The wild, crazy and completely true story of drug smuggler Howard Marks

The wild, crazy and completely true story of drug smuggler Howard Marks

Howard Marks, who passed away at the age of 70 from cancer, first hit the headlines for drug smuggling in the 70s and 80s. After his release in prison in 1995, he turned his story into the best-selling autobiography Mr. Nice – a name taken from one of the many police-dodging aliases he came up with.

In October 1996, as he prepared to release Mr. Nice for the first time, Mark sat down with Loaded’s magazine incarnation to tell his story. Here it is republished in honor of the man himself – the whole wild, crazy, and completely true account.

Howard Marks Interview by Martin Deeson

Howard Marks is lucky to be alive. Since 1994, anyone convicted by an American court of smuggling as much dope as he has can be put to death by electric chair, gas, bullet, or lethal injection. Howard Marks is also very, very lucky to be free. He cheated death by getting a 25-year sentence in 1990, which was reduced to 20 only last year, making him eligible for near-instant parole. At one time the American Drug Enforcement Agency estimated he was responsible for controlling around 10 percent of the world’s dope distribution.

That means if you were smoking joints at any time between 1970 when he started smuggling, and 1998, when he was finally busted, on average one in 10 will have been brought to you by the man who they used to call Macro Polo. Don’t you think Howard should have been congratulated rather than banged up? After all, he never dealt in any drug other than dope, and as he is fond of reminding people, “No one has ever died from smoking marijuana.”

I like Howard Marks. Howard Marks smokes a lot of dope. When you’re staying with the man who was once proud to be called the ‘world’s biggest dope dealer’, it would be rude not to join him. I was stoned within minutes of arriving in Majorca to interview him and I was still stoned three days later, hours after the plane had landed back in London. Howard Marks is always stoned. A journalist once asked him if he still liked the new Super Furry Animals CD, which has his picture on the cover, when he listened to it un-stoned. “I don’t know,” he said, “I’ve never tried.”

When Howard invited Loaded to stay in his house in Palma to interview him about his forthcoming autobiography (called, like one of his aliases, Mr. Nice), it sounded like a weekend sent from heaven. As we pulled up next to the cop on traffic duty at the exit from Palma airport, Mr. Nice produced a half-smoked joint from the ashtray and lit it up, filling the car with thick clouds of hash smoke. “Do you always smoke a lot of dope Howard?” I asked him. “I still smoke the first joint of the day as soon as I get up,” he replied, in his deep Welsh accent, which makes every word sound like a mini-symphony. When Howard says a word like marijuana, it seems to go on for about half an hour: Marr-oo-waaner. “I suppose it doesn’t have much effect on you anymore?” I asked. “On the contrary;’ Howard replied, “it still gets me completely stoned. In fact, I smoke more marijuana than anyone else I know – 24 hours a day. While I’m awake I smoke. I suppose there’s the odd rasta who smokes more, but I’ve never met him.

The stories about Howard Marks are legion. After being raised in the Welsh Valleys and educated at Oxford University, Howard went on to become the world’s biggest dope smuggler – at least that’s what they said in court. At his height Howard had 80 phone lines in rented flats all over the world, his gang spoke Welsh to confound any Old Bill who might have been listening, and in criminal circles, his mob was known as the Tafia. He had contacts with the Mafia, MIS, the IRA, the PLO, and several less well-known organizations including a Californian dealing network called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.

Howard Marks is a talented, clever, charming, and witty bloke who, in a saner society would be valued as a man with a gift for something and a talent for getting it done. The trouble is that what Howard is good at is moving very large pieces of cannabis around the world. Everyone I know seems to think this is an admirable way to make a living, but unfortunately, the Americans don’t see it like that, and that’s why they tried to lock him up for 25 years. He was released last year after serving five years when an American judge decided that the original sentence had been unnecessarily cruel, and reduced it to 20. When they busted him, after a police operation that took two years and involved the forces of five countries, they also locked up his wife Judy so their three young children were left parentless. They only let her out after 18 months when she pleaded guilty- which meant, because she’d been convicted of a drug offense, she couldn’t enter the United States to visit her husband all the time be was banged up.

