We speak to Craig Lovato, the man who made it his life’s work to track down the celebrated cannabis smuggler and counterculture hero
You know who the late Howard Marks is, right? OK, fine, let’s go over it again: He was the Oxford-educated, hippie cannabis smuggler and bestselling author affectionately known as Mr Nice, one of his many aliases. Marks was a softly-spoken Welsh juggernaut of hash and grass that ensured that millions of people in Europe remained extremely stoned as he ran a smoothy-oiled drug dealing operation that ran throughout the 70s and 80s.
His story – which involved MI6, the Yakuza, the Italian Mafia, the IRA and an extremely opulent, jet-setting lifestyle – is one a lot of us are familiar with. This is because we have read his book, seen his film, gone to his show and read the blizzard of media interviews and features on him. But what about the other side of the story? What about Craig Lovato? Who the fuck is Craig Lovato?
Lovato is the DEA agent who spent the bulk of his career trying to take Howard Marks down. Eventually, he succeeded. Howard Marks first came to Craig Lovato’s attention in 1973 when Marks placed hash into the speakers of (real and later fictitious) British rock bands and smuggled it into the US when they went there on tour. But one day, whoever was working at JFK airport fucked up and left one of the speakers there when they were all due to be transported to the concert. The DEA and Lovato were now involved, and a game of cat and mouse between the two sides lasted until Marks’ second trial which in July 1990 – a total of 17 years – when Marks was sentenced to 25 years in a maximum security federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, having been tracked by Lovato for nearly two decades.
After acquiring his e-mail address and phone number (it’s not just DEA agents who have their sources), I reached out to Lovato, keen to hear the other side of the story that had been recounted so eloquently in Mr Nice and so distinctly underwhelmingly in the 2010 film of the same name. I heard nothing.
That was until, some five months later, I received an e-mail back – it simply read “OK, call again now”. I had finally made contact. I lit a stiff joint – which was the only way I felt I could deal with talking to anyone who is associated with the ruthless American Drug Enforcement Administration for an hour – hit his international digits and the interview was soon underway.
“The main challenge of my operation was the intelligence of his,” he said in a (surprisingly) soft, mid-western American accent, when asked about the challenges he faced trying to take down one of the world’s smoothest criminals. “Also, that he could get inside information as readily as he did. I would send a confidential cable out and I would hear him on a wiretap reading it out to his friends the next day.”
I asked Lovato to elaborate. “Bribery,” he flatly confirmed. “The wonderful thing about being bent and successful is having money, you know? He had money so he had the ability to corrupt society – all facets of it, including law enforcement.”
Was Lovato surprised by the popularity of Marks’ book Mr Nice? “That wasn’t the first book he wrote,” he said. “The first one he wrote was ‘High Time: the Life and Times of Howard Marks’ (note: this is totally incorrect; this was a book penned by a guy called David Leigh. Marks had nothing to do with writing it and when it was published in 1985 it took a hammering from critics). I used that book as a blueprint to identify the members of his organisation.”
Lovato then explained that, despite initially really struggling to ascertain who Howard’s associates were due to the fact that they all used aliases, he eventually worked it out from recording and examining “hundreds of hours” worth of phone conversations. “The code words he was using were difficult to decipher but his colleagues would often slip up,” he explained. “Howard would give a number in code for instance, but whoever he gave it to could often dial it straight away which would give us a basis to work from when it came to working out how the codes were being made.”
“Howard Marks wasn’t a threat to America, he was just a dope dealer. I did it because that was what we get paid to do” – Craig Lovato
Marks ran a big operation, and despite Lovato’s experience as an agent, he was alarmed by the scale of it. “I was shocked by what I was hearing,” he recounted. “It’s not often that you get to listen to the heart of organised crime on a daily basis.”
Eventually, after years of surveillance and tracking, Lovato arrested Howard and his wife Judy Marks in 1988, after Lovato convinced an associate of his to record incriminating conversations in exchange for immunity. “It’s very satisfying at the end of the day to win the game. Because basically it’s just a game between bad and good guys. Sometimes you lose and sometimes you win.”
What was the driving force behind his determination to halt this colossal weed enterprise? “In this particular case, when I was in Europe, I felt I had lost because it came time for me to go home and I had to leave the investigation. It wasn’t even near being successful at that stage. Howard Marks wasn’t a threat to America, he was just a dope dealer. I did it because that was what we get paid to do.”
Based on a spurious notion that MI6 had instructed Marks to smuggle monstrous quantities of cannabis, he had already famously duped the jury at the Old Bailey into awarding him a not guilty verdict in 1980. For a time, Lovato worried that this might happen again during his investigation. “In our justice system, you never know what’s going to happen when you put a case before 12 people who we just pull from the streets at random,” he explained. “It only takes one to say ‘no’ for you to lose. Even though I had an airtight case against him I pushed very hard for him to plead guilty. That way there would be no appeal rights and there wouldn’t be one person on the jury who just refuses to pay attention to any of the evidence and just says ‘not guilty’.”
Lovato targeted Marks’ wife at the time, Judy, whose crime was merely to answer a call on occasion and pass it to him. Lovato imprisoned her. “Judy was his wife and the mother of his children,” he said. “We indicted (charged with a serious crime) her strictly to get him to waive extradition and plead guilty. I said to him ‘we are not interested in your wife, she has children to raise. You give us what we want and we’ll drop the charges against her’. We didn’t want her; she was just a ploy to get Howard.”
I challenged him over the idea that using Judy Marks as bait was morally reprehensible. “No, that’s not true – you’re totally mistaken on that,” he attested. “She was guilty of some sort of crime so we used her as a pawn,” he asserted. “Amongst all of the things that Howard was, he was a very intelligent, well-educated and charismatic man. But above all, he was a coward – it took him so long to put himself on the line so Judy had to suffer for eighteen months in prison.”
It seemed to me that Lovato was intimidated by Marks – a theory I put to him. “Not at all. Where Howard was successful was that he was able to organise a crew on a worldwide basis. Not everybody can do that.” So how did it make him feel when he found out that Howard made a successful, legit career out of all this? “I was happy for him. He got a great deal of notoriety and fame in England – a rock star appeal to certain people there. Throughout history whoever is the bandito, like Robin Hood or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for instance, those who thumb their noses at society will be applauded by everyone. Because deep inside all of us we’d like to do that – tell the establishment to go and stick it to themselves.”
“Those who thumb their noses at society will be applauded by everyone. Because deep inside all of us we’d like to do that – tell the establishment to go and stick it to themselves” – Craig Lovato
I wanted to know how Lovato felt he was portrayed in the film Mr Nice, but he hadn’t seen it. I asked him how he felt when he heard that Marks had passed on (he died in April 2016). “I had known for some time that he was terminal so it wasn’t a surprise when I was notified of his passing,” he said with a hint of reflection in his tone. “It was a shame. Howard was a charismatic figure, he was easy to talk to, he was easy to listen to and – as with any human passing – it brings sadness to all the people who knew him.”
So there‘s Lovato’s story. Maybe it’s because I’ve read the book a few times, and witnessed firsthand the pain and suffering that prohibition can cause, that I’m firmly on Marks’ side. Maybe it’s because he's a counterculture hero and he was wonderful every time I met him. He used to put on a pub quiz at his bar near to where I live. I lost count of the amount of times he would randomly stand up and order the bar staff to give everyone in the venue a shot of tequila, causing a frantic wave of activity amongst the staff. Maybe it’s because I feel I owe him a drink.