Howard Marks
talks to
Free Radical Sounds

photograph of Howard Marks
On April 9th 1995 Howard Marks was released from Terre Haute, America's toughest penitentiary, after serving seven years of a twenty five year sentence for racketeering. Since being released Howard has kept himself busy in a variety of ways. He's written his best-selling autobiography Mr. Nice [currently in it's seventh reprint]. He's remixed the Super Furry Animal's Man Doesn't Give A Fuck single, a song written about him. Then recently Howard stood in the UK general election on behalf of the Legalise Cannabis Party [and did very nicely thank you].

A short time ago I met with Howard to discuss the finer points and get wrecked (of course).

B: Legalise or decriminalise?
H: Oh, very much on the "legalise" as far as cannabis is concerned, for sure. And probably as far as anything is concerned. I think I'd probably like to decriminalise almost everything. But for marijuana, and many drugs, I would like them to be legalised without any controls over what age people should be when they take them, or where it should be grown, or even where it should be sold. That's very idealistic, I know, but whatever is achieved in the area of decriminalisation of any kind, or legalisation of any kind, I would see as some sort of step towards that ideal.

B: Surely if it was legalised though, you're gonna get people like Philip Morris, Marlboro …
H: If you let the tobacco companies take over the business of what you consume then yes. You're likely to get Philip Morris and people like that. But why would the tobacco industry be at all interested in marijuana?

B: I've heard that they've got all the packaging already sorted.
H: No, that's all nonsense.

B: You think that's all nonsense?
H: Well I know it's all nonsense. Or at least it was, I mean, the rumours have been around for several decades. The archetypal one being that Philip Morris patented "Acapulco Gold" way back. I researched into this, and in fact you can't patent a name like "Acapulco Gold", because it's generic. You couldn't begin to use that as a patent under American law. Neither Philip Morris nor any other tobacco company have tried to patent a name in readiness for legalisation. The tobacco companies have never, ever, shown any interest in the dope business. And why the hell should they? BECAUSE MARIJUANA CAN BE SMOKED AS WELL? I don't see why it should be sold in tobacconists; it can be, but I don't see why it should be restricted. And I don't see any relation between marijuana and tobacco. It's a smoking mixture, and that's its only similarity with tobacco.

B: I would go against legalisation because I'm sure you're going to get multinational corporate companies coming in, taking over and trying to run things.
H: Only if marijuana is worth anything. And why on earth should a weed that can grow in your back garden be worth anything?

B: Right, so legalise, grow it everywhere, and take the profit margin out.
H: Yes, yes, it's there. It's on this planet for all of us to use. There is no need for anyone to make vast amounts of money out of it, unless he's particularly skilled at something like growing it, or getting it to you very quickly. Now, if a multinational company can come along and make better dope, grow better skunk, then they can charge whatever they want. Sure, fair enough. Meanwhile, we can carry on trying to make our own super-skunk. So there's no reason it should be attractive to the companies as long as you don't have decriminalisation. If you have decriminalisation, then you're going to have the multinationals jumping in because you won't be able to grow your own as they'll be age-limits and all kinds of other restrictions. So it's got to be legalised for it not to cost anybody anything. Then the multinational companies, and especially the tobacco companies, won't really be interested.

B: This idea of making it grow everywhere, surely we could do that anyway? We could hire aeroplanes and drop 5 million seeds, for example.
H: Well, we do this to some extent. We had balloons go up and drop seeds, we've had a "Sow The Seed" campaign where we've encouraged everyone to throw seeds everywhere, and grow it everywhere. We have this slogan, "Marijuana Not Motorways".

B: Tell me how it came about, you standing for parliament?
H: Somebody proposed it to me. I attended a cannabis conference in London. I spoke a bit in a "Question and Answer" thing because I'd just come out of prison, written a book, etc. etc.. They came on to me then, these people from the Legalise Cannabis Campaign. I'd heard of the organisation for a very long time. There'd been a strong pro-legalisation campaign going on in Norwich and they asked if I'd take the place of the person they'd put forward as the MP. Not that there was any rift between them, but that had always been their intention. For someone high profile such as me to go in there, because that would get more publicity. Just to use my notoriety to increase the awareness of it. I talked to them to make sure that there was consistency in our views, about legalisation and decriminalisation, we believed the same stuff and so I agreed to stand.

