Interview p.12/13 with ‘Mr. Nice’ ahead of his return to UCC in February.
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Richard Sheehy talks with Howard Marks
Howard Marks is a Welsh author and former international drug smuggler. Through his work he was connected to the IRA, the CIA and the Mafia as well as being recruited as an M16 agent due to his connections in the drug trade. He rose to fame as Britain’s most wanted man in the 80s and earned the nickname ‘Mr Nice’ after using the passport of convicted murderer Donald Nice. When an amplifier containing a consignment of drugs was left behind in a New York airport, Marks was implicated and this lead to him being sentenced to 25 years in prison. Marks was released on parole after seven years due to good behaviour. Since then he has released numerous books including bestselling autobiography Mr Nice which was recently made into a major motion picture starring Rhys Ifans and Chloe Sevigny. In the UK, Marks has been one of the faces of the cannabis legalisation movement and in ’97 he ran for UK Parliament on that single issue which lead to the formation of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance in the UK. Currently he’s preparing to tour a new show titled ‘Scholar, Smuggler, Prisoner, Scribe’ with sketches about each aspect of his life. ‘Scholar’ - You attended Oxford University in the late 60s, where you made many friends who later helped you in many capacities with smuggling. Was there a big drug culture present in Oxford that sucked you in or were you one of the early trendsetters? I suppose I was one of the early trendsetters but I wasn’t the first; there was quite a culture going on there. In those days, dope smoking was always a privilege of middle-class academics rather than working class people. So there was a bit of a culture going but I embraced it, very enthusiastically.
When you returned to Oxford in ’69 you would have been attending the same time as former US President Bill Clinton, who now supports drug decriminalisation. Did you know him back then or have any run-ins? No, we did live in the same place but at different times, literally the same room but I’ve no recollection of actually meeting anyone who didn’t inhale.
Are government agencies involved in the drug trade? Yeah they are involved; they either have to stamp it out or be part of it – and generally they settle for being part of it.
You were caught importing cannabis in 1980, but you managed to escape prison after you used the defence of being an undercover M16 agent. Did you go into that case confident or were you surprised at the outcome? I was very surprised at the outcome, that was my defence but I was absolutely astonished when it worked.
As a wanted man on the run you probably got to see quite a lot of the world, did you have any favourite places or particular havens? Three spring to mind – Taiwan, Pakistan and Jamaica!
‘Smuggler’ – what initially attracted you to smuggling? All smuggling was done for money, dealing beforehand was done to pay for my habit. And then it was a transition from dealing to smuggling? Yes, the bigger the dealer you become the greater the likelihood of meeting a smuggler, because smugglers need dealers.
You smuggled through Ireland with Jim McCann from the IRA at a time when they were publicly against the drug trade. Was Jim McCann an isolated figure, or do you believe there was more drug involvement from the group? Well Jim McCann is the only person, I think, in the history of time whom the IRA have felt the need to say ‘no, he’s not one of us’. They haven’t said that about anyone else, ever. So whether he was a member of the IRA or not, is debatable. The IRA say no, and I’m not going to argue with them.
‘Prisoner’ - You served 7 years at Terre Haute Penitentiary, one of America’s toughest prisons. What was your approach to surviving that environment? To help other people as much as possible and to keep myself physically fit. Those were the two main things: I was a jailhouse lawyer and I taught the English grammar. I overturned one conviction completely and reduced the sentence of a number of others.
Youre upcoming show in Cork is in connection with UCC Drug Awareness and Reform Society. Do you believe that society needs to be more open about drugs? I would be in favour of being more open about anything really, I’m a strong proponent of legalisation, I can’t see any argument against it really.
“It [violence] has increased significantly and will only continue to increase until legalised. It’s a consequence of prohibition rather than a consequence of drugs “ Many people are calling for legalisation centered on human rights and health issues. Which do you feel is a more prominent reason? I would think the health reason, just about any drug would be safer in society if legalised and controlled. So just on a harm reduction level, I happen to agree with the human rights issue as well but I feel health is the prominent issue.
If cannabis was legalised do you believe there would be an increase in consumption? I think there would be a slight increase in consumption, but I don’t think everyone would be walking around smoking dope. There would be an increase in consumption as those people who would have been fearful of breaking the law will try it, but there wouldn’t be a massive increase.
One aspect of today’s drug war is the violence associated with drug gangs and cartels. Has violence increased since you were involved or was it always there and you chose to avoid it? It has increased significantly and I think it will only continue to increase until legalised. It’s a consequence of prohibition rather than a consequence of drugs. What for you is the biggest argument against Prohibition? There are no controls in the black market. Therefore there’s no control over what impurities might be in the substance or the strength of the substance. There’s just no control over it really.
‘Scribe’ - You’ve a bestselling book Mr Nice, which has now been made into a motion picture with Rhys Ifans. How much input did you have into the movie and were you happy with your portrayal? I didn’t have any creative input into the movie at all, absolutely none! They just took what they wanted from the book, but I was very, very happy with Rhys’ portrayal of me. We’ve known each other for so long he couldn’t get it wrong really.
So did you handpick Rhys for the role? That’s right, I don’t think anyone else could have done it.
You’ve recently released a fiction novel called Sympathy for the Devil. Can you tell readers what that’s about? It’s a regular ‘whodunnit’. It takes place in South Wales, it involves drugs but it’s not heavily concerned with drugs, and it’s loosely inspired by the disappearance of Richie Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. It’s a chess game between the author and the reader, if the reader gets it before the end the author has lost.
And finally, a topic which has sparked much heated discussion online, if you had to have a fight to the death, would you rather fight a horse sized duck, or 100 duck sized horses? 100 duck sized horses, as at least I’d kill a few of them.
Howard brings his new show ‘Scholar, Smuggler, Prisoner, Scribe’ to UCC Boole 4 Lecture Hall on Thursday 7th February. For further details please see UCC Drug Awareness and Reform’s facebook page or follow our QR Code to the event page.
Howard’s Favourites Film: Mean Streets, the first Martin Scorsese film. TV show: Any rugby match. Album: Blonde on Blonde, by Bob Dylan. Artist: Probably Elvis. Rhys Ifans as Howard in Mr. Nice
Images: Random House, Contender Entertainment