This article originally appeared on VICE US
As marijuana goes mainstream, so do the stories about the legends of pot's cultural history. 'Smuggler's Blues,' a memoir by Richard Stratton out April 5 through Arcade Publishing, tells the story of how a "clean-cut Wellesley boy" joined the cultural revolution of the 1960s, immersing himself in the marijuana underground and becoming a drug kingpin in the process.
Moving thousands and thousands of pounds of weed and hashish by boat and plane over international waters from the mid-60s to the early-80s, Stratton quickly became known as a leader in the "Hippie Mafia" as one of the country's largest importers of top-notch hash and bud. At one point, he began providing samples to High Times for its monthly taste test column, which resulted in his writing for the magazine and eventually serving as its editor for a stint.
"I always had these two lives I was leading," he explained to VICE over the phone. "I used to tell people I smuggled pot to support my writing habit," a claim that's not hard to believe: Stratton typically would make $3-5 million per smuggle, often repeating the process several times a year. Meeting figures as diverse as the acclaimed novelist Norman Mailer (who the kingpin co-owned a horse farm with at one point) and the infamous mobster Whitey Bulger, Stratton often found himself simultaneously straddling both the criminal and literary worlds.
While serving a 25-year term in the feds for a 1982 hashish and marijuana bust, Stratton used his time on the inside to write a novel titled Smack Goddess. He also became a jailhouse lawyer, had his sentence reduced, and was released after serving eight years. He parlayed that success into writing for Esquire, Playboy, and GQ, as well as writing and consulting on HBO's Oz and founding the short-lived but influential magazine Prison Life in the mid-90s. Smuggler's Blues recounts his story in all its dank glory for the first time. VICE spoke with Stratton on the phone to talk pot and pens.
VICE: When did you first get into the drug game and how long were you smuggling marijuana and hashish?
Richard Stratton: I was at Arizona State University in the 60s, and I started smuggling pot from Mexico into the States by hiding it behind the door panel of my roommate's truck. My entire outlaw run lasted a good 15 years, from the mid-60s up to the beginning of the 80s when I got arrested. We offloaded a huge cache of Colombian pot from a mothership off the coast of Maine. We also had a DC6 plane that crash-landed, and we managed to get 10,000 pounds [4,500 kg] of pot off the plane before the cops got there.
I was arrested a few days after all that reefer was shipped out of the state to distributors—a total of over 40 tons. The DEA was basically a day late and a dollar short; they got there too late. I spent the night in jail, went to court the next day, and posted bail of $250,000 [€220,000 EUR]. When it became apparent to me that one of the guys [in my smuggling] operation knew way too much and was going to flip and testify against me, I became a fugitive.
How long were you on the run and what were you doing at that time?
I was on the lam for not quite two years. During that time I went to Lebanon and managed a massive smuggle of hashish—15,000 pounds [6,800 kg] brought into the port of New Jersey.
All the while, a DEA agent named Bernard Wolfshein was tracking me. They had organized a CENTAC unit, which is a group of agencies the FBI, DEA, and IRS put together as a task force focused on our family called the "Hippie Mafia"—a loose-knit organization of marijuana and hashish smugglers, as well as groups who manufactured and dealt psychedelics.
The book starts with the plane crash in Maine, then follows my fugitive experiences in Lebanon, and ends in the lobby of a Sheraton Senator Hotel near LAX with the DEA agent Wolfshein orchestrating my arrest by a small army of DEA agents, US marshals, and LA cops.
Can you tell me about Wolfshein, the DEA agent who ultimately nabbed you?
When I got arrested, there was a particular DEA agent involved in my case who becomes a major character in the book. It was like the Catch Me If You Can story where you've got these two people, an agent and an outlaw, and you see how their relationship evolves.
When I was first arrested after the Maine bust, I took a ride with the agent from way up in the northwestern part of the state down to Portland to be booked. During the drive, the agent and I had an interesting discussion about the drug war, in particular the war on pot.
What was your involvement in the literary world like when you were hustling?
I always had these two lives I was leading. I used to tell people I smuggled pot to support my writing habit. I met Norman Mailer while I was a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown. Once I got out of prison, I went to work for the Fortune Society, which is an organization in New York City that helps people coming out of prison. They had a publication called Fortune News that I edited.
I was also involved in the start of Prison Life magazine and became the editor and publisher. The magazine's content was entirely written and illustrated by people who either were in prison or had been in prison, so it was all first-hand. We ran an Art Behind Bars contest for visual artists, poets, essayists, and fiction writers that was a yearly event, and we would publish work by the winners [in the publication].
