” to “A large percentage of the crimes committed are by men saturated with the drug…” and adding “Most Mexicans in this section are addicted to the habit, and it is a growing habit among Americans.”

 Good’s concerns were obviously persuasive.  Two days later the May 15 issue of the El Paso Morning Times carried a story on page 8 that City Attorney Joseph M. Nealon was drafting an ordinance to be submitted to the City Council.  The proposed law was to place marihuana in the same categories as “cocaine, morphine and kindred drugs”-to remove the selling off streets and into drug stores, with the possibility that a prescription would be required.  Individuals would not be allowed to sell or use it.  The financial penalty would range from $25-$200 ($559.05- $4472.42 in 2012).  It was hoped the proposed ordinance would be ready the following Thursday.

 Chief Deputy Good claimed “15 per cent of the inmates of the county jail are addicted to the use of marihuana” making it clear that local law enforcement believed marihuana was an addictive substance.  Good also said that marihuana users outside of jail were “increasing in alarming proportions”.

 Thursday morning, June 3, 1915, the City Council of El Paso unanimously passed an ordinance stating:

 “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or association of persons to sell, barter, exchange, give away or have in his or their possession within the city limits of the City of El Paso, Texas any marihuana or Indian Hemp.”

 The El Paso Herald’s headline the evening of the ordinance’s passage labeled it an “Emergency Ordinance” and the El Paso City Clerk called it an “Emergency Clause”.  Regardless of the semantics, what this meant, to quote J. F. Dawson, City Clerk’s notes of the City Council meeting:


”The dangerous and powerful properties of Marihuana or Indian Hemp and the increasing sale of the same in the City of El Paso with the resulting injury to public health and public morals, creates a great public emergency, justifying the suspension of the Charter Rule requiring that all ordinances before final adoption shall be read at two regular meetings of the city council, and said rule is by unanimous vote of the Aldermen present and with the consent of the Mayor, suspended and this ordinance shall take effect from and after its passage, approval and publication.  Passed and approved this the 3rd day of June, A. D. 1915.  Tom Lea, Mayor.

El Paso City Clerk’s Official City Council Minutes, June 3, 1915

 Though it had appeared that marihuana would remain available in drug stores, by the wording of the ordinance, the sale of the herb, for smoking purposes or other uses, would be illegal after June 14, 1915, including drug stores or directly from physicians.  The El Paso Herald on June 7th reported local druggists and doctors believed marihuana had “legitimate uses” and was “put up by the foremost drug manufacturers in the country and is frequently prescribed, as it is a sedative of value” and mentioned that “nearly all of the drug stores in the city have quantities on hand for use in prescriptions though they say they never sell it to smokers.” After June 14 it was a felony for drug stores to possess marihuana.

 The day after the ordinance was passed in City Council Chief Deputy Good gave the following statement to the El Paso Herald:


“We officers have had the best opportunity to study the effects of the drug upon the human system, and we know that its use must be curbed, in the interest of society.  Much of the crime in this city is committde (sic) by men under the influence of marihuana.  The drug is especially dangerous in view of the fact that it makes the coward brave.  The administration is therefor to be congratulated on taking the first step towards the elimination of the evil in El Paso.”

El Paso Herald, June 4, 1915

It is interesting to notice that local physicians saw marihuana as “a sedative of value” and local law enforcement perceived it as a drug that “makes a coward brave”.




“The legislation prohibiting marijuana was included in House Bill 79 of 
the 11th regular session of the Utah State Legislature in 1915.  HB 79 
passed with a final vote on March 10, 1915 with 32 ayes, 0 nays and 14 
absent.  It appeared in the Laws of the State of Utah passed at the 11th 
session of the Legislature in chapter 66 as “Sale and Use of Poisons 
and Narcotic Drugs”. Section 8 prohibits the distribution of marijuana 
except by prescription.-- Tony Castro


Research Center of 
the Utah State Archives 
& Utah State History”


“The new law, which took effect on August 10, 1913, was accidentally misworded.  Instead of adding cannabis to Section 8 of the Poison Act restricting the sale of opium, cocaine and other narcotics, it took the curious form of an amendment to Section 8(a) banning the possession of opium paraphernalia.  In specific, it outlawed the possession of ‘extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations or compounds.”

