The Man and the Legend: An Appreciation of Howard Marks
Dennis Howard Marks, cannabis smuggler extraordinaire, died from cancer in 2016 at the age of 70. Born in 1945, he belonged to that generation who came of age as the alternative society and psychedelic drug culture really began to flower in the second half of the 1960s, and like so many who are now venerated icons he rode that wave for all it was worth. He looked like a member of a hard rock band and he brought pop star glamour and celebrity sheen to the world of drug crime like no other figure. In this he was harking back to earlier, more romantic ages, taking the form of a 20th century Robin Hood, Dick Turpin or Captain Kidd—in fact in Señor Nice he claims family connections to the Welsh buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan. Howard also acted in several films, and had he been given the chance, he would have fitted perfectly into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, alongside Johnny Depp and Keith Richards.
Howard’s Facebook pages are crammed with fan’s proud selfies taken alongside the man, and there and elsewhere he is continually referred to as a ‘legend’. The creation of the Legend that surrounds him was very much his own doing, and intriguingly he cultivated fame as a dope smuggler even though he knew he was playing a Faustian game—receiving publicity and avoiding law enforcement do not go hand in hand! He had a very good run and a number of close shaves with the law until his eventual downfall in 1988, leading to a sentence of 25 years at Terre Haute prison in Indiana, though he was released in 1995.
Howard hailed from the small Welsh mining village of Kenfig Hill, and early on he showed outstanding precocity, becoming the only boy from the local grammar school to win a scholarship to Oxford University—Balliol College, in fact, one of the most intellectually serious. The journalist Lynn Barber was an undergraduate contemporary of his, and a one-time girlfriend. She describes how he dressed as a teddy boy and was known affectionately as ‘our Welsh oik’ amongst the posh, tweed-jacket crowd. Despite a life of sex and drugs, and not much work, he still managed to graduate with a 2:1 in physics.
After Oxford, Howard got started in smuggling when he met Mayfair-based Mohammed Durrani, a relative of the former King of Afghanistan, who was well connected in diplomatic circles. Durrani would arrange for cannabis by the ton-load to be secreted within the effects of Pakistani diplomats travelling throughout Europe, benefiting from diplomatic immunity in the event of any trouble. Howard and his associates got a 20% cut for distribution, and developed expensive tastes as they became pillars of the swinging London scene. Diversifying, Howard set up his own operation, smuggling out of Kabul and Karachi to Shannon Airport, with the help of IRA man Jim McCann, and then ferrying the cargo to England. He made a personal profit of around £50,000 per ton, but his profligacy was matching his income—a pattern that persisted throughout his life.
At that time cannabis was three times as expensive in America than Europe, and Howard hit upon a scam to ship it to the States within the equipment of touring rock bands, which received minimal customs attention. He formed contacts with The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and eventually the Yakusa and the Mafia, and his empire grew further. Another ingeniously simple scam involved a luggage switch at Geneva Airport, arising out of Howard’s observation that baggage from internal Swiss flights and overseas ones mixed together on the same carousel—and customs didn’t search internal passengers. A colleague flew from Karachi with a case full of dope, whilst Howard flew from Zurich with an innocent case; they swapped at the carousel and when the colleague was inevitably searched by customs he was clean.
Clearly Howard had a tremendous talent for this new developing commercial sphere—as the counterculture spread and transformed society, so the demand for its head-changing ancillary products grew and grew. He became a kind of alternative super-entrepreneur, a Richard Branson figure, but unlike Branson he was positioned on the wrong side of the law, which opened up other surprising avenues. A watershed moment occurred when Howard was approached by an old Oxford acquaintance, Hamilton McMillan, who admitted he was now an MI6 spy and wanted to recruit Howard into the service, a proposition he found irresistibly appealing. Of course MI6 were interested in Howard’s IRA connections, and shortly he found his loyalties perilously divided. Things were getting complicated, and they came to a head when the rock band equipment scam went wrong; the DEA discovered some dope inside a speaker and people began to get busted far and wide.
