Chronicle Book Review Essay: Two Faces of the Drug War

Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History (2012, Lyons Press, 375 pp., $24.95 HB)

Operation Fly Trap: LA Gangs, Drugs, and the Law, by Susan Phillips (2012, University of Chicago Press, 174 pp., $18.00 PB)

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It's a long way from the Bluegrass Country of central Kentucky to the bungalowed ghettos of South Central Los Angeles, and it's an even greater distance culturally than geographically. In the first locale, the white descendants of Catholic distillers turned moonshiners tend their crops in hidden hollows, distrust of police by now second nature. In the second, the black descendants of post-World War II factory workers scramble to survive in a post-industrial landscape, slinging crack and dodging gang violence, with the police viewed as little more than an occupying force.

Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus on two groups of people separated by time, race, and culture, but united by a common adversary: the repressive apparatus of the drug war. Cornbread Mafia tells the story of some bad ol' good ol' boys who made Kentucky synonymous with top-grade domestic marijuana production in the '80s and who generated the largest domestic grow op bust ever, while Operation Fly Trap tells the story of a small group of LA cocaine suppliers and crack dealers in the early '00s who were wrapped up and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in a pioneering use of innovative policing and prosecutorial strategems.

While both books critically address the interaction of groups of socially-defined criminals with a  law enforcement complex grown up to feed off them, they feel and read quite differently. Cornbread Mafia is written by a journalist with an intimate knowledge of Lebanon, Kentucky and surrounding Marion County, and it reads like a true crime thriller, full of hillbilly noir and great and crazy tales, except that unlike most of the genre, it is sympathetic to and gives voice to the deviant "others." It's the kind of dope tale you pick up and don't put down until you're done.

It centers on a 1987 Minnesota pot cultivation operation that was busted when an early snowfall killed the surrounding corn hiding it. Organized by Marion County grower and trafficker Johnny Boone, the massive Minnesota grow was the largest ever busted, and by the time the feds had unraveled things, some 70 Kentuckians had been indicted. Although not a one of them rolled over on his peers, many of them went away for long stretches, sentenced under new RICO laws designed to bring the pain to the backwoods pot scofflaws. Boone himself did 15 years.

But that bust and the indictments that followed -- much ballyhooed, of course, by back-patting DEA officials, federal prosecutors, and state law enforcement honchos -- were a long way down a road that wound back to those Prohibition era moonshiners -- Lebanon's location as hot spot on the 1950s and 1960s chitlin circuit, where black performers including a skinny guitarist named Jimi Hendrix performed, and the return of reefer-exposed Vietnam War vets in the 1960s and 1970s.

I recall traveling to Washington, DC, to attend the annual 4th of July smoke-in in 1978. Before DC legends Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band played their set, a gangly man in a suit bearing a down home accent took to the stage, introduced himself as Kentucky lawyer and legalization advocate Gatewood Galbraith, and threw large colas of weed into the crowd, yelling, "This is the real Kentucky Bluegrass!" I didn't have a clue then, learned about Galbraith and the Appalachian pot growing scene over the intervening years, but didn't really know the back story about the whole Kentucky scene. Now, thanks to Cornbread Mafia, I feel like I do, and Higdon tells it with grace and empathy.

It's a story that isn't over. Once Johnny Boone got out of federal prison, he couldn't help but return to his old ways. In 2008, he got busted growing 2,400 plants in a neighboring county. Facing life in federal prison as a three-striker, Boone vanished. The feds still haven't found him.

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Operation Fly Trap, on the other hand, is written by an academic, published by an academic press, and reads like it. Granted, ethnographer Susan Phillips knows her stuff -- she spent years working in the neighborhood before even embarking on this project -- and she brings heart and passion to her writing, crafting a compelling and fascinating narrative, but it can still be heavy going at times. Still, even if sometimes wrapped a little too tightly in academic-speak, Phillips is exposing and addressing vital issues of race, class, and the structuring of criminality, and her critique is important and incisive.

Operation Fly Trap, a project of a multi-agency, state-federal joint task force aimed at gang suppression, drew its name from Tina Fly, the central figure in a crack cocaine operation in two Bloods-controlled South Central neighborhoods. Before it was done, it had wrapped up two dozen people from the tightly knit community, many from the same families, and sent them off to long federal prison sentences under anti-gang sentencing enhancements.

Like military commanders patting themselves on the back over the accuracy of their weapons, law enforcement and prosecutors congratulated themselves on the "precision" of their strike against the Tina Fly operation and the surgical removal of the cancer from the community.

But Phillips calls into question both the success of the operation and the means used to conduct it, and along the way, shines a bright light on the ways in which the impoverishment of communities like South Central and their ravaging by both criminals and those sent to catch them is a matter of public policy -- not merely personal pathology, the narrative offered up by all those men in suits at their press conferences.