B: I was watching the news the other day and they had the House of Commons on there. My friend turned to me, and summed it up in two words: "Pie fight". Let's all pretend to be leaders.
H: Well, they've no experience of life you see. They've just led very silly lives on the whole, less and less as time goes on, but on the whole just very, very silly lives. Most of them haven't taken dope, they don't go out and do what people do, and they haven't for a very long time. It's just a kind of entirely unnecessary kind of garbage.

B{Then something extraordinary happens}
H:[Phone rings] Hello, hello hello? Oh yeah? 'Owyadoin'? Yah, yah, I was going to say hello until I recognised your voice. Now I recognise you. How are you doing? Yeah, yeah, alright, yes, well, I will have to see you midweek. Anyway right, so don't come down specially, I just will have to see you about then, alright? yeah, well, I'd like to see you Wednesday if possible, yeah. And I might have to see you shortly thereafter again, you know? But, everything is OK, yeah, everything is OK, there's all kinds of headaches and problems, but everything is OK. There's nothing new, erm, I won't even everything is OK. Rewind. Everything is OK, alright, yeah. Is the other one down 'ere? OK? Well I might just give him a just for socialising I mean now, OK, OK, alright then, yeah I 'ave, I will, bye now. I assume that was recorded, so if anyone works out it was obviously a fucking dope deal. [Laughs]
B: I didn't listen to the conversation actually.
H: It's alright, you can sample it if you want.

B: Yeah, right, what's your views on that? Do you believe sampling is theft?
H: Not in any sense whatsoever. No I don't believe it's theft because to me theft is taking some kind of tangible property which belongs to somebody else, whereas sampling is taking advantage of the creative output of an artist. OK, now the artist has two choices: either to create and let the world benefit from his creation, or keep it all to himself and jack off over it every time somebody else uses it. And I think it's rather sick to see the latter one happening.
B: Spot on. I couldn't agree more. Right, let's go back. History. "Mr Nice", the book. I'd like to talk about the introduction now - that goes into how you got the name Mr Nice. Could you talk about that?
H: Yeah, sure. The real Mr Nice is called Donald Nice and lives in Norwich (laughs) - it's true - or, did live in Norwich in the mid '70s, perhaps still does. We had some friends in common, and I was looking for a false passport, which means I was looking for a real person, about my age, who didn't need a passport; or, needed whatever I could give him more than he needed a passport. And this guy, Donald Nice, emerged as a suitable candidate. He'd just done twelve years for murder I think, wasn't interested in travelling, and needed money. I think I gave him about a grand for it, and a few hundred quid from time to time, to keep it going. To get me more documents to back it up, and so on. So, that was his name, and so that became my name. The short answer is therefore: I didn't choose it, it was given to me - sold to me!

B: Will you open a coffee shop if the law changes?
H: If the law changes, lots of people will open coffee shops.
B: But would you?
H: Not automatically. I mean, if a bunch of guys I liked wanted me to, or asked me to, or brought it up and I felt, yes, this'd be nice to get involved with, yeah. But I don't automatically think, "Yeah, let's get dope legalised so I can go and open a coffee shop."
B: So, no real urge to push coffee to the people?
H: No real urge to push anything.

B: So, you've retired have you?
H: No, I don't think I ever pushed dope. I felt it was sucked out of me. (Laughs) Well, the supply was much greater than the demand. So the idea of a pusher, I don't know.

