KINGPIN by Richard Stratton


Prisoner of the War on Drugs
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A tense account of a rakish, unrepentant cannabis merchant’s time in prison.

Stratton, a former editor and publisher of High Times, follows up his previous memoir, Smuggler’s Blues: A True Story of the Hippie Mafia (2016), with this sequel, beginning with his 1982 apprehension after jumping bail on a federal indictment in Maine. Prosecutors made his punishment a high priority, securing a 15-year sentence in that case and an additional indictment over a large shipment of hashish. For his part, Stratton avers, “I am glad that I decided to take the heat and do the time. The government is simply wrong when it comes to criminalizing this plant.” He documents his odyssey through the federal prison system, where he learned to be his own lawyer, growing enamored with the power of language in both law and creative writing. The author notes that the government’s fervor was also motivated by anger over his friendship with Norman Mailer: “For fuck’s sake, give them Mailer and you walk. This is the era of government star-fucking in drug cases.” As a high-profile prisoner, Stratton was shipped to several notorious institutions, like Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correction Center, packed with mobsters like John Gotti (other notorious figures like Whitey Bulger lurk in the background here). Stratton’s portrait of prison life is unsparing, and he notes that drugs remain ubiquitous and questions the pointless, punitive nature of the prisoners’ daily experience. Yet he fondly regards the bonds formed with his fellow condemned (to whom he provided legal guidance) and his own hard-won inner growth: “The time I spent in this restricted space…entered me and changed me.” This prison memoir stands out due to Stratton’s elite criminal status and also the quality of his writing, which tends to be observant, mordant, and sometimes hilariously vulgar.

A pulpy, well-crafted recollection of time behind bars packed with unsettling questions about society’s embrace of mass imprisonment and the drug war.

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2017
ISBN: 978-1-62872-726-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Arcade
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2017


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