Wednesday 22 January 2020

Mr Nice: Howard Marks, international drug smuggler

Born: August 13, 1945 Died: April 10, 2016

Addictive stuff: Marks' book Mr Nice sold more than a million copies
Addictive stuff: Marks' book Mr Nice sold more than a million copies

It's been said that there are really only two types of drug dealers: those who need forklifts and those that don't. At the height of his criminal career, Howard Marks - who passed away in Leeds last Sunday at the age of 70 - was definitely in the former camp.

The widely celebrated Welsh cannabis-smuggler-turned-writer/performer had been diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer a little over a year ago.

Last Monday morning, the following tweet was posted on his Twitter account: "In the early hours of 10th April 2016, Howard Marks died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his four loving children. Goodnight Mr Nice."

Although deeply saddened at the news, I was thankful that I'd been able to say goodbye to my dear old friend. Last November, during the inaugural Metropolis Festival at the RDS, I did a public interview with Howard (which was filmed and will be included in the forthcoming feature-length documentary The Real Mr Nice).

Backstage in the green room, we had a chance to reminisce. He had lost weight and his trademark Keith Richards-hairstyle had been reduced to a greying crop, but otherwise his spirits were good and he was as charming and self-deprecating as ever.

Howard explained that he saw cancer "as a way of living rather than a way of dying".

We first met in Dublin, in 1996, when he was promoting his autobiography, Mr Nice. Published a year after his release from prison, the book became an international bestseller, selling well over a million copies.

By any standards, his was a life well lived. Born in 1945, he was raised in the small Welsh coal-mining town of Kenfig Hill. He spoke only Welsh for the first five years of his life. An incredibly bright student, Howard won a scholarship to Oxford's prestigious Balliol College, where he earned a degree in nuclear physics.

He could have prospered as an academic, but the straight life wasn't for him.Instead, he turned his considerable talents to international drug smuggling - operating for many years under 43 different aliases. At one point it was estimated that he controlled 10pc of the planet's cannabis supply, including some through Shannon with the help of shady IRA contacts. His biggest single shipment was 30 tonnes of Thai grass, worth about €100m, which he shifted from Thailand to Canada.

Many of his loads of Moroccan and Lebanese hashish were smuggled to America in the sound equipment of unwitting English rock bands. Other shipments from India and Pakistan passed through Shannon Airport.

Although he was first arrested in 1980, he was acquitted by a British court when he managed to convince the jury that he was acting as an agent for MI6.

His luck finally ran out in 1988, when he was arrested in Spain by the Drug Enforcement Agency and extradited to the US. He was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment. Having served seven years in Indiana's maximum security Terre Haute Penitentiary, he was unexpectedly released when it was discovered that the DEA had falsified evidence against him.

Already notorious from his criminal career, he became a bona fide celebrity following the release of Mr Nice (which was later turned into a movie starring Rhys Ifans, and was the subject of his long-running one-man show).

In 1997, he became a campaigner for drug-law reform and unsuccessfully stood for UK parliament on the single-issue ticket of cannabis legalisation.

A true renaissance man, he made his living from writing (he wrote five further books and was a Loaded columnist for many years), DJ-ing, spoken-word performances and acting.

Despite all of this, I'll mainly remember him as a really great friend. In locations as diverse as Galway, London, Amsterdam and Ibiza, I enjoyed many adventures - and misadventures - in the company of this eminently charming man. Howard also once put me in my one of my all-time favourite books. He explained that he had been asked to write an introduction to Robert Sabbag's classic 1976 book about cocaine smuggling, Snowblind, but the publishers hadn't been able to give him an original copy.

When I told him that I had an old Picador paperback edition at home, he begged me to get it. So I hopped in a taxi.

When the new edition eventually appeared, the first paragraph of his introduction explained that Snowblind had been hard to find but "eventually, Olaf Tyaransen of Dublin's Hot Press temporarily parted with his copy." It was typically generous of him.

Always generous, Howard did me many more favours than I ever did him. He included my work in his bestselling anthology, The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories, and wrote the foreword to my autobiography, The Story of O, in 2000.

He happily agreed to fly to Dublin in November 2010 to launch my interview collection, Selected Recordings (unfortunately, his flight was cancelled because of the big freeze).

During an interview, I asked Howard if he had any regrets. Although he knew the end was near, he quite cheerfully replied, "No, no regrets. I don't think you can regret anything if you feel okay.

''I feel happy and okay now so I can't possibly regret anything that brought me to this position."

Olaf Tyaransen

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