‘Cornbread Mafia’ Describes The Rise, And Fall, Of Marijuana Production In Kentucky

As I examine my county’s long-term relationship with marijuana, besides researching our past, I’ve turned to books that highlight the history of marijuana production in the United States.

Ohio, which recently approved medical marijuana, began its love affair with the drug in the early-to-mid 1970s. Preble County saw an increase in production, and consumption, that mostly correlates with the return of Vietnam vets. According to articles from the late 1970s, one Preble County farmer — and Vietnam vet — was caught up in a drug smuggling deal that left two dead and several imprisoned. By the late 1970s, this farmer was receiving weekly shipments of 25-50 pounds of pot.

Each week’s delivery would supply 100-200 users with enough pot for a year.

Cornbread Mafia

The Cornbread Mafia by James Higdon takes place about three hours south of Preble County in central Kentucky. It is a story of a code of silence, murder, crooked cops, and ‘good ole boy’ farmers perfecting their product through careful breeding until the weed grown in Kentucky can command top dollar.

Even though the author begins the book with some earlier history to help frame the belief system of Marion County, Kentucky, their pot production also begins in the mid-to-late 1970s. Much of the production was hidden in plain site due to the players involved. Higdon writes,

For the first decade of the marijuana era in Marion County, all processing from a number of top growers was centralized in one location, a place no one would suspect of housing a multimillion-dollar illicit factory — on a farm owned by a prominent doctor, whose brother had once been mayor of Lebanon. No one would have guessed that the stately proportioned barns and outbuildings concealed several tons of high-grade sinsemilla in any given October between 1972-1980.

Native Tells Story

Higdon, a Lebanon native and journalism major, wrote the book shortly after college, and since he has an understanding of the mindset of the region, it gives him an edge in telling the story. The characters come across as authentic, and not caricatures. It is a region, that for the most part, view the book’s main character, Johnny Boone, as a local Robin Hood type hero. By the end of the book Boone, who served two prison terms, is a fugitive.

The story is fairly complicated with its cast of 5-10 characters who are heavily involved in the central Kentucky’s marijuana business. As the feds start cracking down on the group, they are eventually forced to grow their crops in other Midwest states — but they always bring it back to Marion County for processing, which also ensures they get top dollar when they distribute it.

Eventually, 70 Kentuckians are arrested, and true to their values, they refuse to ‘rat out’ each other or accept plea bargains that will harm their partners. This is phenomenal since the sentences they receive range from six months in jail to 20 years in prison.

Quicken The Pace

My main critiques of the book is it starts off a little slow as the author explains the mores of the region, which is essential to the story, but it could have been trimmed. Also, the stories of minor characters could be condensed.

For the most part, it is a story of impoverished, yet entrepreneurial, Kentucky farmers doing what they do best — perfecting a crop and marketing it. If not for the handful of murders in the story line, the book would have a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ feel to it.

Published in 2012, the book is a little dated because the story of Johnny Boone has evolved (I won’t link to it in case you want to read the book first), and at least one member of the Cornbread Mafia has written a memoir, which, of course, adds to the story. At some point, I’ll have to read that one as well.

Rating 4/5. If you are looking for a crime story — or are interested in marijuana production in the 1970s and 1980s — this is a very enjoyable read with very interesting characters.

Local Eyes Only

1982 marijuana bust in Preble County netting an estimated $10 million in drugs and equipment — or nearly $26 million in 2017 dollars.

Categories: American History, drug use, My America | Tags: ,

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