As one of the central figures of the infamous Cornbread Mafia, Joe Keith Bickett takes his place among one of the more potent strains of recent Kentucky history.
The network of marijuana farmers who operated primarily out of Marion County, but maintained acres of pot fields in several states, were targeted by law enforcement in the 1970s and ’80s. Bickett was one of dozens of people who reaped the financial whirlwind of the underground drug trade, only to suffer a hard landing when he and dozens of others were prosecuted near the end of the 1980s.
On Thursday, Bickett visited Bowling Green as a guest of the Fortnightly Club, recounting his heady days as a marijuana grower in the tiny town of Raywick, his 21 years of incarceration and his present life as a paralegal in Marion County.
“It’s a story that needs to be told,” said Bickett, 71. “We were country boys from humble beginnings that skyrocketed into something big.”
Attorney Steve Thornton hosted the club meeting at his house, having gotten to know Bickett through the attorney for whom he now works.
“He has a remarkable story,” Thornton said. “He took something negative and made a positive out of it, and has a great story to tell along the way.”
The Cornbread Mafia emerged into the public consciousness in 1989, when federal prosecutors announced the first batch of arrests of what would become the largest known domestic marijuana-growing syndicate.
The group’s exploits and downfall were chronicled in a 2012 book by journalist Jim Higdon. Bickett subsequently wrote two memoirs and is involved in the production of at least two documentary films about the Cornbread Mafia, who Bickett said got its name when an associate casually threw out the term as they spirited some pot plants out of one of their Kentucky fields in the late 1970s while attempting to stay a step ahead of law enforcement.
“It wasn’t like there was any hierarchy,” Bickett said of the organization. “It was just a loose-knit bunch of guys, but it was hyped up to be a dangerous organization of some sort.”
Soldiers returning from Vietnam in the 1970s newly familiar with marijuana met with locals in Marion and Washington counties with agricultural expertise, and the combination proved lucrative for Bickett and others.
Bickett said he spent the money from dealing marijuana as quickly as he could make it, recalling trips to Super Bowls, gambling sprees in Las Vegas and parties in Key West and other locales.
Marijuana laws on the books in Kentucky were lax in those days.
“You could have 10 acres of pot at the time and it was a misdemeanor (with a) $500 fine,” Bickett said.
In the 1980s, though, federal law enforcement aggressively pursued the Cornbread Mafia, leading to long prison sentences for Bickett and many others.
After years of skirting the law and avoiding conviction in prior investigations, Bickett was convicted for his role in the conspiracy and sentenced to a 25-year prison term in 1989.
“Prison was quite a shock,” Bickett said. “I had a bad drug problem by the time I was convicted, and if there was a silver lining, (prison) got me straightened out on that end.”
While incarcerated, Bickett cultivated an interest in the law, helping inmates file appeals in their cases and looking for legal remedies for his own situation.
Released in 2011, Bickett was hired as a paralegal for a Lebanon attorney, and he said he enjoys helping people through his work.
While the term Cornbread Mafia becomes more of a shorthand for a certain down-home brand of corruption, the crop that came to define Bickett’s life is being re-examined in legal circles and in the public eye.
While the use and possession of marijuana is illegal under federal law, medical use of cannabis is legal in 33 states, and cannabis is legalized for recreational use in 11 states.
Bickett’s brothers operate a business in Raywick selling CBD products derived from hemp, the sister plant to cannabis that has a negligible amount of the THC in marijuana that produces the drug’s psychoactive effects.
Medical cannabis bills introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly have failed to pass, however, frustrating Bickett.
He sees the plant as a potential legitimate economic driver.
“I think it can be an important stream of revenue for states, but unfortunately the state of Kentucky is not as progressive on this and we’re getting left behind again,” Bickett said.
– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.