When I touched down at FCI Manchester, a federal prison in the foothills of Kentucky in 1993, Cornbread Mafia leader Johnny Boone was already a legend of mythical proportions in the Appalachian Mountains for growing acres upon acres of weed in the National Forests that surrounded the Bluegrass State. Nobody called him the 'Godfather of Grass' or 'Charlie Grass' as the media depicted, inside the belly of the beast he was just known as Johnny Boone, expert marijuana grower.
He lived in Knox unit with a lot of the other country-boy-outlaws from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Guys like Tom Dooley and Big Pete, loud and colourful guys. But Johnny Boone was real quiet. He kept to himself, didn’t dawdle around, and stayed on the weight pile. At only 50-years-old Johnny Boone was still in his outlaw prime. A very exact and business-like person that I don’t remember smiling a lot. Not like we were pals or anything, but I saw him in passing on the compound.
Doing time for a weed conspiracy, he would soon return to the world, where he’d become recognised as an “Original Gangster” of the “Weed Game.” A pioneering legend who paved the way for the legalisation efforts that are sweeping the United States right now. A man that only broke the law because he disagreed with the government's vilification of the plant he loved. A hillbilly pot cultivator who consistently grew and produced what we called 'kind bud' back in the day.
“Unlike traditional organized crime models of La Cosa Nostra or the cartels, the marijuana underground was largely non-violent,” Chris Simunek, the former editor-in-chief of High Times Magazine, tells me. “The Cornbread Mafia was an exceptionally large operation in terms of both production and manpower as far as marijuana goes.”
Johnny Boone got started in the weed cultivation game in 1970. He had already gotten himself into trouble with the law for “sweating barrels,” a form of moonshining, so growing marijuana was the next logical step. Cannabis plants were already growing wild in Kentucky because of the “Hemp for Victory” campaign during World War II and as the local boys-turned-soldiers starting coming back from Vietnam with an understanding of what marijuana was selling for around the country, Johnny Boone began cross-breeding strains to isolate preferred characteristics and producing quality product on an industrial scale.
“The only trick was don't get caught, and Boone was already good at that,” says James Higdon, author of Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code Of Silence And The Biggest Marijuana Bust In American History. “He wouldn’t get caught until 1982, then again in 1987, and then again allegedly in 2008. People [in Central Kentucky] support Johnny, [they] understand that he tried to do things the right way, even while he broke the law.” Johnny Boone is an outlaw, but uniquely not in the Old West or Jesse James mould.
“Jesse James was a violent criminal who left a body count in the wake of robbing railroads, banks and people’s hard-earned savings during hard times. He lived by the gun and died by the gun. I don’t see a lot of honour in that way of life.” says Higdon. “On the other hand, Johnny Boone never stole from anyone. He was just out in the field growing more marijuana than you can imagine and trying not to get caught. It is important to point out here that Johnny Boone has never been accused of murder or any violent crime. He just grows tons of Indica by the acre.”
A Robin Hood of the marijuana industry, who USA Today trumpeted as “no angel, but beloved in Central Kentucky.” A victim of America’s misguided War on Drugs where increasingly draconian sentences for marijuana did nothing to stem availability on the streets. Pot became easier to buy, despite DEA thugs busting high schoolers for weed. It was too easy to grow and the profit motive was too big to ignore. After serving his prison stints, Boone always returned to growing, but he got busted again and went on the run.
“Johnny went on the run in May 2008, when police allegedly caught him with 2,000 seedlings in flowerpots,” Higdon says. “Since that would have been his third federal strike and an automatic life sentence, he apparently decided to hit the road. He lasted eight years on the run.” The feds prosecuted 70 members of his alleged organisation and no one flipped. “I don't think you’d have seen that had they been dealing cocaine,” Simunek notes. “Hard drugs tend to attract less principled businessmen.”
Finally captured in December 2016 by Canadian immigration officers in a Montreal shopping mall, “where Boone had gone to buy Christmas presents for the family he was staying with,” Higdon relates, Boone's case in Kentucky is headed to trial. It seems the legend of Johnny Boone is alive and well. Another chapter being written in the chronicles of marijuana outlaws lore.