The Origins of California’s 1913 Cannabis Law” by Dale H. Gieringer, Revised May 2012-original version published in journal of contemporary Drug Problems, Summer 1999 26(2): 237-288





Way back in 1913 El Paso Texas became the first place in America to pass a local ordinance prohibiting marijuana. Overcome by anti-Mexican prejudice that attributed all sorts of heinous violent crimes to Mexicans under the influence of the drug El Paso’s local government resorted to prohibition.” ReconsiDer/Out in the west Texas town of El Paso…March 3, 2010 by Nicolas Eyle; http://www.reconsider.org/wordpress/?p=304


“In 1914, El Paso, Texas, enacted probably the first local ordinance banning the sale or possession of marijuana.”  REEFER MADNESS by ERIC SCHLOSSER, page 19-20.


“In 1914, after a melee allegedly involving a marijuana smoker, the El Paso city government passed what is believed to have been the first law banning a drug that had been legally and widely used for at least five thousand years. “ TEXAS HIGH WAYS: Why the unlikeliest of states—ours—should legalize marijuana”.  By William Martin, Texas Monthly, October, 2009



A Proposed Chapter in the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws



-September 2013 Announcement in El Paso, Texas

 As these four examples demonstrate, it is a popular belief that El Paso, Texas passed the first law criminalizing marihuana.  The claim is repeated in magazines, books,  etc.

 And it is demonstrably wrong.  The obvious errors are that the first three above examples state the wrong year for El Paso’s passage of its ordinance outlawing marihuana.  As noted in the first section of this article the actual year was 1915.  In addition, both California and Utah both had passed legislation prohibiting marihuana prior to El Paso’s city ordinance.

 The source most often cited as “proving”  the 1914 date for El Paso’s marihuana ordinance is THE MARIJUANA CONVICTION: A History of Marijuana Prohibition in the United Sates by Richard J. Bonnie and Charles H. Whitebread II.

 On pages 33-34 they write

“A drug (marihuana) with such obnoxious properties soon attracted the attention of the law enforcement officials of El Paso, characterized as a ‘hot bed of marihuana fiends’ where use of the drug was reportedly common not only among Mexicans but among ‘Negroes, prostitutes, pimps and a criminal class of whites.’ In response, El Paso passed an ordinance banning sale and possession of the drug in 1914.”

Though the authors clearly state the wrong date they make no mention of El Paso, Texas being the first to enact a law against marihuana.

The date Bonnie and Whitebread give for El Paso’s 1915 Marihuana ordinance is wrong, but what is disturbing about the above paragraph is the entire paragraph, especially in light of the fact THE MARIJUANA CONVICTION is considered an authoritative reference on the subject of marijuana legislation.

The cited source for THE MARIJUANA CONVICTION of the date of El Paso’s marihuana ordinance’s passing is the rambling titled 1917 US Department of Agriculture study:

“Report of Investigation in the State of Texas, particularly along the Mexican Border, of the traffic in, and consumption of the drug generally known as ‘Indian Hemp’, or Cannabis indica, known in Mexico and States bordering on the Rio Grande River as ‘Marihuana’; sometimes also referred to as ‘Rosa Maria’, or ‘Juanita’, By R. F. Smith”.  

For the sake of brevity this report will be referred to as “1917 USDA Report”.

The quoted paragraph from THE MARIJUANA CONVICTION is actually taken from two different pages of the 1917 USDA Report.  The cited source of El Paso as a “hot bed of marihuana fiends” as well as the erroneous date of the marihuana ordinance are from page 9 of the report and given as a major reason for El Paso passing the ordinance; from page 9 of the 1917 USDA Report:

“El Paso in the past has been a hot-bed of ‘Marihuana fiends.’  Ciuidad (sic) Juarez, across the river from El Paso has always been an important military point for the Mexican armies and as the weed is commonly used among the old Mexican soldiers it is probable that El Paso became infected from that source.  On June 24, 1914, the city of El Paso passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale, barter, exchange, giving away or having in possession any Marihuana or Indian hemp within the corporate limits of the city.”

The rest of the “quoted” paragraph from THE MARIJUANA CONVICTION is from page 13 of the 1917 USDA Report and taken from a different section discussing a different topic, the “legal” sale of marihuana in US/Texas drug stores:

(Part) “(5) Cannabis indica sold by druggists.

It is considered that the most important information obtained during the investigation was secured from drug stores.  It developed that foreign Cannabis in package form was being sold over the counter in original ounce packages by drug stores in many parts of the United States.  Also, both the foreign and domestic article are being sold to some extent in bulk form.  This practice is by no means recent and probably has been going on for a number of years.

The sale of the drug is not confined to Mexican.  American soldiers, negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites in general are numbered among the users of this weed.