As we drove through the narrow streets in the center of Palma, Howard talked about how good the Spanish authorities had always been to him. “I’m a guest in their country,” he said, “and I think they were rather embarrassed when the Americans came here to arrest me. They knew I was a smuggler and so they couldn’t be seen to condone what I was doing, but on the other hand, Spain has always had a less moralistic view of the pleasures of the flesh, and at the time dope-smoking was decriminalized, even if importing it wasn’t.” Since then, Spain has swung back the other way, under pressure from the EC who want everyone to have the same prohibitive drug laws, but judging by the spliff we were smoking good quality hash is not hard to come by.

It’s worth remembering, for those of us used to the rubbish bits of solid served up in this country, that hash doesn’t have to be weed’s poor relation – the stuff you get abroad is infinitely superior to that moldy old bit you paid 30 quid for last week. “Most people who import into Britain can’t be bothered anymore,” he says. “They have excellent quality Nepalese in Amsterdam but not in London. I used to ensure the cannabis I shifted was only the very best because that’s what I wanted everyone to smoke – people in Britain are lazy now, no one has pride in their work anymore.” When Howard talks about the state of the world’s dope trade he sounds like a master clocksmith bemoaning the introduction of the digital watch rather than a paroled international drug dealer.

He may not be actually working as a drug smuggler at the moment, but that is what he is, that is what he always will be, and occasionally he still talks like one. He has two cars, a large white Peugeot and a small Ford. “I always take the runabout because it handles so much better,” he says, “and besides, it attracts a lot less attention.”

At home Marks takes a taste of something tamer than cannabis. Picture Steve Pyke/Loaded


As we sped through the streets of old Palma it looked like exactly the sort of place where a retired international drug smuggler could live without attracting too much attention. The buildings are old and crumbly, the streets are narrow and in places, it looks Spanish and in others like the French Riviera. Another important factor for a man like Howard is that the people like to go out – it’s like Barcelona, except there are more beaches.

Not surprisingly, Howard spends most of his time these days with his wife and family when he isn’t living the life in the island’s bars and clubs. After 20 minutes drive, we were at the Marks family home, a beautiful house with a roof terrace, pool, and big dark rooms full of comfy furniture. Outside in the walled garden, next to a huge cactus, there’s a massive wooden table where the family sit at all hours of the day or night smoking and laughing and catching up on the time they lost when Howard was banged up in Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary listening to the sounds of a new execution room being built in the yard outside. It’s a nice house and it’s a big house but it’s nothing like the Colombian coke baron pleasure palace the DEA would have you believe when you read their testimony from his last trial.

The kids, obviously, had the hardest time when Howard and Judy were both banged up, first staying with family and later, when Judy had to bring them up on her own, they watched their mother take in lodgers and work as a bouncer at a local bar to put food on the table. ”No one could believe it,” Judy said as we sat around the huge table in the garden drinking beers, “but there just wasn’t any money left. Everything we had went on fighting Howard’s extradition to the States and things got so bad at one point that his parents sold their smallholding in Wales just to pay for Howard’s defense.”

When Howard was arrested, their youngest Patrick was only 18 months old and Howard didn’t see him again until he was seven. Francesca, who was six, watched her father being dragged from the house with a gun against his head, and Amber, now 18, has won prizes for her poems which are all about people being dragged off in the night and all the things you’d expect from the daughter of a drug dealer who’s been locked up in a foreign jail 4,000 miles away. At least they can all laugh now. “The other day Patrick said ‘When I grow up I’m going to be a smuggler,”‘ Judy said, “and when I asked him why, he said, ‘because Daddy’s a smuggler and I came out of Daddy’s willy.”‘ It’s good to see a kid with ambition.

“About the only good thing about being locked up at the same time as Judy in a Spanish jail was that we were allowed to have conjugal visits once a month,” said Howard as the sun set behind him on another scorching Majorcan day. “They have visiting rooms with beds and you get a couple of hours in there together.” “Christ, that room must have seen some of the most frenetic sex ever,” says Amber. “They should film it and sell it. They could call it Prison Sex – everyone would want a copy.” “Yeah, they’re very civilized, the Spanish,” says Howard. “If you’re single the priest will arrange for a prostitute to visit you and if you win the lottery while you’re inside you automatically get released. They argue, quite sensibly, that if you’ve just won a million pounds then you’re not that likely to go out and carry on burgling houses. They recognize the undeniable rehabilitating effect of a few million quid.”

