“Mr Nice”: Britain’s most charming king of cannabis
When it comes to rogues and rascals, few have been admired quite like Howard Marks who died this week in the UK.
“Mr Nice”, as he titled his autobiography, was also known as “Mr Big” in international drug enforcement circles. He had more than 40 aliases, including “Mr Donald Nice” which he bought from a convicted murderer, as well as over 30 bogus companies in a long, tumultuous and largely successful career as an international cannabis smuggler and later “dope folk hero”.
He was a best-selling author, had a film made of his life, and in his twilight years travelled the width and breadth of the UK with his one-man theatre show, “Howard Marks - An Audience With Mr. Nice”
Marks, born in Wales, discovered drugs while studying Physics and Philosophy at Oxford University. Cannabis became his science and passion. Within a few years this très-British, fast–thinking and fast-talking entrepreneur was one of the biggest movers of cannabis on the planet, controlling weekly shipments as large as 30 tonnes, estimated to be about 10% of the world hashish trade.
He amassed huge amounts of money, much of which, he kept in Switzerland.
“Money laundering and money transfer was much easier in those days than now. You could literally fly into Switzerland or Hong Kong, which is what I did mostly, with a suitcase full of money. They'd say "what's in the case?", I'd say "money", then they'd have a quick look, close the case and ask you to proceed.”
Marks wrote extensively about his obsession with cannabis and the shadowy players attracted to its colossal ROI; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Mafia.
In his book he wrote:"A Philippine-brothel-owning member of the House of Lords Anthony Moynihan was staying at the house of a Spanish Chief Inspector of Police Rafael Llofriu. The Lord was being watched by an American CIA operative who was staying at the house of an English convicted sex offender Jim Hobbs. The CIA operative was sharing accommodation with an IRA terrorist James McCann. The IRA terrorist was discussing a Moroccan hashish deal with a Georgian pilot of Colombia's Medellín Cartel. Organising these scenarios was an ex-MI6 agent Howard Marks (the author), currently supervising the sale of 30 tonnes of Thai weed in Canada and at whose house could be found Pakistan's major supplier of hashish Salim Malik. Attempting to understand the scenarios was a solitary DEA agent. The stage was set for something."
"Between 1975 and 1978, twenty-four loads totalling 55,000 pounds (24 tonnes) of marijuana and hashish had been successfully imported through John F. Kennedy Airport, New York. They had involved the Mafia, the Yakuza, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Thai army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Pakistani Armed Forces, Nepalese monks, and other individuals from all walks of life. The total profit made by all concerned was $48 million. They'd had a good run."
In 1980, Marks was arrested by customs officers in the UK for his part in importing £15 million of cannabis.
However the mercurial Marks managed to convince the jury, with the help of a mysterious Latin-American witness, that he was assisting Mexico and MI6 in “anti-terrorism work”. The drug smuggling was just a cover, he claimed.
He was acquitted, partly because of his charm in the witness box. One juror was seen doodling hearts on a piece of paper while Marks gave evidence. He pleaded guilty to an earlier charge, was given a three-year sentence and released soon afterwards because of time already served.
Marks was again arrested in Spain in 1988 by the US Drug Enforcement Agency and extradited to Florida. He received a 25 year sentence in the US but he was released in 1995, having served seven years.
He said of his career: "Smuggling cannabis was a wonderful way of living - perpetual culture shock, absurd amounts of money, and the comforting knowledge of getting so many people stoned."
“Yes, crime pays, for sure. Crime generally pays very well, but if I was advising someone on whether or not to follow my criminal path I would suggest he throws a brick into the nearest police station, gets arrested and sees what that is like before going any further."