In El Paso the city ordinance has put a stop to the sale of this product, but the demand there still continues.”

It is clear from the two paragraphs prior to the “negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites” section that in that specific part of the report they were not discussing El Paso.  The next paragraph then mentions El Paso to illustrate that even where a local ordinance had been passed a problem continued to exist.

It is understandable that the phrase “American soldiers” was excluded by Bonnie and Whitebread in THE MARIJUANA CONVICTION as that reference was discussing the exposure and use of marihuana by American soldiers who participated in Pershing’s Punitive Expedition, which commenced after Pancho Villa’s March 9, 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, approximately nine months after El Paso’s marihuana ordinance was passed.

It is not understandable why Bonnie and Whitebread would juxtapose two unrelated quotations, from different pages and sections of the 1917 USDA Report, to imply “use of the drug was reportedly common” in El Paso by “Negroes, prostitutes, pimps and a criminal class of whites”. 

Bonnie and Whitebread would have known from reading the 1917 USDA report, the “negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites” comment in the report they chose to quote was discussing who purchased marihuana from drug stores in all the investigated Texas cities in 1917 (and possibly late 1916, the date of the El Paso visit was not given; the report was submitted April 13, 1917.).  The quoted section was not intended to document the populations smoking marihuana in El Paso prior to the passage of the city ordinance prohibiting marihuana use.

None of those sub groups was identified or discussed as problematic by Chief Deputy Good, the driving force behind the ordinance, or in the newspapers before, during or immediately after the passing of the ordinance. However, of the 21 drug stores questioned in the 1917 USDA Report, two did identify their business had sales to “Negroes” prior to El Paso passing the marihuana ordinance.  The manager of Ruis (sic) Brothers (Ruiz Brothers) said,

“Before the City of El Paso passed an ordinance prohibiting the sale of Marihuana we used to sell about 5 or 6 packages a day of the one ounce packages put out by the Parke Davis Co.  Our sales were to Mexicans and negroes”.

1917 USDA Report, Page41

V. R. Ramirez of V. R. Ramirez Drug Store,

“Before the city of El Paso passed the ordinance prohibiting the sale of Marihuana we used to sell 4 or 5 packages a day of Parke Davis & Co.’s Indian Hemp.  Our sales were to Mexicans and negroes, mostly to the former.”

1917 USDA Report, Page 42

These two examples in the 1917 USDA Report do not justify the inclusion of the “negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites” quote in the context that Bonnie and Whitebread chose to use it.

Returning to the issue of the date of El Paso’s marihuana ordinance, the question has been raised that perhaps there was a prior law regarding marihuana than the June, 1915 city ordinance that may have been passed the year before in 1914.

The facts again return to Stanley Good:

“Claiming that there is no law prohibiting the sale of mari juana (Indian hemp) Chief Deputy Sheriff Stanley Good, Sr., is making efforts to have the free traffic in that drug stopped.”

El Paso Morning Times, May 13, 1915, Page 3

Clearly there was no other or previous law regarding marihuana.  Good establishes there is not a weak or unenforceable law, but that there is no law regarding marihuana.

There is nothing in the El Paso City Clerk’s notes to indicate the June 14, 1915 ordinance enhances or supersedes previous law.

Chief Deputy Stanley Good was not the first public entity to call for a ban on the sale of marihuana; El Paso had been prompted to pass a law regarding marihuana in 1913.

The October 4, 1913 edition of the El Paso Herald had an article under the headline “GRAND JURY RECOMMENDS THAT STEPS BE TAKEN TO STOP SALE OF MARIHUANA”.

“THAT the authorities should take immediate steps to stop the local traffic in marihuana, properly India hemp, reputed to be the most deadly drug in existence, is one of the recommendations made by the county grand jury which adjourned Friday.

In its report, the grand jury says that a traffic has grown up in this drug, and it should be stopped by the authorities.  To the victims of the drug many crimes are credited.”

El Paso Herald, October 4, 1913, page 2

After the article lists other problems and opinions of the Grand Jury, it ends with:

Want Sale of Drug Stopped.

From numerous complaints, we ascertained that there has grown up in this section a traffic in a deadly drug called marihuana, and undoubtedly many crimes are attributable to its use.  We strongly recommend to the proper authorities that the necessary steps be immediately taken to prevent the promiscuous sale of same.”

El Paso Herald, October 4, 1913, page 2

Perhaps Chief Deputy Sheriff Good was more persuasive than the El Paso Grand Jury.

