The man who made a hash of things

Former drugs smuggler and convict Howard Marks is in Cork this week, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

HOWARD MARKS is still truckin’. The cannabis drug baron turned spoken word artist will be in conversation with John Sinclair, the American counter culture hero, at the Cork Opera House next Wednesday night. The promoters are billing it as a trip you won’t forget.

Marks was born in Kenfig Hill, a small coal-mining village in the south of Wales in 1945. He studied nuclear physics at Oxford University and philosophy at postgraduate level. It was at university that he smoked his first spliff. Within five years or so he had gone from smoker to dealer to hash smuggler.

The story of his life of crime, which is captured in his best-selling autobiography Mr Nice, is preposterous. He became known as Mr Nice after using a passport from the convicted murderer, Donald Nice. It was one of 43 aliases he used. Once, while on the run in 1974, he crashed into a field en route to Ireland from the UK while wearing a wig and having borrowed a friend’s driving licence and glasses.

Onlookers surrounded his steaming, clapped-out car while he regained consciousness. One of them picked up his wig and glasses. He tottered along to a pub, called a taxi and made it to the house of an Irish associate who fixed him up with a passport, which turned out to be from Peter Hughes, a Provisional IRA member then in prison.

He flew from Dublin to Paris to Ibiza but was stopped by an immigration officer on the Balearic island who inspected his Hughes passport. Marks could see that he’d been rumbled.

“Howard?” the officer asked. Marks said nothing. Then the officer smiled and, referring to Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire whose fake autobiography was partly written in Ibiza, said: “You have a famous name, Mr Hughes.” He was on his way again.

He once shifted 30 tonnes of hash from Pakistan to the United States. His main ruse for smuggling was to ship the cannabis in the trucks of touring rock artists like Pink Floyd, Genesis and Eric Clapton, having teamed up with their roadies. Another time, he acquired a deep-sea salvage ship following an idea he picked up from a Wilbur Smith novel.

As well as the aliases, he ran 89 phone lines. While on the run, his family had a “means of getting through” to him if necessary. Through it all, he was stoned.

“It’s very difficult to be paranoid if you’re on the run,” he says, allowing himself a laugh, “because they are actually after you. I was long enough on the run to get used to it, and smoking has never made me paranoid. I know it does to some.”

He mentions his first trip to Ireland in the early 1970s as being one of his scariest adventures. He landed in Cork airport. The country was “very hot” at the time, he says, as the Troubles were raging. He came from the UK for a rendezvous with James McCann. The drugs trafficker and alleged IRA gun-runner was one of the three most intriguing characters Marks has encountered.

“Just because I have a distinct feeling inside me that stays to this day that he would never, ever do anyone any harm,” Marks explains. “I really believe that, but it was obvious that he could threaten violence better than anyone in the world. The essence of threat, of course, is not to use it.”

The law eventually caught up with Marks. He went down in 1988. The US authorities got him on a racketeering charge. He was sentenced to 25 years in Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana; a federal prison with a reputation for being the country’s worst for violence and gang rape. He thought he’d never get out, but was released on parole in 1995. The one thing jail did was to knock some humility into him.

“Looking back, I was a bit of a flash idiot — flying around first class, going VIP everywhere. After prison, I stopped taking myself seriously and realised you can’t really control events at all. You can control your attitude to them. I became less of a big-headed idiot and more of a caring person. Inside, you do drift towards looking after those less fortunate than you. I learnt those qualities, but it must be possible to learn them without being banged up for seven years.”

Breathin’ Air — Howard Marks & John Sinclair is at the Cork Opera House, 8pm, on Wednesday. Further

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