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.