B: You said that possibly the largest amount of dope you've ever seen was about 60 tonnes.
H: Well I think it's about 50 or 60 tonnes. At least 50 and probably 60, yeah.
B: Could you explain how big that actually is?
H: What, in terms of like, a building or something? I'm trying to think of something to compare it to.
B: A garage?
H: Yeah, but garages vary. I'm trying to think of a building which is always roughly the same size. And of course it depends whether you're talking about marijuana or hash. As to the size, if it was marijuana it'd be about 15 prison cells B: (Laughs) Yeah right, you don't go round the world measuring everything in prison cells do you Howard?
H: (Laughing) Well I was just trying to think of something that people could maybe relate to, you know. Something which is always roughly the same size. A garage varies too much. (Much laughter) A prison cell is pretty much the same size. Least, most of the ones I've been in have. All the fucking garages are different, right? (Laughing)
B: (Stifling laughter) You go round the world measuring things in prison cells!
H: (Still laughing) No, no, just large amounts of dope. (More laughter)
B: Ah yes, that's five prison cells' worth there. Fuck that's funny.
B: Do you think about the guys back in prison?
H: Oh yeah, every day of course.
B: Has anyone got out since you, that wasn't expecting to?
H: That wasn't expecting to get out? No.
B: When finishing the book, you say that lots of them aren't going to get out.
H: Well, lots of them just will not get out, unless there's a change in the law or they escape. They're gonna die there. They're buried alive, that's it, they're not going to get out. Unless the law changes, which it might, y'know?

B: So do you consider people there friends? You've got, like, close friends there?
H: Yes, a small number, but yes, some very close friends I made in prison, sure.
B: Are buried alive?
H: And they're buried alive. (Sounds sad)

B: So, does that kind of act like a ghost?
H: Well, it makes me feel guilty for not writing more often than I do. That's how it affects me directly.
B: It's a monkey on your shoulder.
H: Yeah, yeah.
B: Will you ever escape that? Has the DEA put this is there this kind of dark shadow on Howard Marks' shoulder?
H: Are the DEA following me, do you mean?
B: No, as in the ghost of the time you spent in there. Do you feel it will always live within you now?
H: Well I hope it never leaves me. I hope the feeling and the reality of it never leaves me.
B: Is that to prevent you from doing what you did again?
H: No.
B: Do you feel any guilt for what you did?
H: Any guilt![sounding surprised]
B: Do you feel that you took the wrong path? Would you do it all again exactly the same?
H: Oh, I'd leave out every single bad bit, of course. This is something which I am asked a lot, and the only answer I can give which has held true constantly is that I wouldn't have risked my wife's incarceration. Had I known what I was doing, I didn't think I was, and therefore what I feel guilty about is risking someone else, my wife's, freedom without realising I was doing so i.e. being that fucking ignorant and not knowing that they could do that. So the regret is being stupid and ignorant about certain areas of the law - like US law.

B: When I tried to find a copy of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act it took me three different reference libraries to actually find a copy of the drug laws.
H: Yeah, yeah, but then you can't say you're ignorant as a defence. You can't get hold of it to find out what it is, but you can't say you don't know it. Ha ha ha.

B: Here's a list of all the drugs outlawed by the UK Misuse of Drugs Act. Is there anything on there you wouldn't legalise?
H: No. I'd legalise everything. I'd legalise the most poisonous thing in the world.
B: Pardon?
H: I'd legalise the most poisonous thing in the world. Because nobody's going to be taking that, are they? (Laughs) You don't have to worry as long as everyone knows what it is. I certainly wouldn't disguise it as sugar or anything, but I'd legalise it in the same way as electricity is legalised, and that's pretty dangerous. Cars as well. However dangerous and however poisonous it is, I think it should be legalised. And I think that society should deal with it in a non-prohibitive sense. There's plenty of experience of legalising lethal things. In America you've got guns, here you've got cars, alcohol, all kinds of things.

B: Is America stricter than the UK with its drug laws?
H: Oh yes. The Americans are absolutely insane. They're the worst in the world, other than the kind of really way-out places such as Singapore - which I don't know how we judge them anyway.

B: America is worse than here?
H: (Sounding shocked) Oh, much worse, much worse. There, life means life for example. Here it doesn't mean that.
B: Life means until you die.
H: Yeah, it means until you drop dead. And they even give sentences like, there was one guy in there and he had seven consecutive life-sentences. Just in case he managed to get off one of them in a post-conviction.
B: Just in case he managed to live four times as long as one would expect him to?
H: Yes.

