Welsh draggin'

 

He’s extremely chilled, extremely thoughtful, and extremely liberal. What did you expect? Famous dopehead and drug smuggler Howard Marks tells DONALD CLARKEthat he wouldn’t change a thing – not even getting caught – as the film of his life is released

A REASONABLE fellow could be forgiven for having issues with the idea of Howard Marks. Now 65, the cult hero was, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, an enormously successful cannabis smuggler. Following his release from prison in 1995, he wrote a lively biography called Mr Nice and – lauded for his engaging one-man shows – found himself installed as every red-eyed student’s informal deity. Marks rules, man.

Harumph! The temptation to file him alongside Fat Freddy’s Cat, The Grateful Dead,bad reggae and midnight Wibbly Wobbly Wonders is close to overpowering. There is (for those still clear of head) nothing so tedious as stoner culture.

And yet. Utilising charm, wit, intelligence and self-awareness, Marks easily biffs aside such preconceptions and justifies his status as a Welsh national treasure. He’s far too charismatic to dismiss.

“I suppose I am quite famous now,” he laughs. “Maybe I am a B-list celebrity. I don’t know. Is it for me to say?”

Marks is in Dublin to promote Bernard Rose’s unexpectedly imaginative film version of Mr Nice. Starring Rhys Ifans as the great man, the picture tells the odd, odd story of a working-class boy who got to Oxford and then took a bizarre turn into benign criminality. Seeing the first cut must have been a strange experience for Marks.

“It is very good, I think,” he says. “Actually, it took me a while to forget that it was me. There were so many sad things as well as the happy things. But after a while, I did forget. Now, when I watch it I feel sorry for this poor guy on screen. Ha ha ha!”

Though he is now completely grey and his face is massed with creases and crushed pores, Marks still looks very much like a product of the 1960s. His hair (a few periods in disguise aside) always seems to have been the same length as Mick Jagger’s during the Exile on Main Streetperiod. His manner is permanently chilled out.

What would have become of the old blighter if he hadn’t moved into the (ahem) import and export business? “Ah well, I suppose I would have become a teacher,” he says. “My girlfriend’s a teacher now. I taught a bit when I was in prison. I always believe that you don’t learn any subject properly until you have to teach it. Hmm. I suppose I’d have become a university don or something.”

The film reminds us how academically proficient the young Marks was. He wasn’t just any student. He studied natural sciences at the hugely prestigious Balliol College, Oxford, before taking further diplomas at the University of Sussex and (back again) dusty old Balliol. He must have been at that college with the likes of Christopher Hitchens.

“Oh, yes, I knew Chris,” he says. “He was a bit younger than me. Of course, he was very left-wing then, and that crowd were all a bit puritanical about dope smoking. That didn’t stop them drinking, though.”

The film presents Marks’s first encounter with a cannabis joint as a moment of secular epiphany. The implication is that all life changed for him at that moment. He is reluctant to get into any claptrap about “mind expansion”, but does confirm that he was never quite the same again.

“I was always into music, you see,” he muses. “To then have that tool to give you greater insight into music really was something amazing. That was the main thing at first.”

Fair enough. More than a few chaps have, from their first association, remained attached to hemp side products. Almost none, however, turn into hugely successful drug smugglers. You can watch the film. You can read the book. You can listen to the live appearances. But you will never quite understand how a budding nuclear scientist ended up driving saloon cars full of hashish across mainland Europe. It all began when he helped an associate with one, reasonably modest international delivery. When did Marks realise he was doing this for a living?

“Oh, now that’s a very good question,” Marks says. He fingers the (as far as I am aware) unadulterated tobacco in his pouch and makes pondering noises.

“Somewhere in between the age of 20 and 25, I think. I can’t say exactly when, but, by the time I was 25, I had realised that this was my life.”

In recent years, Marks has stood for parliament on a platform of legalising cannabis. The film makes a few whispered arguments for changing the current legislation, but he freely admits that his move into drug dealing was not a political act. It was driven by money and a personal enthusiasm for his own product.

His status as a counterculture hero has, nonetheless, been bolstered by his frequent, firm (and, to be fair, largely undisputed) claims that he never dealt in hard drugs and he was never involved in violence.

He must be aware, however, that the moment you become caught up in the drugs trade you are, at some remove, associated with thugs and murderers. The business is not run by the Red Cross.

