erasing clouds

Drugs Are Us: Interview with Howard Marks

by Anna Battista

"Watch him when he opens/his bulging words - justice, fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,/peace, peace. Make it your custom/to pay no heed/to his frank look, his visas, his stamps/and signatures. Make it/your duty to spread out their contents/in a clear light/Nobody with such a luggage has nothing to declare." Smuggler, Norman McCaig

Well, in a sense Norman MacCaig was right when he wrote his poem about a smuggler, warning in the last line that a smuggler always has something to declare. Just imagine how many things Howard Marks, ex-dope smuggler, author of the best-selling autobiography Mr Nice and of the most recent Book of Dope Stories, has got to declare, tell and narrate. It's a freezing cold Sunday when I meet Howard Marks at the house of his Italian publisher, Louise Read, who plays wonderful host while we're chatting. Louise is also responsible for having organised a pretty cool Italian mini tour for Howard: Marks paid a visit to what we call "centri sociali," local temporary autonomous zones were young people gather together and organise gigs, meetings with writers and other social events. "Well, Bologna was very cold, it was covered in snow and that was the first surprise I had," Howard starts, making a balance of his trip to Italy. "We went to this social centre which impressed me quite a lot. Bologna was OK, people were very lively: some of them had read the book, some hadn't, as it has only just come out in Italian. Rome was good, but there was much more media attention in the Italian capital, which I supposed had to be expected, and there were older people, while in Bologna there were more young people, as there's a big university population there. I met a lot of interesting people and had quite a lively discussion with them all. Actually it was a much more political discussion than those we have in England. In Great Britain my audience usually is in agreement to what it is said, so there's not so much a discussion. It's more a kind of supporting and re-articulating each other's positions, it is more an entertainment, like standard comedy really than serious stuff. Usually people ask how to incorporate anti-prohibition in the present politics, whether it would be a right wing policy or a left wing policy and things like that."

"Recreational drugs exist, and some people want to take them. Authorities have attempted both to persuade people not to take recreational drugs and to rid the planet of them. … There is no society in the world, not at any time in history, that has not used an intoxicant." Howard Marks, "Recreational Drugs", The Book of Dope Stories

Lately there's been a long rant on a lot of British magazines and papers about drug laws changing in Great Britain in 2002, but Howard is not totally convinced about it being a serious turning point. "Drug laws will change a bit," he states, "it is not a huge step, but it's a step in the right direction, a thing that is inevitable for full legalisation." But is the government changing the laws because they're really convinced that the drug issue is an important one and it must be tackled or is it because they want to take some weight off the police? "It's both really," Howard starts, "there's a lot of pressure from people who are taking drugs, smoking drugs who don't want to be criminalised any further and there's pressure from the police. The police in Great Britain have been very very vocal about saying that it is really silly for them spending all this time busting people for marijuana. Besides the courts are very clogged up, so they would just put more work on the police. They would just give cautions and the police would have to fill in all these forms. I think the police are fed up and have been for a long time. Tony Blair is not seeing prohibition as the cause of the problem but the drugs as the cause of problems. Basically if drugs exist, people want to take them and prohibition is a very silly way of dealing with it."

In one article downloadable from his site, Howard states that his kids smoke in front of him. "I think that drug relationships between parents and kids are very strange, they both lie to each other," he says. "Basically parents lie to their children about what drugs they take and children lie to their parents. If I wasn't able to overcome that, it would be very very sad. That's one of the bad things caused by prohibition."

While chatting we move our attention to Italy, a democratic country at present governed by a right-wing government too busy changing the laws in general in their favour, to take care of young people's requests about drug laws. "I know very little about drug laws in Italy: most of the European drug laws are similar, with the exception of Holland," Howard claims, continuing "I know that there's a certain amount of constitution objection, but it does seem that Italy is going backwards a little now regarding drug laws." In Mr Nice Howard also mentions a few Italian towns: Genoa, Cupra Marittima and Campione d'Italia are all part of the background for a few drug adventures.