Indeed, it is the situation that is pathological when the very criminals being hunted are the community's pillars, its breadwinners, and when their removal does not remove criminality, but enhances it. That pathology is only enhanced by the ongoing struggle between the community's criminals and the police, the use of snitches who sow mistrust and suspicion on the street, and by our refusal as a polity to do anything but keep reproducing those conditions that generate such predictable outcomes.

Phillips also documents how, as criticism of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders grew ever louder, the use of anti-gang policing and prosecutions only intensified. "Operation Fly Trap was an attempt to make [mass incarceration] more palatable by recasting nonviolent drug offenders as intimately related to the lethal violence of gangs," she writes. Along with drug sentencing reform and new gang legislation, the Fly Trap task force "represented a need to re-present the drug war as healthy and justifiable."

It's worth noting that although the Fly Trap defendants were pursued under the banner of the war on gangs, they charges for which they were prosecuted were drug charges. And Operation Fly Trap was by no means unusual. In fact, Phillips notes, more than 5,000 gang investigations were mounted nationally between 2001 and 2010, resulting in 57,000 arrests and 23,000 convictions. With sentencing reforms having taken some of the bite out of the federal crack laws, the gang enhancements allow prosecutors to still hold the threat of decades of prison over the heads of those rounded up.

Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus in on different episodes of our perpetual war against the criminality we create through drug prohibition. Both are exceptionally useful in providing what is too often missing in drug policy discussions: the broader context. Journalist Higdon basically gives us a history of Marion County and situates those back woods pot criminals squarely within it, while ethnographer Higdon lays out the stark landscape of black LA, emphasizes how public policy decisions have created that landscape, and shows how other public policy decisions -- around economic policy, education, access to health and mental health services, incarceration as a response to social problems -- have created a milieu where Operation Fly Trap can be recreated in perpetuity.

Read Cornbread Mafia because it's a rollicking gas, but read Operation Fly Trap, too, because it's an eye-opening, sobering look at the whole penalization industry we're created to deal with the unruly underclasses we've created.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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White House Smoke-In 1978

On July 4th, 1978, at the annual White House Smoke-In, I was busted in Lafayette Park in the afternoon. I was very upset that I couldn't get out of jail in time to see Root Boy Slim, being a big fan. Now I find out that I also missed hearing Gatewood Galbraith talk and having the opportunity to sample real Kentucky bluegrass.

The cops also beat the hell out of me, too.

Over the next 15 years, I went to many more July 4th Smoke-Ins in DC and partied with Root Boy many times. Take that you DC pigs! Now, Root Boy is gone (died in 1993) and I'm too old to withstand the July 4th heat in DC (temperature AND cops).

Thanks for the article, Mr. Smith, and all the good work you folks do.

And here's a little Root Boy poetry:

Used to be a radical
Pissed on the Pentagon - think I'm makin it up?
High all the time
Takin LSD on the White House lawn

You know something changed my mind
It was a billy club to the head
If it wasn't for quick action by some freaky doctors
Root Boy Slim be long since dead

(Actually Root Boy remained pretty radical despite the billy club to the head thing - me too)

We'll be coming for you!

Prohibition has finally run its course: Our prisons are full, our economy is in ruins, the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of Americans have been destroyed or severely disrupted. What was once a shining beacon of liberty and prosperity has become a toxic, repressive, smoldering heap of hypocrisy and a gross affront to fundamental human decency. 

Former and present Prohibitionists shall not be allowed to remain untainted and untouched by the unconscionable acts that they have viciously committed on their fellow citizens. They have provided us with neither safe communities nor safe streets. We will provide them with neither a safe haven to enjoy their ill-gotten gains nor the liberty to repeat such a similar atrocity.

Excellent review!

Phil Smith's many outstanding book reviews should be collected.  Perhaps they should all be posted at the appropriate pages at amazon.com. We all know that Phil is probably the most important beat reporter covering drugs. He is a skillful and courageous investigative reporter, going to Afghanistan and Mexico to report.

In addition, he is a gifted book reviewer.

We are lucky that he has chosen to report for stopthedrug war and the reform movement, and not moved on to mainstream journalism where he could easily earn a much more handsome living, and a deservedly much wider audience.

i second eric sterling's

i second eric sterling's comment. now i'm off to amazon.com to see what's said there about the cornbread mafia book. it's another one drcnet should consider offering as reward to financial donors.

I read the same story at

The Mexican Drug War is an

The Mexican Drug War is an ongoing armed conflict among rival drug cartels fighting each other for regional control and against the Mexican government forces and civilian vigilante groups. Since 2006, when intervention with the Mexican military began, the government’s principal goal has been to put down the drug-related violence. Special-Essays

The Mexican Drug War is an

The Mexican Drug War is an ongoing armed conflict among rival drug cartels fighting each other for regional control and against the Mexican government forces and civilian vigilante groups. Since 2006, when intervention with the Mexican military began, the government’s principal goal has been to put down the drug-related violence. Special-Essays

This blog post was absolutely

This blog post was absolutely fantastic. When I used to work in electroplating they sometimes encouraged us to write, but I could never come up with something as well written as that. 

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