It was three days before Christmas in downtown Montreal, when border agents stopped an elderly man with a biker mustache in a vast indoor mall. The man initially gave his name as Dennis Ross, but when the cops asked him about his tattoos, he acknowledged his real name was Johnny Boone, and his eight-year run was over. La Presse, Montreal’s French-language daily newspaper, called Boone “Le fugitif américain.”
When I learned of Boone’s arrest, I was surprised most of all by the location of the bust. It was no secret to anyone who knew him: Johnny Boone didn’t like crowds. They reminded him too much of his years in federal prison. But I wasn’t surprised that the U.S Marshals had kept looking for him. Boone, now 73, was widely considered to be the biggest outlaw marijuana grower in the history of the United States. For more than 25 years beginning in the 1970s, the Kentucky native had run a cultivation and smuggling network that, at its peak, included 30 farms and 70 workers stretched across 10 states. Boone, dubbed by law enforcement the “Godfather of Grass,” had been convicted twice before, serving a total of about 17 years in prison for his role in an enterprise widely known as the Cornbread Mafia. In May 2008, when a helicopter spotted him emerging from a central Kentucky barn wheeling a flatbed wagon with 2,000 seedlings in flowerpots, he knew that the police who were coming to arrest him would likely send him away for the rest of his life. So he ran.
But an amazing thing happened while Boone was hiding out: Weed became legal.
In the eight years since Johnny Boone became a fugitive, marijuana laws have changed dramatically in the United States. Twenty-nine states have now approved marijuana for medical use, and eight of those states have legalized marijuana for any reason at all, making Boone’s skill set of growing highly potent cannabis at high volume a highly lucrative and legal profession, just not in the ZIP code where he happened to be tending his crop in 2008. Public support for legal marijuana is now at 60 percent, the highest level ever in 47 years of polling by Gallup. However, the federal government still considers marijuana to be as addictive as heroin with no medicinal value, despite the public’s clear belief to the contrary. Federal authorities, keenly aware of the legalization trend, have taken a hands-off approach during the Obama administration to the prosecution of marijuana cases in states that have passed medical marijuana laws. But a new administration is about to enter the White House, and Donald J. Trump’s choice as the nation’s top law enforcement officer has a very different, and much more conservative view on the subject of marijuana.