It is irresistible to ask Howard if, while in Italy, he had connections with the local Mafia. "I did drug smuggling in and out of Italy," he explains, "but it wasn't as a result of there being anything Italian really, we weren't actually using Italian people at all, Italy was just a European transit point." And Howard left something in Italy: his Mr. Nice passport was indeed buried in Campione d'Italia, but is it still there? "No, it was dug up, it was found by a mad Bavarian!" Howard laughs, "The event is on the updated version of the video." Otherwise a mad Italian would have found it, I add, while Howard smiles and nods and explains to me which are, according to him, the best and worst things of Italy: "I suppose the best thing would be the diversity of the different sorts of powers that have been held here: the military power with the Roman emperor, that massive military control of the world; then there's cultural dominance like that in the Renaissance, but there are also religious dominance with the Pope and criminal dominance with the Mafia. That's the best of it, the evidence of that dominance of different powers to me is the most exciting and the best thing of Italy. On the other hand, I suppose the worst thing of this country is the sophistication, the attention to clean fingernails, clean shoes and all that. I have very little time for that stuff, I can't give a shit! Well, actually it's not very bad, but it's the worst thing." And talking about Italy, often, the dope you get in Italy isn't that good: marijuana arrives directly from Durazzo or Valona in Albania to Bari or Brindisi in Italy; hashish from Morocco passes through Spain and then gets to Italy. "We get good dope in Great Britain," Howard claims, revealing "but not much of it. Sometimes it comes from Manali, India, sometimes from Afghanistan, sometimes you can get good Moroccan. The quality of marijuana has gone better, as people are growing it, but the quality of hashish has gone down a lot."

"Eventually we came to a large wooden fort, the inside of which was devoted to the manufacture of hashish. Goatskins were piled up everywhere. … At the centre of the fort was a line of what appeared to be wooden scaffolds … The scaffolds were in fact very basic six-feet-high cantilevers. On one end of the see-saw was a large, almost perfectly spherical boulder … Directly underneath the threatening boulder was a large hole in which a fire raged. Almost covering the hole was an enormous cooking pan, like that used to prepare giant paella. The pan was filled with the contents of goatskins … The boulder came crashing down the paella pan, pulverising the resinous chopped plant tops, and was then quickly returned to its mid-air vantage position. Slowly, but noticeably, the pan became full of piping hot, drank brown goo. This change in molecular structure enabled the plant's full psychoactive potential to be realised." Howard Marks, Mr Nice

In his unstoppable smuggling journeys and expeditions, Howard Marks also reached Afghanistan. "I went there when I was D.H. Marks really, in the '70s, in the early '70s actually. I went there again in the mid-'80s and I realised that it had changed a lot because there had been the Russian invasion. I went there five years after the Russian invasion the last time and I have no idea how much it has changed from then to now really. It was very wild, a complete open area, a desolate place, there were wars going on between tribes, nomadic wars, but I went to the hash factory, which was a great thing to go to. I never came across heroin, though I came across people who were involved with it, but heroin tended to be a very tribal thing, whereas I'd rather do hashish. Probably the heroin way is the same as the hash way, the same routes I would think."

Howard has also got some ideas about what will happen right now after the American attacks to Afghanistan: "I think that in the first instance there will probably be a greater production coming out of there, because lots of people and arms and things are going in and out, so there's no reason why drugs shouldn't come out, for sure. So while there are foreign forces going in and out there will be a lot of drugs coming out. Though I have no ideas about what will happen in the next future."

I wonder if there is a drug Howard doesn't like to take: "I don't like to take heroin too much. I tried it a few times, but I feel it is a drug that brings a sort of depression, not too much culture accompanies it, but I'd make it legal obviously. I don't like Ketamine, unless I'm on the beach, I don't like that in a club. But usually I like all drugs. I take Ecstasy once a month. I'm told the quality is not as good as it was, as I was in prison for most of the really Ecstasy years, but I tend to get very good stuff and I get it tested first. I think the Ecstasy deaths weren't really Ecstasy deaths, I don't think any of them would have happened if it had been legal, I think they were caused by impurities and by the fact that people didn't know how to deal with the situation."

One of the latest updates of Howard's site is the merchandise page, on which the affectionate Mr. Nice fan can buy weed seeds. Having with us such an expert is would be really good if he could tell us which one of those advertised on his page is the best one: "I don't really know, I can hardly tell the difference between one that it is strong and one that it is not, but they're all strong, there are differences in taste, but they're all very strong. I've tried them all and they all got me stoned! But I'm not an expert: I can't tell the difference between black weed or white weed," Howard concludes. And talking about people buying drugs, well a lot of them usually go to Amsterdam to have a drug bender; so does Howard. "I go there to get stoned. It's a bit silly in Amsterdam: it's OK to consume, you can only buy from a coffee shop, you can't sell it to a coffee shop and if I can't sell it, I can't be interested. I wouldn't open a coffee shop in Amsterdam because I don't like really being a shopkeeper, I would have no interest in selling legal cannabis at all."