Howard was arrested and eventually bailed awaiting trial for his part in the scam, alongside several co-defendants. Fearing a hefty sentence, he decided to skip bail and hole up in an Isle of Dogs flat, and the trial started without him. The following day he woke up to find himself famous—the Legend of Howard Marks had broken big time. The Daily Mirror had somehow gotten hold of the story and they ran a series of front-page pieces speculating about Howard’s whereabouts and his connections to MI6, the IRA and the Mafia. Various wild theories abounded—that he’d been either executed by the IRA or kidnapped by the Mafia to prevent him from testifying, or he’d staged his own kidnapping. Howard’s disappearance was discussed in Parliament, and someone confessed to murdering him and burying the body under a bridge near Bristol. It was the stuff of tabloid heaven, and from that point onwards Howard was anointed as a new kind of celebrity for a new era—a cloak-and-dagger dope smuggler with an Oxford degree.
Clearly Howard loved the life he was leading, and was accepting of the extreme volatility of his fortunes—huge risk, compensated by enormous reward. One might say it was a form of thrill-seeking addiction. He spoke of the ‘asexual orgasm’ of successfully getting some cargo through customs and knowing he was home free. Also he didn’t feel he was doing anything wrong, but merely supplying the world with ‘beneficial herbs’; it is to his credit that he always eschewed smuggling hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, even when under pressure from criminal associates. Howard believed in the efficacy of cannabis and was a life-long campaigner for legalisation, once standing for parliament on that platform. [This was in Norwich South, in 1997; I know this because I live there, and was proud to put my X next to ‘Howard Marks’ on the ballot paper! Ed.]
After his brush with the law and the media in the mid-1970s, Howard continued to consolidate his status as a major player. He maintained networks in Pakistan, Nepal and Thailand and used them to export to the USA in vast quantities, using Mafia connections at JFK Airport. In the three years to 1978, Howard estimated that twenty-five tons of dope had been moved through the airport, making an organisation-wide profit of 48 million dollars. In this period he also acquired his most famous alias, ‘Mr Nice’, who was made a director of many overseas companies, complete with banking facilities, giving Howard a plausible front for worldwide travel and the movement of large sums of money.
Another scam involved importing Colombian grass to Britain, flooding the market, but it went wrong when suspicious Florida mob guys were followed by Customs officers to the hiding place of the stash in Scotland. Howard was busted again and remanded in custody awaiting trial. In prison he found himself a revered figure, consulted by many regular criminals about dope smuggling, which, they were quickly realising, was a much more lucrative activity than, for example, robbery. At his trial he concocted an ingenious defence, stating that his dope-smuggling activities were a front for his work as an MI6 agent, and in collaboration with the Mexican Secret Service he was working to entrap IRA man Jim McCann. It was a pretty fantastical story, but Howard charmed the jury and was found guilty of only lesser charges, and sentenced to time served on remand—artful confabulation of his colourful history had served him well.
Howard attempted to go straight, concentrating on his legitimate businesses, and in this period he was approached by author David Leigh with the proposal that he write Howard’s biography. Howard spent his share of the advance on a Mercedes, and the resulting book was called High Time. He had been careful about what to include and what to hide, but nonetheless the inevitable self-incriminatory dimension of the book would come back to haunt him later, after he’d returned to the drugs trade.
Boredom soon caught up with Howard, and he picked up with his old contacts and started to arrange scams again—on a larger scale than ever before. He teamed up with big-time Pakistani exporter Salim Malik, and they shipped 10 and 20 ton loads to the USA, all the time avoiding DEA and CIA surveillance. With Malik, Howard actually visited the mountainous Afghan border region and saw his hashish being produced; he was disguised as a local, as foreigners are forbidden entry. But the forces of US law enforcement were heavily on his trail, and Howard’s nemesis, DEA Agent Craig Lovato, had him and wife Judy arrested at their home in Spain, from where they were eventually extradited to the US and charged (alongside Howard’s whole crew), with racketeering under RICO laws. At last the game was truly up.