B: You've been quoted as saying that you could be arrested at any time.
H: Well yes, I could be arrested now.
B: And yet earlier on I said to you, "Shall I chuck out the roach?" and you said, "They're not gonna bust me." So could you explain? Is that quote still true? Could you be arrested at any time?
H:Sure, I could be arrested now because I'm rolling a joint. I'm always carrying a joint, and carrying dope. I've said numerous times, and as you say I've often been quoted as saying that I could be arrested any time. Because I always carry dope, and I've even tried to walk into a police station smoking a joint, and asked them to arrest me. Therefore it seems silly to worry about leaving a joint in the ashtray of my hotel room. Plus, I quite like promoting that lack of paranoia. I don't do this, but I would be quite happy to encourage people to leave roaches everywhere. We should just stop trying to pretend there's anything we shouldn't be doing. I think though, when I said I could be arrested any time, I think I was referring to the fact that I've broken laws in the past which I've disclosed in the book, and because there's no statute of limitation in countries like here, England, for example, they could - if they wanted to - bust me for a dope deal I did 20 years ago and confessed to in the book, you see.

B: So going back to a deal you did do 20 years ago, the bands. This deal that you did.
H: Oh with the speakers? Yeah.
B: Are you gonna name the bands that you used? The real bands?
H: Yeah, course. The authorities know which bands they were, so anything the authorities know, you can know.
B: Pink Floyd I've seen mentioned?
H: Yeah, Pink Floyd, ELP, Eric Clapton and Genesis. And I think that's it.

B: Who, within the tour companies, knew? Surely not the band members themselves?
H: No, no, just the roadie and the manufacturer of the equipment. That's all. The roadies, right, there were two or three of those, and the manufacture of the equipment which was one. They were the only people who knew. See, we couldn't tell the rock singers anyway. We'd have to cut them in. And they were making enough money anyway. (Laughs.) We definitely didn't want to tell them! And it's not as if I'm hiding their lack of participation with a kind of old schoolboy honour or something, you know, we definitely didn't want them to know.

B: Right, so the least amount of people who knew, the better.
H: Well they would have been put in awful positions. They were on the verge of making very lucrative and meaningful careers, OK. It would be very important if a load got busted that they would not get convicted for it. Especially in America.

B: Do you think the drug laws are being used to disguise the act of bringing in harsher constraints, under the guise of the "war on drugs" and similar to the "fight against terrorism"? i.e. they use the war on drugs and the fight against terrorism as ways of stopping me being able to walk down the street at three in the morning.
H: Yes, sure. That happens. And I think only in those two areas. They certainly seem to only use those two areas, drugs and terrorism, to increase their powers. You know, like they have special powers to increase sanctions. You take with terrorism. When they introduced the special power of being able to intern someone without trial, pronounce them guilty without trial, and keep them locked in prison for years. What actually happened is that the number of incidents became worse because there were a lot of objections to that injustice. So, terrorism increased directly as a result of the special powers Act. So the Act ceased to be enforced, but it's still on the books. It's there, it was shown not to work, but it's still there to be used any time they want to. And the same thing might happen with the drug laws, of course. They use those, and that would be one of the reasons why they would not like to see drugs legalised. Obviously drugs are illegal because those in power want them to be illegal.

B: The UK's current stance in the world, of being part of America's War On Drugs, how can they keep this point of view up when history tells us that in the 1840s Britain was prepared to go to war with China in order to force them to accept opium, and actually set off an opium epidemic there?
H: Yes, it's totally inconsistent, which is why they won't allow a debate to happen. The minute anyone mentions debating it in Parliament, even though about half the population wants to see some sort of relaxation of the drug laws, they will not talk about it. Because they cannot possibly get a consistent argument going. When I was trying to debate it at the Oxford Union, OK they invited me to come along. We couldn't get anyone to take the opposing side. We couldn't get one person to articulate an argument for prohibition.

B: The US introduced prohibition of alcohol in 1919, only to abolish it again in 1932 when it was seen to have failed. Why do you feel this has not happened with marijuana?
H: You have to think to what extent it failed. Precisely what were they trying to achieve with prohibition - to stop people drinking alcohol I presume? Right, well that seems to be a very wrong thing to try to do, to stop people taking whatever is such a silly thing to try to impose. And of course it's not going to work. And it became very evident that it didn't work. With the powers that be, once they'd grabbed all the loot or whatever, the gangsters and the politicians decided that they could make yet more money by going back to the original position of alcohol being legal, so they abolished prohibition.