It wasn’t the first time, of course, that Judy had seen her beloved carted off for the crime of providing spliff to the nation’s dope smokers. Howard started dealing, in a small way, not long after he left university because, like most people who get into the business, he needed a cheap and plentiful supply of his favorite drug. Within a few years, he had progressed from shifting the odd kilo to friends and acquaintances and was distributing larger amounts for a cartel who were bringing it in from Pakistan. Not long afterward he made a connection with a colorful and slightly unnerving character called James McCann, who reckoned he was in tight with the IRA but was more likely one of those rogue figures who exist on the edge of any shadowy organization.

With McCann, Howard opened up a route for bringing dope into the UK via Shannon airport in Eire and then on to Britain via the ferry, packed into the sub-frames of cars driven by old Oxford acquaintances grateful to earn some easy cash. Mccann wasn’t the best partner in the world: at one point he endangered their whole operation by turning their farmhouse base into Ireland’s only porn cinema and at another time he introduced Ha’ard (as he always called him) to ‘Gus’, who he said was from the ‘Belfast Brigade Assassination Squad,’ ‘just so he knows what you look like.”

At about this time, Howard realized two things that were to revolutionize the international drug market. First, despite the fact that cocaine and heroine (both of which he has always steered well clear of) have a higher weight-for-weight street value than dope, the mark-up on cannabis was, and still is, far higher than any class A drug. The only problem is that it is too bulky, and smelly, to get past the world’s customs officials. Howard also twigged that the traditional way of smuggling drugs was completely flawed. To this day most drugs come into Britain either welded into the chassis of a car or, more often, in relatively small amounts carried in the luggage, or up the arse, of someone coming into the country via plane or ferry. “I just suddenly realized,” said the drug dealer with a degree in physics. “It really is a lot easier to smuggle large volume than small volume. If you leave a suitcase and a container by the side of the road, which is more likely to get nicked? Also, there’s not that personal confrontation.”

He realized that instead of employing ‘mules’ to carry small amounts through customs one at a time, it would be safer and more profitable to study books on import-export and international freight and start shifting dope in bulk around the planet in container loads. At one point in the weekend, I asked him what was the biggest single piece of dope he’d ever owned. We were sitting in a massive bar where the room was at least 25 feet long and over 10 feet high. “Twice the size of this place,” he said, casting an eye around him, as I imagined the stash tin you’d need for a bit of dope 50 feet long and 20 feet high. ”And the biggest problem with a lump of hash that size is not shifting it, I had that all well worked out, but packing it so that it doesn’t smell.” Howard had a couple of experts who wrapped dope in layers of plastic and other substances to mask the smell, “otherwise a lump of dope that size would be getting the dogs stoned in the slums three miles from the airport.”

Howard and Judy Mr and Mrs Marks pose for a photo. Picture Steve Pyke/Loaded

The only other problem once you’ve decided to shift dope by the container load is actually blagging it past the freight handlers and customs officials at the world’s airports. This is where Howard’s personal charm came into full effect. If, for instance, he’d decided that Cardiff airport was the next place he wanted to try and import dope, he’d go and stay in the area for a month and spend his time drinking in the places where the baggage handlers would go at the end of their shifts. By getting pissed with them and, over the course of several weeks, discussing things like the law and their attitude to drugs he’d decide which one could be most easily ‘turned’ and then make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. “I wasn’t manipulating them,” he says. “I was looking for them and then offering them what they’d normally earn in a year for letting one of my shipments go through.” A lot of people in boring jobs got rich this way.

Later that evening Howard took us out for a night on the town while Judy and the kids stayed at home. As we walked through the streets crowded with Spanish families and teenagers out on the razz, Howard stopped outside a bar which was packed with drinkers spilling out onto the pavement in the warm evening air. “You see that place?” he said. “Well, the owner is an old friend of mine who used to fly all over the world for me moving suitcases full of cash.” At times it was harder for the Tafia to get rid of all the money they had than it was to shift the dope in the first place.

You can’t, after all, just turn up at a bank with £100,000 in used bills and not expect them to call the police. Money is big: the largest suitcase only holds about half a million. “I reckon during my career about £30million passed through my hands,” says Howard, “but I was like a bank teller – most of it went straight out to other people. I guess I made about £3m in total and I spent it as soon as I got it. The bloke who owns that bar bought it with the money he earnt moving cash around for me. I miss all that… being able to help my friends.”

As we walked down the street Howard was greeted every 100 yards or so like a celebrated resident of the island. ”An awful lot of people here know who I am,” he said, “the last time I flew back from London the customs guy at the airport took one look at my passport and said, ‘Ah! Marco Polo! Are you carrying any hashish?’ I said ‘Only a little!’ and he waved me through.”