After Howard’s arrest in Spain, the media circus went into overdrive and his fame was boosted to new levels—ironically, as his fortunes fell to their lowest. Howard’s Legend was embroidered by the tabloids in order to elevate him to the status of a James Bond super-villain, running ‘the biggest marijuana operation the world has ever seen’, complete with a fleet of freighters, caches of machine guns, homes and hideaways all over the world and connections to top gangsters, secret services and terrorist organisations. Howard was now dubbed ‘the Marco Polo of drug trafficking’ and placed alongside Jorge Ochoa of the Medellín Cartel and Mafia boss ‘Don Tanino’ Badalamenti—respectively the world’s biggest cocaine and heroin smugglers—as their equal in the field of cannabis smuggling. Awaiting trial in the US, Howard met Cuban smugglers whose hauls far outweighed his in terms of quantity; but he was the exotic international figure the authorities wanted to conflate into cannabis’s ‘Mr Big’, and Howard admitted that part of him loved the attention.
Whilst Howard underwent his seven years in prison, another book about him appeared—Hunting Marco Polo, centring on the long, convoluted cat-and-mouse game between Howard and Lovato, and it came out that Lovato had used the earlier book High Time both as a source of information and a tool to get other law-enforcement agencies to join his quest against Howard—a Legend is a double-edged sword. Released from prison, his millions sequestered by the DEA alongside legitimate earnings, Howard found himself broke again. He received £10,000 from the News of the World for his story and that was followed by an offer from a publisher for his autobiography, complete with a sizable advance. Now in his fifties, Howard was about to embark on a new career—as a writer.
Mr Nice, Howard’s story in his own words, became the single biggest pillar of his Legend, taking all the material so far and turning it into a racy, page-turning, but highly intelligent true-crime blockbuster that became a bestseller. Writing it wasn’t easy at first, for Howard obviously hadn’t kept diaries, and he’d been completely stoned throughout his smuggling life, so he had difficulty piecing together the timeline of his multifarious adventures. The two previous books were a help, but what really made all the difference were the depositions used against him in his trial—surveillance reports, taped phone call recordings and transcripts of debriefings—which together accurately mapped the action of his entire smuggling career. Ironically US law enforcement became a literary partner, and enabled Howard to accurately reconstruct his past.
As a successful author, Howard did book readings and tours, but he found these somewhat sterile affairs, usually held in the daytime with everyone sober. Following the lead of writers such as Irvine Welsh, Howard started to read in pubs and clubs, and progressively he developed a whole act centred around performing amusing passages from his book and giving freeform speeches about cannabis and the campaign for legalisation, and soon he became an established stand-up, touring extensively. All the while, Howard smoked whilst performing, and his audiences did the same, so the events became stoner love-ins. Members of the audience came backstage and plied Howard with the new hydroponic skunk, and he was asked to judge growing competitions, guest as a DJ and speak on behalf of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance. He also started his own seed bank. By the new millennium he had an established career as everyone’s favourite Public Pothead.
Howard also wrote pieces for the Observer, the Guardian, GQ and Loaded magazines, and expanding this work he came to compile and edit the anthology The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories—a potpourri of stoner and psychedelic literature through the ages, orchestrated with his distinctive style. Howard blended his own writings with those of classic authors such as Baudelaire, Crowley and Coleridge, together with Burroughs, Thompson, the Shulgins and many more; and also included previously unpublished accounts from new drug writers. The result is an eclectic, fun book that’s easier to dip into than read in linear fashion—and by virtue of Howard’s high profile, it doubtless introduced many to the fantastic world of trip literature.
In need of a new project to structure his writing, Howard began to explore his family history, tracing connections to illustrious American outlaws and Caribbean pirates—in particular Sir Henry Morgan, who hailed from Howard’s home area in Wales. This gave him a raison d’être for trips to Jamaica, Panama and elsewhere, all in the name of ‘research’. Out of it came a second memoir, Señor Nice, billed as a sequel to Mr Nice and containing many ‘stoner moments’, but lacking the excitement of actual smuggling. A loose assemblage of travel writing, historical essays, reminiscences and accounts of endless partying, Señor Nice fundamentally lacks a core, and many fans expressed disappointment that it fell well short of Mr Nice, though that was pretty much inevitable. It displays the classic ‘second memoir problem’: when you put all the juicy stuff into the first one and achieve a reputation, how can you possibly keep it up?
