- 13 Aug 21
To mark what would've been his 76th birthday, we're revisiting one of our classic interviews with Howard Marks – originally published in 2010.
Drug dealer turned raconteur HOWARD MARKS talks about the forthcoming movie adaptation of his memoirs and reflects on Ireland’s controversial clampdown on headshops...
Howard Marks hasn’t been this busy since he controlled a great big chunk of the global hash trade. We’re already used to seeing the author, raconteur and former marijuana smuggler make his imprint across various media, but this month, Marxists can look forward to new vocal work with Peter Hook’s band Freebase and Mr. Nice, a tremendous new film of Marks’ cult memoir.
“I’m very happy with the film,” says Marks. “I had no creative input. I’d dig out transcripts if they were needed. I visited the set for my own curiosity. And one night Rhys needed to know what lullaby I used to sing to my kid. But I didn’t know what they were using and not using. I’m delighted with it.”
Sitting in the Clarence Hotel, just hours after the Irish premiere, Marks is happy to give the film two thumbs up. It helps, of course, that Mr. Nice stars Rhys Ifans, one of Marks’ old Welsh buddies.
“Oh hell, I’ve known Rhys for 14 years,” says Marks. “We always said to one another he’d play me in a film of my life. There will never be another like him. I found no one who thought somebody else would do better.”
One wonders why it has taken this long for Marks’ wildly romantic adventures to appear in the multiplexes. Born in Kenfig Hill near Glamorgan in Wales, Dennis Howard Marks was a bright kid who read Physics at Balliol College, Oxford. Between majors he was quickly seduced by sixties counter-culture in general and the medicinal benefits of cannabis in particular. His career as an international drug smuggler was, he reckons, entirely accidental.
“If I had ever sat down to think about it I would have decided smuggling was stupid,” says Marks. “I was a comedian at heart. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be going around telling the entire world about it. What kind of crook does that?”
He was, in this comic spirit, prepared to cleverly exploit his supposed connections with the IRA, the Mafia, and M16 to bring about colourful trial proceedings.
“It was a kind of a circus,” recalls Marks. “To a large extent. The film probably plays that up a bit. They obviously have to amalgamate and condense things otherwise we’d still be sitting here watching it. So in the film there’s one court scene instead of many and one ex-wife not two. It would have been cheaper for me if the film was right.”
Following his conviction at the hands of the American Drug Enforcement Administration Marks spent seven years imprisoned in the Federal Correctional Complex, Terre Haute, Indiana. He was released on early parole in 1995.
“Once I knew I was getting a 25 year sentence I knew I had a chance to survive,” says Marks. “I knew of guys who got more time for less. Once the children came over to visit me that changed things and gave me a focus. It spurred me. I had been walking around thinking “I’m in the hardest prison in the world and they like me here”. That’s the institutionalisation talking. As soon as you stop seeing that your liberty has been taken from you, that’s when you’re institutionalised. So I worked as hard as I could to get out.”
Since his release Marks has carved out a successful career as a writer and hipster celebrity. Having toured most of the planet with his one-man show, he has popped up in movies (Human Traffic, Killer Bitch), on records and in The Guardian as a travel correspondent. Did he ever imagine, sitting in a cell in Indiana, that things would turn out this way?
“Not at all,” says Marks. “I didn’t even have a fucking target audience in mind when I started writing. I thought there might be a few old geriatrics like myself who might want to relive that feeling of glamour. I never thought I’d be touring universities. But if it has crossed over to the mainstream it’s probably because there are enough dope smokers out there.”
He remains an avid campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis. In 1997 he contested four seats at the British general election.
“In any given ten year period the focus shifts,” says Marks. “For every minor step forward, there are repeals and appeals. But in the long run, as the generation who are my children’s age and younger grow up the majority will come around to it. As people become more relaxed about recreational drugs, the politicians will have to respond. They’re not likely to turn their backs on a potential vote winner. Once my kids’ generation starts running things instead of the arseholes that are my age, we’ll see a mainstream shift.”
I wonder what he makes of this country’s new legislation prohibiting the sale of dried Mexican dandelions?
“It’s a very heavy swing, isn’t it?” says Marks. “Ireland was more accommodating than just about anywhere else for a while. There was a sensible approach to head shops. It’s a shock that they’ve decided to follow the opposite path. I’m a UK resident so I don’t want to tell the Irish what to do. I don’t think I could tell the Irish what to do.”
Watching the endearing comical capering of Mr. Nice the movie, one wonders if it wouldn’t be more difficult to get 40 kilos of resin across a border nowadays?
“Oh no, not now,” says Marks. “It’s a very, very different game nowadays. It still takes the same kind of characters to do it. They don’t change. But the goalposts have shifted. In my day, our technology was better than what the police had. You could always stay a step ahead. We had faster cars. We had far more sophisticated eavesdropping technology. We were way ahead of the police. In my experience, of course, it’s not the police who choose to enforce these laws. They’re stuck with them like everybody else.”
And finally, the only question: indica or sativa?
“Definitely indica,” says Marks. “I prefer CBD to THC. I love the old fashioned hash. I think in the sixties we only really had hash; you could rarely get weed. I think it’s always a question of what you grew up with. Or maybe it’s a good personality test.”
He laughs: “Did I pass?”