Following behind Howard Marks down a crowded street you realize that he walks like a man who’s been a prisoner. He has the slightly round-shouldered gait and occasional almost-shuffle of someone who’s spent hundreds of hours queuing: for food, for medical examinations, to be processed by the system. One of the most striking parts of his book is the first chapter in which he describes the unimaginable degradation of being trapped in the American prison system. Because it’s so much bigger than Britain’s, the potential for just getting lost in the process is terrifying. At one point he talks about the practice of ‘diesel therapy’ whereby a prisoner deemed awkward or lippy by the prison warders will be sent constantly backward and forwards across the States in planes full of other prisoners without ever getting off. When they move you in America they put you in leg irons and that’s how Howard walks.

One interviewer (Lynn Barber – with whom he’d had an affair at Oxford) spoke of his ‘new-found infinite patience’. She said he always used to be a ball of constant taken by the IRA or MIS, or both, in order to shut up a potentially damaging witness. He was on the run for the next seven years during which time the tabloids latched onto him as a juicy ‘Oxford man turned drug dealer/spy story’ and before long he was looking at newspapers with front-page headlines like “WHERE IS MR MARKS.” “I shat myself when I saw that,” he says, “up till then’ I thought no one gave a fuck about me.” Eventually, after hundreds of successful dope scams and enough changes in haircut to make him a tabloid ‘master of disguise’, Howard Marks was arrested again in 1980.

This time he spun the court a tale described by his barrister as “the most ridiculous defense I ever heard in my life.” He claimed he was employed by the Mexican Secret Service to buy dope from the IRA on the orders of MI6. Equally unbelievably, the jury let him off, because they thought the law was unjust, not because they believed him. “I thought it was a green light from above to carry on what I was doing,” said Howard, and, in his own words, that’s when people started to perceive him as a “cocky little fucker.” He co-operated with David Leigh on a book called High Time which detailed his life as a smuggler and made it clear that he thought the law was a load of bollocks. By a chain of ridiculous coincidences, the book came to the attention of a DEA agent called Craig Levato who made it his mission to get the cheeky little dealer banged up for good. Unfortunately, this was at a time when the Americans and the British were both looking for a high profile bust to justify their ‘War Against Drugs’. After hundreds of hours of taping calls and using the testimony of a mate turned grass in Majorca and the brothel owning playboy-turned grass Lord Moynihan (half-brother of Colin Moynihan, the Tory MP), they finally got poor Ha’ard banged to rights in 1988.

As the sun came up on Saturday morning, Howard and I were standing by the fountains in the grounds of one of Palma’s massive rave clubs sharing a joint. As it was six in the morning and we’d been out all night, and Howard is after all 50, I asked him if he wanted to go home. “Only if you want to, Martin,” he said, “I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” Of course, we carried on to see where it took us. It was Spanish house mania in the club, and when I looked around I saw that Howard was staring at the dancefloor with a broad grin on his face. “I think this is wonderful,” said the man who’d been banged up just as acid house got going and wasn’t released until people were talking about an Aceeed revival.

As we stood there surrounded by off their tits kids the same age as his own children I asked him how a respectable Oxford graduate had become a dope smuggler in the first place. “Because I saw no reason not to,’ he said. “It was glamorous, always interesting, very well paid and I felt like I was doing something to make the world a better place. The only thing against it was that it was illegal and that you might go to prison for it. “I always knew that was likely, but like most people, I had no idea what prison was like, it comes as a bit of a shock. There’s a friend of mine, another dealer, who when he met a prospective employee who had never been to prison would say ‘take this brick and go and chuck it through the window of the nearest fucking police station and then stand there till they nick you. If you do that then I’ll use you.”‘

"Dope should be sold in police stations." Howard Marks on how to control the drugs trade. Picture Steve Pyke/Loaded

It’s amazing, given that Howard has spent his whole life in criminal circles dealing with huge amounts of cash, that there are no guns in his book. Is that accurate, or did you just leave out the most gruesome bits? “I think if you have to carry a gun you’re doing business with the wrong guys,” he said. “I know someone got murdered in London over a dope deal recently, and I was terribly terribly surprised and shocked by that – things just aren’t the same. I remember a London villain begging me to let him sell some of my dope and I was reluctant because his contacts seemed particularly dodgy. ‘Don’t worry Mr. Marks,’ he said, ‘if I get ripped off I’ll bring you the guy’s head on a fucking plate.’ The trouble is it’s not really the guy’s head you want, it’s the fucking money! The London boys have this saying: ‘either a body in court or a body on the floor.’ But that was never my way of doing business.”