“It was different when I started,” he says. “That happy thing was still around then. But, yeah, I did occasionally meet people in the mafia or whatever. That was unavoidable. But, you know, every business is tied up with violence in some way. Remember they had those ice-cream wars in Scotland. There’s no getting away from it.”

In his passage through the 1970s, Marks rubbed up against an extraordinary array of oddballs, psychopaths, hoods and spooks. He joined forces with a renegade Irish republican and, when friends from college found out, found himself being recruited by MI6. That connection helped him wriggle out of an early conviction, but there was no escape when, in 1988, he was picked up by the US Drug Enforcement Agency. He was sentenced to 25 years, but, after behaving himself and doing good work in educating prisoners, was released on parole after seven grim years.

That’s a long time for such a habitual toker to be without his blow. “Well, it was available, of course. To be honest, those in control found the prisoners easier to handle when they were on it. But it wasn’t worth it. If they tested your urine and you showed positive, that was it. There was no chance of parole.”

Marks discusses every one of his adventures in the same lackadaisical, come-what-may manner. But the time in prison must have been extremely traumatic. He sighs and snorts.

“It was very violent at times. I saw a few people get murdered. One guy got garrotted with a guitar string. They didn’t allow guitars in after that. Ha ha! But it helped that I was teaching and helping them with their appeals. I became a pretty good jailhouse lawyer.”

Every turn in Marks’s life causes the sensible observer to lower his or her jaw in disbelief. His ascent, over the past decade, to become an idol of mischievous amiability is almost as unlikely as the deranged adventures that established his notoriety. Mr Nice (the book) is now a key text for students of the underground and connoisseurs of boys’ own adventure. He must, when speaking to his young fans, sometimes ponder how attitudes have changed since he was at Oxford.

“Oh, I think the students are much cleverer now,” he says. “But there are similarities. Back then we were concerned about Vietnam. We supported the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. We cared about racism, homophobia and the illegality of drugs. The funny thing is that, since then, all those things have been addressed – except drugs.”

It is surely unlikely that the legal status of cannabis will change any time soon. There are no votes in it. Just look at the recent hoopla surrounding the banning of legal highs in Ireland. A few tabloid stories triggered the virtual annihilation of all head shops – however responsibly run – and the government received nothing but plaudits from the mainstream media. There is no easier way of winning middle-ground support than being “tough on drugs”. When Marks stood for parliament, he received less than 1 per cent of the vote.

“I am aware of what happened in Ireland with the head shops,” he says. “But I have learned not to lecture people in other countries about their laws. I think, though, if there actually were a referendum in the UK on legalising cannabis it might now be quite close. Things are changing.”

Few modern lives have been quite so remarkable as Howard Marks’s. He has had his catastrophes – prison robbed him of seeing his children grow up; he eventually split up with his wife, Judy – but he, nonetheless, seems to have developed an extraordinary capacity to repel danger and profit from misfortune.

The Ticket regrets slipping into sentimental banality, but, obvious question as it is, one has to ask Howard Marks if he harbours any regrets. “Yes, I do get asked that a lot,” he acknowledges. “And I always say no. See, if you change one thing in a life it changes all other things. Then I might not end where I am today. And I’m quite happy with how things are.”

Howard Marks tours Ireland with his spoken-word show from November 14 (details at howardmarks.name/liveshows)

Tokin' efforts What's the best stoner movie?

We shouldn’t be surprised that dope movies are often so witless. After all, punters with enough THC in their veins will laugh uproariously at a lamppost. There is, thus, no reason for the useless Dude, Where’s My Car?(2000) and Cheech and Chong’s strained Up in Smoke(1978) to be any less terrible than they are.

There are great dope scenes in classics such as Dazed and Confused(1993), Withnail and I(1987) and The Big Lebowski(1998). But these are crossover enterprises. To name one of those pictures as the definitive stoner movie would be akin to identifying Slumdog Millionaireas the definitive Bollywood movie.

Similarly, Reefer Madness(1936), that famous slab of hysterical anti-drug propaganda, comes at the culture from somewhat too oblique an angle.

The emblematic stoner film should be a sincere enterprise entirely focused on drugged-up people that somehow manages to generate laughs among folk who wouldn’t know a bong from a bomb. Stand up (if you can), Harold Kumar Get the Munchies(2004). Featuring hilariously aghast performances from Kal Penn and John Cho – plus a superb extended cameo from Neil Patrick Harris – the picture is hysterical from skin-up to roach stubbing. The sequel, Harold Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay(2008), is pretty funny as well.