B: Do you still get stopped at customs?
H: I've been stopped and asked questions but not searched. The Spanish are very friendly, I'm back and forth between Spain and England quite a bit. The Spanish are invariably friendly to me, and the British kind of semi-hostile.
B: Notoriety and celebrity status.
H: Well I think possibly in some cases, quite genuinely disapproving.
B: Are there many countries you can't visit?
H: Yeah, lots, you know. I mean, even before I went to prison last time there were lots I couldn't.

B: What, because of your record?
H: Yeah, 'cos I'm a dope dealer.

B: Countries - can you name any? H: Australia and America - I haven't been able to go there, other than to prison, for fifteen years or something. Singapore, I'm sure would turn me away. All sorts of countries would turn me away! I wouldn't think of going anywhere without writing to let them know I'm coming.

B: What was your first experience of a source country?
H: Yeah, that was Pakistan, and quite late on too. Like, not until about '78. After I'd been dealing and smuggling really for about eight years or so.

B: Were they quite happy to deal with you direct, or do they like to go through middlemen?

H: They start by going through middle men, but if a guy is good then they like to go direct and cut out the middle men.

B: Where would you say is the most exciting country you had to go on business?
H: Pakistan.

B: And what about for culture, and music?
H: Well, for music culture the far east places were the ones that I liked best. Because although they didn't have the music, they had the technology for Techno, OK, in the mid-80s, and were slightly more advanced in many ways in their studios in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong than the Western studios were. Because in the '80s, Western music seemed to be a bit stuck. After I got busted, the rave culture hit. But they seemed to be on the verge of rave culture there, more so than here then. So, funnily enough, that was what hit me most. And of course, there's all the primitive stuff of Pakistan, Thailand, Africa which I think perhaps you're referring to. But I'd been exposed to that so much before going there, alright? So, other than just seeing what it's really done like live, I didn't run across new kinds of tribal music or anything in my travels.

B: Does it follow, like it does here, that people involved in music smoke a lot of dope?
H: Yeah, yeah. I don't know any country in the world where the musicians don't enjoy dope.

B: Does dope help musicians, or hinder?
H: Well, I don't know, I'm not a musician. But from listening to it, I find it makes me enjoy it a lot more, which was the very first sensation I had, I think, from dope. It just made me enjoy music more. It expands my enjoyment of music a lot. Many other things too, but particularly music. Musicians I've talked to say it helps them, and I believe them.

B: What do you think of hydroponics compared to naturally grown?
H: Well I think there's always an argument to prefer natural to artificial. And an equally strong argument to prefer artificial to nothing. So I would prefer thinking it was naturally grown, but I'll certainly tolerate the hydroponically grown. No problem tolerating it!

B: So to sum up then why hasn't marijuana been legalised?
H: Because to make it happen, all who are for the legalisation of marijuana would have to, to some extent, play the game. Of registering, of being straight, going along and putting their vote down, there'd have to be candidates everywhere. Every constituency in the country would have to propose it. All those sort of things would have to happen and be organised - and they haven't been. So the answer is: simply because no one's got it together. Also, it's difficult to unify because it is such a wrong thing to prohibit the smoking of marijuana that you've got people from the extreme right to the extreme left wanting it to stop for very different reasons. So any organisation that's formed to legalise marijuana is going to divide, usually along political lines. Therefore we're fighting against each other instead of facing each other and going hand in hand to dismantle prohibition.
BNow that friends is the crux of the whole issue. If it is your desire to see at least marijuana legalised, decriminalised, or even just to see some sort of relaxation of the laws controlling you, then the only way we are going to achieve this is by ignoring our differences and concentrating on the common ground we share; and as Howard says: 'That's all that needs to be done. The rest will flow. Just go forward and dismantle the fucking shit. It's an experiment that hasn't worked'."

Respect Howard
Peace Bimble x

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