By nine in the morning, Howard and I were in a tiny churchyard on the top of a hill in Deia, the Majorcan mountain top town where all the Eurotrash New Age millionaires in exile live – Lynne Franks, Annie Lennox and the rest of the Ab Fab crowd. Howard was standing against a wall rolling another of his industrial-sized doobs while I slumped against the headstone of Robert Graves, the island’s most famous dead resident, a bohemian, war poet, and author of I, Claudius, who, like Howard, came to Majorca to escape Britain’s prying eyes. I was dramatically the worse for wear and reduced to giggling at crap phrases like “Robert Graves’ grave” like it was funny. Howard on the other hand was remarkably coherent and in the middle of an impassioned speech about the legality of dope-smoking.

“I think you should be allowed to do what you want to do,” he said as he skinned up quicker than a hippy on speed. “Society shouldn’t intervene in the intake of any drugs, no matter how harmful. In the case of hard drugs like cocaine, I wouldn’t make them illegal, I would just advise people, in the same way, that one does with electricity and water, there’s a danger of dying from this thing! Most people are intelligent enough to make their own decisions in life and anyway, if you want to take coke, what stops you is the price, not that you can’t get hold of it. I’d go for some sort of age limit and that would be it.” He gave the spliff one last lick and carried on while I stared off at the mountains behind. “Dope smoking only stays illegal because large parts of the population genuinely feel concerned, but that’s the result of scientific ignorance and scaremongering.

Those concerns aren’t being properly addressed because isn’t a proper debate – there’s just nonsense talked. I think if Labour gets in for two terms then we might see some progress.” There’s a lot of pressure now from medical groups, I pointed out. “Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to see control of marijuana going from the boys in blue to the men in white,” Howard said. “I don’t want to have to go to the doctor and say, ‘please can I have a joint?’ They can be dangerous, the men in white. I think it ought to be sold in police stations although from what I’ve heard there are parts of London where that’s been going on for a while!”

Later that day we finally crawled back to the Marks house and slept the sleep of the dead until late that night. Around midnight we got up, got stoned, and went out to do it all over again. To stay with Howard Marks all you need is a good pair of lungs and enough stamina to keep up with a man who makes Peter Pan look like a geriatric with sleeping sickness. On the last morning, we walked round the oldest part of town to kill an hour before my flight.

This also happens to be the bit of town where all the old hookers hang out and even at midday they were sitting around outside bars in the damp little streets sipping drinks and clicking their tongues at the two insanely good-looking men who were walking past deep in conversation. “I used to rent a flat round here,” said Howard, looking at a dilapidated old building. “I never lived there, of course, I just had it full of phones. There’s always been a class thing about smoking dope,” he said. “If you’re working class and live somewhere like this and smoke dope you’re a criminal, if you’re middle class and smoke in Deia then you’re debauched. There’s a difference apparently.”

I asked him if he’d had any nervous phone calls when people found out he was publishing his memoirs. “Only from straight friends of mine who are more worried that they’re going to be mentioned than anyone else. In fact, I suspect more people will be offended by their lack of mention! “As for everyone else, I’ve never grassed anyone up, ever. But all my knowledge is here for anyone to use. If they want to know how it was done then I’m happy to tell them. As to what set of circumstances would tempt me back to use my talent, I don’t know – I just know that there are some out there. What I hope is that some little country goes autonomous and says ‘fuck you’ to the United Nations, ‘We’re going to grow it here or let it transit here and we don’t give a fuck!’ Then I could easily imagine getting back to it.”

Like Wales for instance? “Yeah, that’d be fucking brilliant! I’d be back like a shot! “I can’t see myself doing one last scam but my conscience tells me that I should be a dope smuggler. I know what I am and I’ve decided not to do what I am and that hurts sometimes. I see an unjust law that’s patently stupid and I just want to break it. If I can advance legalization by not dealing then I will. But the trouble is, it seems the best way to advance the cause is to flood the country with as much of the stuff as possible so that the law looks completely stupid.”

I once heard an idea that everyone should go round the country dropping seeds wherever they went, so there’d be marijuana growing on motorway embankments, everywhere. Then no one could get busted because it was growing everywhere like a week. I think Mr. Nice would approve.



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