One answer, so it seems, lay in a form of lateral integration, with Howard’s associates retelling his story from their perspectives. This direction was taken by his wife Judy, who penned Mr Nice & Mrs Marks, which contained the tag line: ‘We were like Bonnie and Clyde’. Much younger than Howard, Judy was a naïve teenager when they first met, and he was already an established ‘Mr Big’. Her memoir tells of how she became a bit of a ‘wild child’ and was easily seduced by Howard and his glamorous life, though they fell in love, eventually married and had three children. The story pretty much tracks that of Mr Nice, though the detail differs, and Judy’s account makes it clearer how Howard managed to get through colossal sums of money and was constantly in need of more. Everything was always the best—the hotels were five star, the flights first class and the champagne Dom Pérignon. Once when staying over in Florida, they rented a luxury apartment and had it furnished from top to bottom in opulent style, and bought a Cadillac—all in one day.
On that same trip, they met up with Mafia guys and Judy had some heavy joints with the other mob wives, and became unable to stand up or even speak. Everyone thought it was funny—except Howard. When they were alone, he launched a tirade against her, accusing her of embarrassing him and making him lose face. He said, ‘I’m meant to be the biggest smuggler in England and my girlfriend can’t take a few joints. How will they take me seriously?’ Howard was also puritanical over Judy’s use of cocaine, though he’s on record as being partial to a few lines himself, alongside the dope and psychedelics. The couple broke up acrimoniously in the early 2000s, each citing the other’s infidelities as the principal cause.
After getting busted alongside Howard, Phil Sparrowhawk told his story in Grass (Mainstream Sport). Phil was Howard’s main man in Thailand, responsible for exporting the wonderful Thai sticks many of us enjoyed in the 1970s and ’80s, and becoming a Mr Big in his own right before Craig Lovato caught up with him. Similarly, Patrick Lane, Judy’s brother, was inducted into Howard’s world and became his chief financier and money launderer, as well being involved in actual smuggling. At Howard’s trial, he intended to give evidence against Howard as part of a deal, but didn’t need to when Howard eventually pleaded guilty—a prickly issue in Mr Nice. Patrick wrote up his account in Recollections of a Racketeer, another popular drug-crime memoir.
As for Howard himself, after Señor Nice he planned another anthology along the lines of Dope Stories, only this time taking ‘tripping’ as the overall theme. This was how I came to contact him, in 2008, responding to a request for submissions, as indeed did Rob Dickins. I sent him two extended passages and he liked them, putting them through to the final round, but unfortunately due to the recession Random House put the project on the back burner and it never saw the light of day. At his request, I sent Howard an advance copy of my memoir The Mad Artist, but I’ve no idea if he ever read it. He did however provide an excellent blurb quote for Leaf Fielding’s memoir To Live Outside the Law, published a year later.
In 2010 the long-awaited movie version of Mr Nice appeared, directed by Bernard Rose and staring Rhys Ifans, Howard’s preferred choice, who does a spot-on imitation of the man in a succession of dark wigs. It starts with the classic ’60s psychedelic ‘origin story’—a monochrome childhood bursts into glorious colour after that first toke of dope and sugar cube of LSD—and then gets down to the smuggling business. But whilst the book provides highly intricate insights into the hermetic world of smuggling, the film is more superficial in that regard, telescoping events and playing many of the scenes for laughs, using Rhys Ifans’ comic propensities, as displayed in films like Notting Hill. Howard is portrayed as a genial comedy-caper villain and his story is told on fast-forward, without the grittiness or realism of a noir/crime drama that Scorsese or Coppola might have directed. In a way the Legend was simplified and homogenised for mass public consumption.
More recently Howard ventured into gritty crime fiction himself, writing two police procedurals centred around a Welsh female detective, but they weren’t very successful with his fans. Then in 2014 he was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer and set about writing his final book, a third memoir which he entitled: Mr Smiley: My Last Pill and Testament. Howard was now on different kinds of drugs—the anti-cancer ones, associated with chemotherapy. Nonetheless, in this period he underwent a typical Marksian binge, taking a whole host of cancer remedies all at once, including three weeks’ supply of cannabis oil. He had a psychotic episode, apparently thought he was a chicken, attacked a group of policemen, was sectioned and spent two weeks in an asylum. One might think that Mr Smiley would deal, at least in part, with this endgame, a diary of cancer suffering such as any number of people might write. But no, Howard’s Last Pill and Testament skirts lightly around that and returns to the classic territory of drugs and smuggling, but not the drugs and smuggling we usually associate with him. Only he could have written this book.
