Dec. 6, 2012 02:12

A Legend is Corn

Kentucky’s cannabis smuggling underworld ends up going bust in The Cornbread Mafia


Nobody likes a snitch.

Nobody wants to hear the words “I’m telling!” because it ruins a good time. It halts the fun. It quashes camaraderie. Okay, yeah, you squealed on your siblings a time or two, but that’s different. Among friends, nobody likes a tattle-tale.

But what if the lack of informing meant serious punishment—like jail? In the book The Cornbread Mafia by James Higdon, you’ll read about an unbelievable code of silence and one gigantic stash.

Marion County, Kentucky, had long been a live-and-let-live kind of place.

When prohibition came to the county in 1920, it forced moonshiners to go “underground” with their product, especially since its proximity to “thirsty northern cities” gave its citizens a way to feed their families. Moonshine was illegal, but sheriffs and residents generally looked the other way.

Until the beginning of World War II, tobacco was Marion County’s biggest crop but that changed when the U.S. government needed hemp for the war effort. County farmers were given seeds and asked to help, although they soon noticed that industrial hemp made them feel “a little funny.”

Thirty-five years after hemp arrived legally in Marion County, one Johnny Boone made a decision. He’d learned farming and botany from his tobacco-growing grandfather, but tobacco farming wasn’t lucrative. Cannabis was. Boone set out to breed the best sinsemilla Kentucky ever grew.

By 1980, West Coast marijuana smokers knew that Kentucky Bluegrass was good stuff.

Officials knew it, too, and they began using helicopters to find illegal crops. Undaunted, Johnny Boone moved his operation to Belize, and shipped his marijuana to pipelines in Kentucky. He was caught and sent to prison, got out in 1984, and returned to find that cocaine had taken over as the drug of choice. Marion County wasn’t the same, but Boone wasn’t worried.

He quickly found a new place to grow marijuana.

On October 23, 1987, five armed policemen sprang from a truck at the Minnesota farm where Boone had set up business. When the bust was over, 62 dump trucks full of cannabis—over 42,000 pounds—had been confiscated. Of the 70 people ultimately arrested, not one would testify against the others . . .

Though I really wanted to like it, I struggled a lot with The Cornbread Mafia.

Author James Higdon included too many esoteric details, more county history than I cared to have, and way too many names to follow in the earliest part of his book. For several chapters, I had to make myself continue reading. It wasn’t fun.

By Part 2, though, things were more interesting, perhaps because the content was more current. Higdon keeps the name-count low in the second half, and he brings readers up-to-date on events after the big bust—including his own near-miss with the law.

Overall, this isn’t a book for everybody. I think, in fact, that its best audience lives in Kentucky or, perhaps, smokes cannabis. If you fit in those categories, then, go ahead and read. For you, The Cornbread Mafia may be a book you’ll tell everybody about.


The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History by James Higdon, Lyons Press, 375 pages. List price $24.95.


Defense! Defense!

Apparently, author James Higdon’s had to get close to “Cornbread Mafia” ringleader Johnny Boone in order to get the scoop . . . so close that the writer ended up attracting the attention of federal marshals who were looking for Boone. Higdon was the first journalist to be subpoenaed under the Obama administration, and the writer eventually set up a Higdon Defense Fund to pay for his legal expenses incurred by Higdon, who declined to answer some questions about Boone, citing First Amendment privilege.


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