Ironically, even if the date stated in THE MARIJUANA CONVICTION was accurate, both California and Utah still would precede El Paso’s ordinance.


Another myth revolving around El Paso’s marihuana ordinance, not one often written down but spoken with conviction, a rumor, or, more honestly, gossip, is that Mayor Tom Lea was the power behind the ordinance passage as well as an example of institutional racism in his administration.

It is clear that Stanley Good, and not Mayor Tom Lea, was the force behind its passage:

“The ordinance was passed after a crusade which was started by deputy sheriff Stanley Good…”

El Paso Herald, June 5, 1915, page 4-A

It is clear from reading the newspaper articles about the passage of the ordinance and marihuana arrests in general, as well as the city council record that the ordinance was proposed due to the fear that marihuana incited violence and/or madness. 

It does appear that the use of marihuana was mostly limited to the Hispanic residents of El Paso at that time and a fear Stanley Good voiced to the El Paso Herald on May 14, 1915 “and it is a growing habit among Americans,” which possibly was added to excite Anglos as the word “American” was used at that time to describe the Anglo population. 

Contemporary newspapers of the time show the drugs of choice for the “American”(Anglo) population were alcohol and opiates during the same time period.

It is important to remember that the strains of marihuana at the time were not nearly as potent as it became from the 70’s onward due to cultivation and the development of hybrids.

At times it has been reported that the impetus for both the 1913 Grand Jury calling for prohibition of marihuana and 1915’s Marihuana Ordinance, resulted from an event in El Paso on New Year’s Day, 1913

“The first true marijuana scare in the country occurred in El Paso, Texas, on New Year’s day 1913, when a Mexican bandido, allegedly crazed by habitual marijuana use, shot up the town and killed a policeman, prompting the city to ban marijuana two years later.”

The Origins of California’s 1913 Cannabis Law” by Dale H. Gieringer, Revised May 2012-original version published in journal of contemporary Drug Problems, Summer 1999 26(2): 237-288

A front page article with the headline “CRAZED BY WEED, MAN MURDERS” from January, 1913 relates the incident and illustrates not only what was believed about marihuana, but also that the same myths were shared with Mexico. 

The article also makes it clear that the incident happened in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico and not in El Paso, Texas.  That the murderer chased a woman from El Paso possibly evolved into the myth that the incident occurred in El Paso.  The article begins with:

“Marihuana, that native Mexican herb which causes the smoker to crave murder, is held accountable for two deaths and a bloody affray on the streets of Juarez Wednesday afternoon.  Crazed by continual use of the drug, an unidentified Mexican, killed a policeman, wounded another, stabbed two horses and pursued an El Paso woman and her escort, brandishing a huge knife in the air.  The man finally was shot and pounded into insensibility.”

(The article concludes with the statement) ‘Marihuana’  has a more dreadful effect than opium, creating in its victim hallucinations which frequently result in violent crimes.”

El Paso Herald, January 2, 1913, Front Page

But the most telling statements in the article reside in the first paragraph when the writer states definitively that the “unidentified Mexican” was “crazed by continual use of the drug” and after the rampage has been described and before its conclusion, “(The assailant) has not been identified, but persons who had seen him said that the man unmistakably had been smoking the native opium, ‘marihuana.’”  

This article makes clear that the assailant was unknown, that nobody had seen him before his rampage, and that nobody knew if he had smoked marihuana, much less that had he smoked it the marihuana was the cause of his actions.  There was no “evidence” of his having smoked but the deed.  The much more likely explanation of mental illness was never introduced.  This line of reasoning leads to a vicious and misleading circle, a heinous act MUST be caused by someone smoking marihuana, therefore, marihuana leads to violent and murderous actions.  In another place and time his actions could have been “known” to be caused by witchcraft instead of marihuana by the presented “evidence”.

Not only did the theory that marihuana leads to violence, insanity and murder resonate in Mexico, but most likely the belief originated there.  According to an article by Issac Campos, a Professor of Latin American History at the University of Cincinnati:

“Mexico’s influence on the United States, however, has been underemphasized.  The roots of the War on Drugs go deep in Mexico.  In fact, in some ways, they are deeper there than in the United States.”

North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), May/June 2011, Page 16

“By the end of the 19th century, cannabis, by then called marijuana, was overwhelmingly associated with two effects in Mexico—madness and violence.  There was almost no counter-discourse to this stereotype.  Although these ideas were clearly nurtured by the yellow press of the period, they also seem to have been anchored by the beliefs of ordinary (mostly illiterate) Mexicans.”