"Through a plethora of media interviews and several public book readings, it became clear that the predominant reason why so many adolescents and university students read and enjoyed Mr Nice was their frustration with the law prohibiting cannabis consumption and trade. Until then I had no idea of the extraordinary extent of cannabis use by young people today." Howard Marks, Introduction to The Book of Dope Stories

First published in 1996, Mr Nice (Secker & Warburg), which sold over 350,000 copies only in Great Britain, has been translated into French, German, Hebrew, Spanish and Italian. "In March 2000 I was in Palermo writing for The Observer and while I was there I had the first talk about the book being translated in Italian," Howard remembers, continuing "Mr Nice in Italy is published by Edizioni Socrates, a great publisher indeed. I think it is an excellent choice."

"I found Howard's story intriguing, a thing that easily happens to his readers," Louise Read, Howard's Italian publisher claims, "But I thought Mr Nice would have fit in my collection Paesi, Parole, because apart from mentioning many countries, Howard has got a wonderful way to tell his story. There's some kind of provocation in his novel, which is the thing I always look for in my books. I think that only with provocation you can really manage to change things. I always take special care for the editions of the books I publish and I always try to give further information to the readers. That it is also why I decided to include some other pictures in the Italian edition of Mr Nice. Unfortunately, the quality is not that good since these pictures are taken from newspapers, but there are photographs of Lovato, Jim McCann and Combie and I knew that readers would have liked to see them. Of course I've also added some photographs of Howard after he came out of prison to create a continuity and to take the reader on a journey up to the present. The next book I'm going to publish is Peter Paul Zah's Cannabis, which takes place in Jamaica, where the writer lives, though the book is mainly about sugar cane. I've got a problem in getting it published right after Mr Nice. Perhaps I should change the title, well, we'll see!"

The book remained at the top of the best selling charts for ages in Great Britain; it sounds amazing to hear from Howard that he never expected young people to turn his book into a cult. "There were also some bad reviews when the book first came out. Not many, but there were sort of one or two which, though I don't think they said that the book was bad, said that it was ordinary or not really class writing, something which wasn't very complimentary. But most of the bad reviews were just character assassinations, not about the book being not very nice and nasty," Howard reveals. "I didn't really write it for young people, I wrote it for old people and young people liked it. So it was a surprise. I wrote it having in mind people of my age, as I thought that there would have been some nostalgia about the subject. I was astonished at first, very astonished when young people showed so much attention."

Perhaps the success of the book was given by the continuous change of scene (and of passport), perhaps by the continuous change of money and set or by the drugs being mentioned or perhaps it's just because it's about smuggling, a thing Howard misses. "Of course! You miss the high adrenaline and the intensity of the ever-changing culture shock and the risks. I miss all that. There was never a moment in my life in which I regretted being a smuggler. And I still see some of the people with whom I used to do drug smuggling as they're friends." The protagonist of Robert Sabbag's book Snowblind, Zachary Swan, is a master in smuggling coke; is there a person Howard met while smuggling he came to consider a role model for drug smuggling? "No, there must exist one, but no one knows about him, as he would be caught," Howard explains, "So there isn't a special one that I know of, but I'm sure he must exist."

"The DEA has offices in sixty-seven of the world's countries. It has more power than the KGB ever had. One of its offices is in the United States Embassy, Madrid. In August 1984, Craig Lovato went to work there. At the same time I was living in Palma peacefully carrying on my international drug-smuggling business. Lovato found out I was not only smuggling dope but actually enjoying it. God knows why, but this made him lose his marbles, and he has been hounding and persecuting me ever since." Howard Marks, Mr Nice

