Yakuza, Pills and Rave: An Interview with One of Britain's Most Notorious Drug Smugglers
Speaking to Howard Marks about the buzz of trafficking, his dalliance in Ibiza's ecstasy trade and coming to terms with his cancer diagnosis.
If you were smoking weed in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, there's a good chance you had Howard Marks to thank. Smuggler, raconteur and best selling writer – not to mention tireless campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis – Marks is a counter-cultural institution. His cult 1996 autobiography Mr Nice saw him recount the scamming and intrigue, distant souks and sleazy ports, slabs of world class hash and insane revolutionaries, hardened gangsters, corrupt coppers and seedy lawyers that inhabited his world with crystalline detail, a minor miracle given his own intake.
Born in Kenfig Hill, Wales in 1945, Marks attended Balliol College, Oxford in the 60s, where he became an enthusiastic daily smoker and part-time dealer. By the early 70s his small-scale student dalliances had became serious business, and he was soon involved in an elaborate scam concealing hash inside the office furniture of diplomatic envoys from Pakistan to London.
Finding he enjoyed both the adrenaline and money, other jobs followed. Over the next decade, Marks was to smuggle hash into England, Ireland and Wales with the assistance of notoriously eccentric Irish Republican Jim McCann, and set up a supply network into the US with the help of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, AKA "the hippy mafia" – this time hiding consignments among the equipment of imaginary bands on imaginary US tours. Perhaps the most audacious – and certainly the most lucrative – were his years of smuggling serious weight to JFK airport in New York, a staggeringly complex operation that saw the Yakuza, Mafia, Thai army, customs and even Nepalese monks involved in some capacity.
Marks' smuggling career came to an abrupt end, however, in 1990 when he was sentenced to 25 years in the notorious Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana. Granted a release for good behaviour in 1995, Mr Nice was published the following year and the book's notoriety saw Marks embark on a new straight career, touring a stage show, DJing, appearing on panels and guesting on various albums and movies.
Marks' cameo in 'Human Traffic'
However, this wasn't the full story. His new book, Mr Smiley, recounts what was actually going on behind the scenes when he was at the height of his newfound fame. The book recounts how Marks got involved with the ecstasy trade in Ibiza, embracing the rave scene he'd missed while incarcerated and all its attendant madness.
A rollicking – and darker – story than Mr Nice, the action takes us from the coked-out excesses of the Groucho club to the bacchanalian chemical gluttony of the late-morning Manumission dancefloor; the foreboding flatlands of East Anglia to the decaying red light district in Marbella. Subtitled "My Last Pill and Testament", this January it was announced that Marks had been diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer.
I interviewed Howard recently via email to discuss the book and his extraordinary life.
VICE: You talk about missing the buzz of smuggling at the beginning of Mr Smiley. Is adrenaline the ultimate drug?
Howard Marks: I don't know if it's the ultimate drug, but it's up there. My own adrenaline flushes are triggered by fear – similar, I suspect, to that experienced by many sportsmen, bungee jumpers and gamblers once they commit to a specific action. I still feel the rush now every time I perform, even though I risk merely looking like a plonker in front of a couple of a hundred people. In my smuggling days, I risked life imprisonment and occasionally death.
Mr Smiley is, in some ways, a darker book than Mr Nice; some of the imagery is like something from The Godfather. I'm thinking about the moment where you came home and found a skinned dog hanging from a tree, potentially left there by a rival. Was that the most unnerving moment in your career?
It was certainly one of my most unnerving moments, but I have experienced many over the years.
I want to ask about the discipline of writing. You have an incredibly natural style and manage to take the reader right to the heart of the place, be that describing your first curry or a creepy deserted hilltop village in Andalusia. Most writers have some kind of routine or ritual to adhere to – what's yours?
Once I designate a day as a writing day, I peck away at my keyboard until I've typed at least a thousand words, and hope I get on a roll of up to five thousand words. If I struggle to do the thousand words and think they are crap, I still keep them filed somewhere in case they could be included in a future writing project. I don't need to have a room with an inspiring view or even a comfortable seat. I can't write when I'm drunk, although I can with a hangover. I invariably write better when I'm stoned and edit better when I've taken cocaine or extremely strong coffee.
Was it difficult to perform your live show – to be totally "on", as Mick Jagger referred to it – while you were in the midst of the ecstasy trade.
I didn't find it difficult. In fact, I found it helpful, as it hastened the necessary adrenaline flush. My shows involve simply talking shite to people who tend to be as much off their tits as I am. I don't begin to have the focus or talent that Mick Jagger has. He has to dance, sing and continue to be the best front man for any band ever. I have huge admiration for him and his fellow Rolling Stones, and always have had.
You talk about the spiritual potential afforded by ecstasy. Despite some of the unpleasantness that goes along with the trade that you describe in Mr Smiley, does your faith in the actual substance MDMA remain undaunted?
Yes it does, as long as it's pure.
Did you have any moral qualms with getting involved in the ecstasy trade? Were you aware of the tabloid hysteria that had grown around the rave scene and high profile deaths while you were jailed in Terre Haute?
Yes I did, simply because it wasn't cannabis, with which I never had any moral qualms as regards to dealing or smuggling. I was totally unaware of the UK tabloid hysteria when in Terre Haute.
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Do you feel you've come to terms with your illness? Was the experience of writing Mr Smiley a cathartic one?
I do feel that I've now come to terms with it, but it took several months. I now see cancer as a way of living rather than a way of dying. There has never been any catharsis in my writing; I wrote the essence of Mr Smiley a couple of years ago, but felt it would be too controversial to submit to a publisher!
I'm interested in the difference between fame and infamy. You've experienced both – do they affect the ego in a similar way?
Infamy is a particular form of fame rather than its opposite. Being infamous is merely being famous for an activity that is disapproved of by some people. I guess being famous for something that everyone approves of would be great, but it would be extremely rare.
Were you ever surprised by how massive Mr Nice became?
I was astonished. I thought a few diehard old hippies might read it for [the] purposes of igniting some nostalgia, but it never occurred to me for a second that it would appeal to the next generation. I wrote Mr Nice very shortly after being released from prison, without realising the extent of the increase of cannabis use. Before my incarceration, cannabis use tended to be mainly a privilege enjoyed by the middle classes, mainly students, and West Indian immigrants who loved music. Most of the working class were not cannabis smokers. When I came out of prison I discovered that postmen, plumbers, tinkers, tailors, soldiers and shop assistants were all at it.
Finally, what is the most important lesson that your many careers have taught you?
Not to take myself too seriously.
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