Interview with a drug dealer

Howard Marks isn’t your standard drug baron. The title invites notions of powerful villains who use violence as a means to invoke fear in the general public, but as Howard puts out his cigarette, beams a warm smile, and sits down to start our interview, I can’t help but feeling that he is simply an incredibly nice man. It seems difficult to picture this softly spoken Welshman as having once controlled around 10 per cent of the world’s hashish trade and having connections with the likes of the IRA, MI6, the CIA, and the Mafia.

After being sentenced to 25 years at one of America’s toughest penitentiaries but serving only seven, he was commissioned to write a book about his life. Published in 1996, Mr. Nice went on to become a bestseller worldwide. This week a film adaptation directed by Bernard Rose and starring Rhys Ifans is coming to cinemas across the country. With the release of the film, the surreality of the whole experience seems evident, “obviously it’s very strange but I’ve had a long time to get used to it as it has taken a long time to be made or even start to be made. However, there’s nothing like seeing it for the first time, I just felt like I was on a rollercoaster ride. I’ve seen it six fucking times; it’s almost like a narcissistic complex.”

The choice of Rhys Ifans as the title character seems never to have been an issue, the possibility of an alternative never crossing Howard’s mind. “I’ve known Rhys for 14 years, we’re mates so he didn’t have to study me or get into any method acting. He just had to put a fucking wig on.” Although it must be difficult seeing your life condensed into a mere two hours, the final product appears to do justice to the original events.“It’s an accurate representation of the landmarks in my journey. The bits that mattered to me are in the film but obviously so much has been left out, they had to take some fictional shortcuts sometimes to get across the desires. So in terms of factual accuracy it’s not faithful to the book or to reality but the film probably gets across the reality better than my book did.”

Reading Howard’s book there is a definite sense of an endearing attitude he had to the distribution of drugs. Despite doing what was ultimately illegal, there was no sense that he saw it as anything but a profitable business of a product he was incredibly fond of. “I was catering for a demand. It was mainly about making money, I’m never going to pretend it wasn’t, but it was also about the value of hashish. This might not apply to other smugglers but there appeared to be enough people in the world that appreciated good dope.”

The detrimental effect associated with such a hazardous career, despite its lucrative allure, seems remarkably ostensible. “Particularly when I was in prison you start thinking, I’ve completely fucked up my life, there’s my kids suffering. But now I’m alright and thank God they’re alright.” Despite the obvious potentiality of resentment, the relationship between Howard and his children is one that appears to be strong. “I get on with my kids wonderfully well. Of course there are some psychological scars from that time but they don’t let me regret it because they are ok now.”

Howard first started smoking cannabis when he was at Oxford University, and it is definitely apparent that many students given this new found freedom after leaving home choose to experiment. “It’s changed a lot. When I smoked dope, it was basically a privilege accorded out to middle-class academics; there wasn’t the street scene or anything that there is now. Why so many people smoke now can only be a testament to the value of dope.” The whole reasoning behind his continued smoking to the present day seems entirely simple. “When I first smoked it I enjoyed it so much that I think it was an entirely rational reaction to smoke another joint. I’ve had a lot of pleasure every joint since then.”

Marks is a fanatic advocator for the legalisation of cannabis standing for election to UK parliament on the issue in 1997. “I can’t see how it would be anything other than safer if it was legalised and controlled. It would shed the criminal mantle required for people to get it. They wouldn’t get put in prison, be socially stigmatised or have any difficulty getting employment. I just think that it would be better for society and safer from a health point of view as you know where it is coming from and the percentage of THC content. I think it’s important that people should be able to get caned without being punished.” In light of this, his opinion on the recent introduction of herbal highs as a substitute for the real deal is intriguing. “It’s a consequence of this prohibition where people find chemical dodges. But there’s no need because it grows naturally. It’s a complete waste of time.”

Ending on who he has always dreamed of sharing a joint with, his cheeky audacity never ceases to amaze. “Buddha…and Jesus. All those crazy lunatics. I think about them a lot and I think I communicate with them when I’m very stoned.” One of the most powerful men in Britain, and yet he still has a sense of humour.

Taken from The Student, published Tue Oct 12th 2010.

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