On This Day: Johnny Cash Pleads Guilty to Possession of 1,000 Pills in 1965

by Suzanne Halliburton

Johnny Cash was clearing up his second arrest of the year on this day 55 years ago. The country superstar pleaded guilty to drug possession in an El Paso courtroom.

So Cash was forced to admit he really did venture into Juarez, a Mexican border town, Oct. 4, to buy a significant number of pills. He stashed 1,000 of them in his guitar case. U.S. customs agents discovered 668 Dexedrine pills (a stimulant) and 475 Equanil tablets (for anxiety) when Cash was at the El Paso airport.

Earlier in the year, he’d been arrested in Starkville, Miss., for public drunkenness. In his lifetime, police arrested Cash seven times, although he never spent any significant time in jail.

A judge didn’t hear the El Paso case until March, 1966. Cash appeared in federal court with his attorney, his attorney and his minister. The country star was fresh off a three-week concert swing through Michigan and Ohio.

Johnny Cash Told Judge His Conduct Was “Bad, Very Bad”

Johnny Cash told U.S. District Judge D.W. Suttle: “I realize my mistake. It was bad, very bad, misconduct on my part.”

Cash told the judge he’d traveled to Juarez, a city across the Mexican border from El Paso, to “relax.” He said he was exhausted from playing a series of one-night concert stops.

“I had several beers,” Cash told the judge. “I guess I was so tired I lost my faculties. … saw the customs agent staked out on the corner, but I just didn’t seem to care.”

Johnny Cash also told the judge: “The only way I’ll ever take another pill is for someone to force it down my throat when I’m unconscious.”

The judge sentenced Cash to a $1,000 fine and a 30-day suspended sentence. The judge said he suspended the sentence because the drugs were prescription. Country stars Gene Autry and Tex Ritter wrote letters to the judge to vouch for Cash’s good character.

KKK Called For Boycott After Seeing Photo of Cash’s Wife

Cash’s legal issues in El Paso also sparked the Ku Klux Klan to call for a boycott against him. An Associated Press photographer snapped a photo of Cash, his wife and attorney walking down the steps of the El Paso courthouse. The KKK decided Cash’s wife, Vivian, was Black. Cash dealt with the racism issue throughout 1966. He even received death threats.

“It’s good to know who hates you, and it’s good to be hated by the right people,” Cash said years later. “The Klan is despicable, filthy, dirty, and unkind.”

The issue with Johnny Cash was amplified in January 1966 through an article in Thunderbolt. The National States Rights Party, a far-right organization based in Tennessee, published the newspaper. J.B. Stoner, an imperial wizard of the KKK, chaired the party.

 “Johnny and I received death threats, and an already shameful situation was made infinitely worse,” Vivian Cash wrote in her 2008 memoir.

Vivian Cash was from San Antonio. She met Johnny Cash at a rolling skating rink when he was stationed in San Antonio with the Air Force. She was of Italian descent. Vivian and Johnny Cash were parents to four daughters, including country singer Roseanne Cash. Vivian filed for divorce from Johnny Cash in the summer of 1966.

Johnny Cash liked to cultivate his outlaw image, although his crimes were misdemeanors and related to addiction. He recorded two live albums with prisons as a back drop. The albums,  Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison in 1968 and Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1969 both reached No. 1 on the country charts. They also crossed over and topped the Billboard pop album charts.

By 1969, Cash’s albums sold more than 6.5 million albums, a total that even bettered the Beatles.