Published in the Guardian, Monday 11 April 2016
Cannabis dealer who treated smuggling as a mission, wrote a bestselling autobiography and gave sold-out performances
Howard Marks, who has died aged 70 of cancer, was Britain’s best-known and most charming drug smuggler, and also a successful author and raconteur. He translated a lifetime of international cannabis dealing and a long stretch in an American jail into a bestselling book, Mr Nice (1996), and a career as a stand-up performer.
Born in Kenfig Hill, a mining village near Bridgend, in south Wales, to Dennis, a merchant sailor, and Edna, a schoolteacher, Howard spoke only Welsh for the first five years of his life. In 1964, he became the first boy from Garw grammar school to win a place at Oxford University and it was while studying physics at Balliol College that he first entered enthusiastically into the world of dope that was to define his life.
After graduating in 1967, he turned down the possibility of an academic career as he found the lure of cannabis-smuggling more seductive. He had already set up a boutique in Oxford, called Annabelinda, as a way to launder his growing profits. Initially using a network of friends, he gradually became one of the biggest traffickers of cannabis in Europe. He used the sound systems of British bands, both real and fictional, to smuggle tons of cannabis into the US; he always stuck to soft drugs, not least because of the death of a friend, Joshua Macmillan, from heroin.
All went relatively smoothly until 1973, when Marks was arrested in the Netherlands and accused of international trafficking. By chance, one of his Balliol contemporaries, Hamilton McMillan, was in MI6 and had previously asked Marks to use his entree into the underworld on behalf of British intelligence. Marks duly told the customs investigators that he had been asked to infiltrate IRA drug-smuggling operations, a claim made more plausible by his association with a maverick Irishman, Jim McCann. However, he was extradited to Britain and held in Brixton prison before being granted £20,000 bail.
He then went on the run, fuelling countless tales in the press as to what had happened to him, from abduction by the mafia to being spirited away by MI6. Using a variety of aliases – he claimed a total of 43 bogus identities from “Mr Nice” to “Albi Jennings” – he slipped in and out of Britain, still managing to shift tons of cannabis across continents. “I was a fugitive for six and a half years and I smuggled as much cannabis as I could,” he said later. “I felt that this was my destiny, this was my karma. I suppose I felt like a prizefighter. One day one’s going to get knocked out on the canvas. You have to carry on until you’re beaten.” He was finally rearrested in 1980, held again in prison and stood trial at the Old Bailey. He married Judy Lane in the same year, while inside, with their two young daughters as bridesmaids; she was his second wife, his marriage to Ilze Kadegis having ended in divorce. The knockout blow was delayed when he played his MI6 card and convinced the jury, through the help of a mysterious Latin American witness, that he was assisting Mexico in anti-terrorism work and the drug smuggling was just a necessary cover.
Amazingly, he was acquitted, not least because of his charm in the witness box; one of the jury members was seen doodling a heart. He pleaded guilty to an earlier charge, was given a three-year sentence and released soon afterwards because of time already served.