The most obsessive Howard Marks's fan can't be compared to DEA agent Craig Lovato, a man who had practically made the idea of capturing Howard a virtue and a reason for living. Apparently, Lovato was really obsessed with catching Howard, putting him in jail and throwing away the key. "Yeah, but they were all obsessed! All the DEA are obsessed," Howard claims, "I was HIS Obsession, but someone else would have been some other DEA's agent obsession, that's the way they work. They might still be after me, but I don't care anymore if they are. And the American justice system is shit, complete shit, it's awful. The worst thing I had to live with in prison was putting up with racism all the time and realising the brutal, barbaric nature of American justice, not personally because I wasn't there very long relatively, but they have no policy like forming people and getting them back into the community. It is just a matter of locking them away for as long as possible, it's just a very barbaric system of justice. And death penalty…I don't like all that stuff. I haven't seen Lovato since then, but if I'd met him I'd say hello and offer him a joint or whatever!" Howard smiles. Lovato smoking a joint? Would he accept it? "No, I don't think so, unless he's changed!" Howard exclaims. On Mr Nice's website there is also a peculiar section, a link from which you can download and listen to the DEA recordings. "Putting the tapes online was just an idea I had. I was handed these tapes that were just returned to me after I came out of prison and I thought of putting them online," Howard states. Hmmm, another way of taking the piss, but it is indeed a wonderfully original way of doing it.

After Mr Nice, if Marks had penned Mr Nice 2 he would have been probably hailed by his fans as a faker. So he's moved on doing something different, The Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories (Vintage), a collection of the best pieces written about drugs going from Hunter S. Thompson to Nelson Algren, from Terence McKenna to Robert Sabbag or to the more technical kind of writing by Ann and Alexander Shulgin. "I had the idea about the book just talking to the publisher about what would be sensible to do. I didn't want to write 'Mr Nice Part II', it wouldn't have been good. I just went across after what I liked to read as I wanted to give other people who wrote the chance to be published. All the material was remixed into a readable form. It was a bit of an experiment for me, you don't see too many short stories about drugs and the stuff on the book is not common, we just experimented. I think what is important with a collection of short stories is the order in which they come in. It's just like with a DJ: it's quite easy to pick up the tunes, which are good tunes, which are bad tunes, but it is very important which one follows another. When I put together the book, I had in mind a DJ putting together his session. The shuffling around all the time took almost as long as reading and choosing all the material, wondering how you could have done it without being boring."

But even a DJ has his fave tunes, so what's Howard's favourite story, a story he'd recommend? "It depends on what one's interested in. I mean, I very much like the bits I chose from Robert Sabbag. But it would be a different bit if someone was looking for a kind of magical trip through drugs or if you'd want some tips in smuggling. The book contains pieces of literature which are different one from the other as I tried to cover as broad a spectrum as possible on drugs, as I didn't want the book to contain just stories about people being off their tits, because that would have been boring. It would be even possible to do a second volume of the book as there's enough material for doing that. Up to now the book has been reviewed very well."

"'I too did seven years for dope, Howard.' 'Where?' 'Shangai.' 'Jesus Christ. How were you busted for dope there? How the hell did you survive? How did you manage to be released? Are you okay?' 'Well, you know what it's like; make every experience work for you, help people and don't take yourself seriously. It is amazing how strong you become.'"--Howard Marks, Foreword to Robert H. Davies, Perfection She Dances

A few years ago, Howard wrote the introduction to a classic of smuggling, Robert Sabbag's Snowblind. The new year will also see a new Sabbag book being published, Smokescreen . "It's hard to say which one is better than the other," Howard comments, "I think probably Snowblind is better, but if you read Smokescreen first, you would think that one was better. They're quite similar but I suppose the freshness would be lost in the second one. Smokescreen is an excellent book, but I didn't realise it was that good until I was halfway through it. I think it takes half of the book to say that it is as good as Snowblind. I'd say that the best fictional book about drugs is Snowblind and the best non-fiction is the The Underground Empire by James Mills, a very very thick book, very interesting book about drug smuggling. There is very little that I came across written on drugs in Italian. Spanish has a lot, but mainly that's because there's South America and South America is so full of drugs."

Another book introduced by Howard Marks is Perfection She Dances by Robert H. Davies. "Robert came to one of my shows and I liked him very much," Howard remembers, "I offered to do the foreword cause I thought it might help to bring that sort of attention to it. But I read the book too and I meant everything I said in the foreword. The reason I did it was that I liked him so much. The way he describes drug smuggling in China is very good, I think it is very interesting because he's smuggling in that environment all the time. He was stuck in China smuggling. It is a wonderful book for the insights and the prison bits are quite extraordinary." Since the '70s Howard has been all around the world smuggling, but what kind of period he would have chosen if he had lived in a particular era in the past? "Ah, I don't know, probably I wouldn't have chosen Rome, maybe ancient Greece, though in Italy would be fine, say in Sicily for example or Mediaeval times. I would have been an academic or something. I really think I'm more suited to be an academic!"