As well as the cannabis use he was famous for, Howard was a lifelong aficionado of the major psychedelics, though he didn’t blow that trumpet as hard. In Mr Nice he describes his early acid experiences, some wondrous, others horrific, and of course he read the literature—Huxley, Leary and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He also enjoyed magic mushrooms, and in Señor Nice he describes a humdinger of a toad-derived DMT trip in Patagonia. As the title suggests, Mr Smiley fills a gap in the substance panoply and tells us all about Howard’s involvement with MDMA, starting with a description of him smuggling a package through Palma airport, avoiding the custom’s sniffer dogs of course, and then turning on with his own adult daughters at an all-night rave in the nearby Llucmajor mountains.
This was in 1996, after Howard had left prison and supposedly ‘gone straight’. But, as he says, it was futile to deny his true nature and the smuggler’s buzz was deep in his being ‘like a retrovirus ready to be awoken’. Having spent seven years inside, Howard found his world radically changed, with the ecstasy clubbing scene now huge, and demand for quality Afghan hash and Thai grass—his former specialities—diminished due to the rise of homegrown weed and potent skunk. Now touring and promoting Mr Nice, Howard entered the new scene, and Mr Smiley contains some superb descriptions of ecstasy’s effects on him—a fifty-something neophyte rediscovering the starry-eyed transcendentalism of youth. But this was Howard Marks, and he didn’t just stop at imbibing ecstasy, he got into the game of smuggling and distribution—and more besides.
Having naturally become cautious of self-incrimination, Howard had presented himself as being out of the smuggling sphere, but with a cancer death sentence hanging over him at the time of writing, and using false names for the other players in the scams, he had nothing to lose, and Mr Smiley is structured as a ‘now it can be told’ true-crime tale—a throwback to the heady days of Mr Nice. And unlike Señor Nice, it has a proper core, a central element driving the story; and this is a classic ‘MacGuffin’—buried treasure or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Gradually Mr Smiley develops into nothing less than The Maltese Falcon of MDMA.
Like a hardboiled detective, Howard follows up rumours about a legendary stash of twenty million pills of the purest product, manufactured by an old-time chemist who died mysteriously of a fall in southern Spain. As he tracks down the consignment and gets involved in scams himself, various shady ecstasy barons, gangsters, money launderers and burnt-out doper outlaws come out of the woodwork, and sinister things happen to Howard, such as finding a dead dog hanging outside his chalet. The descriptions of the seedy Spanish ‘costa del crime’ scene are worthy of Raymond Chandler, says Lynn Barber, and the whole scenario does feel undeniably ‘fictional’. There are some marvellous and surreal moments, such a surreptitious search of a Tate Gallery warehouse to which Howard gains entrance shrouded in bubble wrap, disguised as an art exhibit. Overall it is a great read, a real page turner.
One wonders how much of it is true, and how much is confabulation—and Howard, of course, is known as a master of that art. Cannily he knew that with so much time having passed, and the protagonists largely dead, it is pretty much unfalsifiable. And who would want to go down that road anyway? Much better to simply savour and appreciate this ‘Last Pill and Testament’, a pirate captain’s final tall tale, beautifully told. Farewell Howard, you are much missed.
This article first appeared in Issue XXI of the Psychedelic Press journal.
Barber, Lynn. ‘Mr Smiley and me’. The Sunday Times, 20th September 2015.
Eddy, Paul and Sara Walden. Hunting Marco Polo. New York: Bantam, 1991.
King, Martin, Martin Knight and Phil Sparrowhawk. Grass (Mainstream Sport). Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2003.
Lane, Patrick. Recollections of a Racketeer. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2010.
Leigh, David. High Time. London: Heinemann, 1984.
Marks, Howard. Mr Nice. London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1996.
Marks, Howard. The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories. London: Vintage, 2001.
Marks, Howard. Señor Nice. London: Harvill Secker, 2006.
Marks, Howard. Mr Smiley: My Last Pill and Testament. London: Macmillan, 2015.
Marks, Judy. Mr Nice & Mrs Marks. London: Ebury Press, 2006.