Smuggling several thousand tons of cannabis and earning a spot at the top of Britain’s most-wanted list is a bold way to achieve cult superstardom, but Howard Marks maintains that he has no regrets.
After some high-profile court cases and a seven-year spell in America’s Terre Haute Penitentiary, Howard Marks went straight, fostering his celebrity status by releasing a best-selling book, standing in a general election, making several cameo film appearances and, most recently, publicising the autobiographical film Mr Nice. The name, originally one of Marks’ 43 aliases, has become a brand in itself; used as the title for his book and a national speaking tour, which included a visit to Bolton last month.
At 63, Marks has as active a career as ever: “I’m getting a bit old for this kind of shit, but not surviving too badly,” he tells me. I ask him if he might consider more work on the scale of his single-issue campaign to legalise cannabis during the 1997 general election, when he contested four seats at once.
“I’ve no plans to do anything like that. It obviously wasn’t a bid for political power or anything, it was just to draw attention to the issue and I suppose in some ways it succeeded; it drew attention to the issue and that’s pretty much all I wanted to do with it really. You know, the last thing I wanted to do was [become an MP and] hang around with a bunch of political wankers.
“The political process is always frustratingly slow but I still think on the whole it’s heading in the right direction. But, you know, I’ve been saying that for 40-odd years.”
At times, Marks maintains, he was breaking even on his consignments of hashish, but carried on purely to keep Britain well supplied with a drug he regards as benign. Was this activism?
“By doing that you mean; bringing in dope without making money? I didn’t regard that as activism really. I mean I think it’s almost like a charity thing. People who make a lot of money sometimes give to charity; it was more like that than thinking it was really fundamental activism.”
As the legalisation debate makes a subtle resurgence in the media and among the student population, I asked the movement’s most famous advocate if he had advice for those who wanted to affect change.
“Register to vote and always vote for the party, or the candidate rather, with the most liberal drug policy. That’s really all you can do. I mean it sounds like very very straight advice in a sense; a few years ago I probably would have said get a helicopter full of seeds and spray them all over the place but the law’s not going to be changed by that kind of attitude. It will only be changed when so many people make it obvious that that’s what they want. Then politicians will automatically get on the bandwagon. I mean it’s hard to get a bunch of stoners to go and register to vote but that is the only logical way of proceeding.”
Marks’ take on drugs in the media is critical of the likes of Coronation Street and surprisingly forgiving of tabloid sensationalism: “Well I know why they do that. They do that to sell papers; I can see the logic of that. It doesn’t work on me; I don’t buy their shit. But I can see why they do it.
“Of course, you do see so many soap operas about normal people living their lives and hardly any of them smoke dope, but we all know it’s not like that.”
Although Marks would be a likely connoisseur of the marijuana world, he hardly has exclusive tastes and struggles even to name a favourite among the various strains he has tried over more than four decades of smoking.
“I can’t really tell one strong strain from another really. You know, I can tell a strong one from a weak one. I think the strongest strain I ever tried was in Coventry, I don’t what you can glean from that really. I like super silver haze, I like that very much. If you have to put an answer put that. I tend to treat it for its effects rather than for its taste, partly because my taste buds are all shot anyway.”
With taste buds in mind, I asked what Marks did for food when short of money in his days as an Oxford student. “I did everything from shoplifting to, you know, eating dog food actually. There was partly a sort of bravado about it, you know; are we really poor enough to eat fucking Chappie. We did that, you know, but it was more kind of for a laugh. I only did that once, it didn’t become a daily habit.”
Marks’ university days were a time of experimentation with drugs, the Rolling Stones and soul music, and a time to find his feet as a small-time cannabis dealer. I wondered how his musical habits have changed since the ‘60s. “At the moment I like Dubstep. The standard ones you know, Benga and Skream, I basically like the ones that are popular.
“In prison, for music, you got the radio and you could watch TV, which tended to show either sport or hip hop. And the radio stations, most of them were local. Where I was [in Indiana] it tended to be country and western.” I suggested then that high-security prison was not as culturally deprived as one might expect.
“I felt listening to country and western all fucking day was about as culturally deprived as I could get.”
Always adamant that he was the nice guy of the drug smuggling world, Marks defends his actions by alluding to a peaceful community of marijuana lovers, at ease before the imposition of harsher drugs policies. Does he ever worry that his actions might have indirectly caused violence?
“No, because it wasn’t like that, certainly when I started. It began to get like that as time went on but it was a kind of hippie business to begin with; there was no violence there at all. Everybody would just give it on credit and just forget it if they didn’t get [their money] back.
“It became nastier and nastier, particularly when the penalties were increased because obviously that means you’ve got to get harder and harder nuts doing it. It’s progressed to a far more violent affair than it was. But I think that’s inevitable if it stays illegal. That’s just another argument to legalise it as far as I’m concerned: stop funding violence and terrorists. That might be a good idea.”
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