"'Howard, have you taken Ecstasy yet?' It was a guy I'd met some weeks earlier at the Bar Lorca in Stoke Newington. We'd got drunk and stoned for most of one night, and I'd talked about how I had been busted in the eighties, had just got out of the nick, and had missed the whole rave culture: the music and the psychoactive. 'No, I haven't. I'm still funny about pills. I have to be sure what I'm taking. I can do that with weed and hash, but not with pills.' 'What if I guaranteed you with my honour that this tab is pure unadulterated Ecstasy.' I looked into his eyes. I trusted him totally." Howard Marks, "My First Ecstasy", The Book of Dope Stories

Howard claims that the right soundtrack for Mr Nice and The Book of Dope Stories would have to include a lot of tracks. And he has actually been involved in musical projects: he recently appeared on the track "The Egyptian Delegate" on Genetic Drugs and Jasmon's electronic album Spacecake (Blue Flame). In the past Howard has also starred in some stuff by Welsh music superstars Super Furry Animals; a funny story about taking Ecstasy at the Reading Festival while listening to Super Furry Animals is also recounted in The Book of Dope Stories. "I've done some other collaborations with Spanish bands," Howard reminds me, "I'm always ready to collaborate with bands, as long as it is easy to me, as long as I don't have to sing! It is OK if I only have to talk and they can do all the rest! There isn't a band I'd like to collaborate with. Super Furry Animals are very good, they're great! They're humorous!"

Since we mentioned music, we also have to remember that Howard had a DJ experience at one of the most mental place on earth, the Manumission club in Ibiza, Spain, as he reminds me. "I was the writer in residence of the Manumission Pink Pussy Motel for a year, it was really fun! I introduced people, I DJ-ed there, I just played everything, it was a completely eclectic thing, whatever I wanted to listen to next I put on. Gosh, there was so much madness there! It was so intense all the time!" Another connection that linked Howard to Spain was his villa. "That's gone now!" Howard tells me, "we rented it for a while, I used to live there, but I'm not now, as I'm based in London or I'm travelling." But there are more eclectic experiences in Howard's life: a while back he had a cameo role in Justin Kerrigan's Human Traffic, though I think it would be terrific to see Mr Nice adapted for the big screen. "A lot of talking has been done about it," Howard reveals, "as lots of freelancers and producers have been talking about it, but nothing seems to have come out. I don't think I've got any talent to contribute to it, anyway! The content is fine, so I think that its success would depend from the director, from the talent of the film makers." Talking about movies, I think there is a video about the marijuana issue Howard would like to see, Marijuana, Marijuana by Alexander Trocchi, "I have never seen it," Howard admits, "though I heard Scottish writer Trocchi speak in the'60s, exactly in 1965 at a Beat Poetry Conference and I found him to be a very interesting man."

Apart from having to come back to Italy to promote the book and to do other interviews, Howard Marks seems to have a very busy schedule. "I've just stopped writing for Loaded and I'm probably gonna write for another magazine as Loaded has gone down, the quality of its writing has gone down. I have no long term plans, at present I'm just touring. I'm going back to London for a writing meeting, then to France where I'll open some kind of smoking museum in Paris, then Spain for a week and then Jamaica. So I'll be doing lots of travelling: it's going to be like when I was smuggling! It's the same lifestyle basically…" Hmmm, actually there's a destination Howard might be interested in: Algarve, in Portugal, where they have already changed the drug laws. "I've never been in Portugal, but I actually think I might be going there in March. I'll be going on a writing assignment to Brazil and I might be going there from Portugal." So will we have to organise a plane to follow our hero? "That'd be good!" Howard laughs.

So, while church bells in the distance musically mark the end of another day in Rome and in the rest of the world, Howard signs for me my personal copies of Mr Nice, Snowblind and a random copy of The Idler - Issue 25 in which there was also an article written by him. "You've also got this!" Howard exclaims in a voice that betrays not only astonishment, but also the suspicion that he might be in front of another of his deranged fans, like the one who dug up his buried passport. Well how couldn't you be a deranged Howard Marks fan? He's Mr Nice after all.


Special thanks to Howard Marks for always being so nice with me and to Louise Read, of course, for her wonderful hospitality.

Issue 8, January 2002 | next article

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds

Pics of Howard Marks in Italy by Simona Fabiola Tieri.