How were you involved in the formation of High Times?
High Times was founded by Tom Forcade, a guy I worked with who was also a pot smuggler. He and I had done some business together. Tom was a brilliant guy who was involved in the underground press movement. The marijuana movement and the underground press were closely related. Tom was a pivotal figure in that.
My involvement in the early days of the magazine mostly consisted of bringing products to be photographed for the centerfold of the mag or to appear in contributing articles. I was a full-time smuggler in those days, so my involvement in the editorial process was limited. Later, though, I would serve as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.
The early years of High Times magazine were transformative: Mick Jagger was on the cover, as was Truman Capote. I did an interview with Mailer. The idea was to examine how marijuana use was influencing the larger cultural and political movements taking place throughout the world.
Did you always justify that what you were doing was a means to an end with marijuana on the road to legality?
I always believed that ultimately marijuana would be legalized. We knew that reefer madness was bullshit, that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under Harry Anslinger (and then the DEA) was promoting this insanity about pot being a weed with roots in hell. That propaganda was complete and utter lies. With the war in Vietnam, a lot of veterans, who might not ordinarily have been exposed to marijuana, got high in Vietnam, and so they joined the movement as well. That really began to change things. People who were involved in the anti-war movement, a lot of them were also smoking pot, and they went on to spearhead the anti-War on Drugs movement.
So the smuggling wasn't about profit?
If marijuana had not been illegal, I never would have become a criminal. So my primary motivation was political and cultural—not criminal or solely for profit. I wasn't a bank robber, I wasn't into extortion, I wasn't even into smuggling or distributing hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine, even though I had ample opportunity to smuggle and distribute those drugs with a chance of much higher returns. I was an outlaw who broke a very specific set of laws that many people believed were wrong, hypocritical, and far more destructive than the plant itself.
The primary motivation for me was to keep America high and thereby defy the government's drug laws and prove them as wrong and dishonest. We were activists; we realized the government was lying about pot, and that led us to disbelieve so much of what they told us about race, about the war in Vietnam, about political assassination, and about the war on drugs. And, ultimately, as has been proven, we were right and they were lying to the American people about pot, about the war in Vietnam, about race—it's all connected.
What does marijuana mean to you in the context of going to prison for it, writing about it, and now seeing it become legalized across certain states?
I believe marijuana liberates the thought processes—it opens the mind. People get high and their preconceived ideas of what life is all about are suddenly changed. Some people get paranoid, some people get creative, but they all come away with a different attitude. Cannabis is a mysterious plant that has a complex and important relationship with mankind.
If marijuana had not been illegal, I never would have become a criminal. So my primary motivation was political and cultural—not criminal or solely for profit
For me, the marijuana legalization movement is a great metaphor for American democracy at work. It's a metaphor for our understanding of what it means to live in a participatory democracy—that as Americans we have an obligation to question authority; that we must not simply accept what the government tells us is good for us as people, as a country, or bad for us, or how we should live our lives.
The marijuana movement in this country became a massive example of civil and criminal disobedience where you had millions of people using this plant that was declared illegal by the government. And that has forced the government in many states to change the laws. To me, that says a lot about how American democracy works.
What is the cultural relevancy and legacy of the early large-scale marijuana smugglers like yourself?
There're a lot of young people who have grown up in this country since the 80s who aren't aware of how radical this change is in the way we view marijuana, and how we get our herb today, took place. This book, and my experiences in the outlaw marijuana movement, tells the story of the early years of what has become a cultural revolution.
This is to help readers understand how we got to where we are now. I think that makes it valuable to the young people who don't know that history, who don't know what it was like to live during those insane and intense outlaw years in marijuana's story. They don't know how marijuana became as popular as it is in this country or that it became popular because there were outlaws who were willing to risk their lives, willing to risk their freedom to keep America high.
Are young people responsive to your work today?
Whenever I do readings from the book, or speaking engagements about the war on plants as I call it, it's always the kids in their 20s and early 30s who hang around and are full of questions, and eager to know more about that time. It's a kind of nostalgia for a different time in America.
They want to know what it was like to have lived during a time when boats full of pot and airplanes full of pot were coming in on a regular basis, and before the homegrown cultivation of pot changed the dynamic of how people get their herb. Now marijuana is cultivated in all 50 states. The book is about a time and a mindset when drugs, sex, and rock and roll changed the country.
'Smuggler's Blues' is out through Arcade Publish on April 5. Order a copy here.
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