North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), May/June 2011, Page 17


“Grassroots fears of marijuana in Mexico a century ago began to be transmitted to ordinary folk in the United States during the 1890s through burgeoning circuits of transnational information interchange.  Newspaper stories appearing in Mexico City dallies found their way into wire service and soon spiced up the morning reading across North America, where many readers were learning about ‘marijuana’ for the first time.  The discourse was eventually transformed by the U.S. context, coming to be known as “reefer madness.”

North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), May/June 2011, Page 18

Campos elaborates upon this theory in his 2012 history of the subject HOME GROWN: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, where he demonstrates the roles myths, class and ethnic bias, shoddy research (including having people diagnosed with mental illness smoke marihuana to “document” its effects), sensational newspaper reporting and lawyers and criminals using “facts” about marihuana inciting madness and violence as a legal defense strategy (dating back to the Colonial era).

Campos’ research contradicts the claim that the law is an example of El Paso’s city government’s institutional racism.  If the theory that marihuana made people insane and/or violent was itself from Mexico it is hard to argue that this was enacted into law because of racist beliefs, when those beliefs were originally from the Republic of Mexico and not the city government of El Paso, Texas.  In his book Campos’ posits that the belief on marihuana’s effects had more to do with class than race.  It is more likely that the El Paso law was not passed due to institutional racism, but that the ordinance did feed into local prejudices.

Contemporary professionals who would be considered “knowledgeable” or “expert” at the time in El Paso reinforce Campos’ theory.

Dr. Fernando Lopez, San Antonio, Texas

Dr. Lopez is a member of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States and a member of the State Board of Medical Examiners for the State of Texas.  From 1879 to 1905 he was a doctor in the military hospital in Mexico City and 10 years as director of the General Hospital in Mexico City,..

Smoking of “Marijuana’ causes dreams.  If the dreams happen to be pleasant the smoker will be in a pleasant frame of mind; he will say all sorts of foolish pleasant things.  But if the dreams happen to be the opposite he will become very dangerous and will have an inclination to fight most any one with whom he may come in contact.  It is then time to have him put in the ‘Calaboose.’

“Smoking ‘Marijuana’ causes hallucinations of both eye and ear, and the person under the influence of the drug becomes actually crazy and irresponsible for the time being.  The next day after smoking the victim appears to be all right.  Continued use of the drug, however, causes the body to wear away as is the case with other drug fiends.”

1917 USDA Report, Page 17(a)

Dr. Francisco de Ganseca, Laredo, Texas

“Dr. Francisco de Ganseca was graduated in1900 from the National School of Medicine of Mexico City, after which he practiced his profession for 12 years in Mexico later studying abroad in the countries of France, Germany, and Belgium.

“The effects from smoking the drug are terrible.  It causes a dryness of the mouth and throat.  It makes the victims imagine they see and hear things, they often imagining (sic) that people are making faces at them.  Madness is the final result.  Sometimes the sensations felt in the ears and eyes are horrible and drive them to commit some crime. “

1917 USDA Report, Page 29

Dr. Juan de la Garza, Laredo, Texas:

“I have practiced medicine for 35 years. Four years of which time was spent as a doctor in the Mexican army…

“Smoking of ‘Marijuana’ produces hallucinations.  A person under its influence may see a friend and imagine that he is an enemy and kill him.  The worst effects begin in about four hours after the person has been smoking.”

1917 USDA Report, Page 30

Jose Martinez, who was born in Mexico and who had been a Mexican druggist in Brownsville, Texas:

“But this condition of general exhilaration (from smoking marihuana) last a short time only, then suddenly the well-being which follows continued inhalation of the awful poison, becomes wrathful and savage and his acts are rather those of a furious madman.  The face becomes red and finally livid; they eyes, which struggle to leap from their orbits, become glassy and a mad desire to destroy and kill becomes overpowering.

“The cases are not few in which individuals who have disordered their mental faculties by inhaling the smoke of the terrible plant, when emerging from the intoxication and recovering the use of their senses, find themselves in a jail in front of the corpse of a man, woman or child whom they have assassinated while in a condition of complete ignorance of what they were doing.  At other times many of these individuals never succeed in recovering their perverted reason but feel submerged and lost forever under the harmful influence of the smoke of the dreadful plant.

1917 USDA Report, pp. 65-66

Like El Paso itself, the marihuana ordinance is a composite and blurring of American and Mexican, Anglo and Hispanic, heavily influenced by the cultures of both countries.  The history of the ordinance can stand by itself without resorting to false claims.


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