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Howard Marks
Photography Jamie Hawkesworth

How to live like Howard Marks

In an archive interview from 2010, the late legend waxes lyrical about legalising drugs, fundamentalists and believing in a thing called love

Taken from the October 2010 issue of Dazed:

The British penchant for exalting anti-heroes has perhaps no greater living example than the ex-dope smuggler Howard Marks aka Mr Nice: a man responsible for importing phenomenal amounts of high-grade hashish into the UK and USA in the 1970s and early 80s. This month, Marks’s legendary status as one of the most affable criminals in history steps up a gear with Rhys Ifans playing him in the film of his best-selling autobiography. It’s a rollercoaster ride that takes into its sway the gentleman smuggler’s early years at Oxford; his ingenious dealings with MI6; his stoner sessions with Afghani warlords; his relationship with his loyal wife Judy (Chloë Sevigny); and his somewhat sketchy relationship with Jim McCann of the Provisional IRA (played with infectious mania by David Thewlis).

What was it like to see yourself por­trayed on the big screen?

Howard Marks: There is no rulebook for watching a film of your own life but I have known Rhys so long that it was probably even more weird than I thought it would be (laughs), or maybe it was less weird. I’m not sure!

Do you and Rhys share an affinity in your outlook?

Howard Marks: There is a massive overlap in our views about things. When I first met him, I had just come out of the nick. He was sleeping on the Super Furrys’ drummer’s floor at the time and had just started becoming an actor – he hadn’t done Notting Hill or Twin Town – and I hadn’t published my book yet. We had this stoned conversation, and he said should my book ever be published and should he ever become an actor, could he play me in the film? We shook hands on it. It’s taken 15 years to come to fruition and we both felt it was meant to be really: to give reality to our imaginations, so to speak.

“I still get stoned. I’m stoned right now. I’m so familiar with the state that it doesn’t hinder my operation” 

Was there anything in the film you were unhappy with, such as having two marriages melded into one?

Howard Marks: (Laughs) I didn’t give a fuck about any of that, no. It’s such a different discipline making a film to writing a book, and the film isn’t trying to be a docu-drama. I realised that what was important was that it captures the same emotions, the same tension, and the same rollercoaster ride. I am terribly pleased with it.

How did you manage to be so effective a smuggler, and be so stoned all the time?

Howard Marks: I suppose it’s the length of the familiarity with being stoned: I still get stoned. I’m stoned right now. I’m so familiar with the state that it doesn’t hinder my operation. I do tend to smoke hash rather than skunk, though.

What do you think about super strength strains of skunk?

Howard Marks: They are considerably stronger but there shouldn’t be a massive kind of problem in dealing with something that’s stronger: nobody would drink whiskey from a pint mug, for example... just put less in the joint! (Laughs) It’s not rocket science!

How did you manage to stay so cool in potentially life-threatening situations?

Howard Marks: I have been in dangerous situations but probably not as much as imagined. The way I deal with it? I suppose because I am such a sort of peace-loving hippie that I am hardly much of a threat to anybody, really. And because the demand for dope was nowhere near satisfied, and never has been, there wasn’t that kind of competitive stuff: the rubbing out of competitors just doesn’t happen.

You spent a lot of time trafficking from the Middle East and Pakistan. Those places are portrayed very differently in the film to the way the western media portrays them now...

Howard Marks: Well, the media portray all of that in a negative way. Fundamentalists like the Taliban and all the rest of it are clearly a bunch of cunts, but those assholes are not at all representative of the mass of people across those countries. It’s an antifundamentalist Islam voice you hear on average among the people. I mean, suicide is considered one of the worst things you can do in Islam: it’s like kicking God in the face.

What was it like to work with Jim McCann of the provisional IRA?

Howard Marks: Jim is a complete lunatic – there is no question of that – but the unpredictable nature of what he would do was very exciting and amusing. There was also a caring side to him: I never saw him pull a gun on anyone... other than me (laughs). He wasn’t really a violent person but he had mastered the ability of threat, and you did take his threats seriously, everyone did. The Belfast accent helps of course! I was always amazed at the way he could get tables at restaurants and so on just by calling with that accent. Once I was trying to get a table at Crazy Horse in Paris: I rang up and they said, ‘I’m sorry sir everything is fully booked for the next two years.’ Jim took the phone and shouted: ‘It’s Jim Fucking Kennedy here!’ (Laughs) Immediately, we were booked seats at the front!

Do you believe there is truth in the old adage of honour among thieves?

Howard Marks: There is, but that’s essentially due to the lack of contract. I mean, virtually all legitimate businesses have a written contract outlining what you can do if the other guy fucks you up: you wouldn’t take that risk if what you were doing was illegal. My default position is trusting, and you can only blame yourself for an error of judgement really. If you think someone isn’t a rat when they are, it’s your own fault for not seeing it.

“It’s best to just to listen to that little voice inside you and not try to fuck anyone up... love is very important”

Would you say that you were a naturally inclined outlaw?

Howard Marks: Only to the extent that if a law seems to me to be patently absurd, then I really pay very little notice to it. There is that degree of lawlessness in me, I guess, but there isn’t anything in me that wanted to be an outlaw. I would have been quite happy if it had all been legal.

What do you think of the argument that smoking hash leads to harder substances?

Howard Marks: Because both heroin and hash are illegal, they do share a market place, and there might be some sociological escalation because of the overlap caused by their illegality. If both were legal then heroin you would get from the doctor and hash you would get from the greengrocer, and it's very unlikely that there would be any overlap or damaging consequences from either. Heroin does, of course, have it’s own unique danger in that in some cases it would only take twice the amount it normally took you to get high to actually kill you.

Do you think we are in the midst of a psychedelic revival with more and more people smoking substances such as DMT?

Howard Marks:  (Laughs) That’s very strong stuff! I suppose as far as the people are concerned, there is a massive shift both in drug-taking, in perceptions of drugs and views on their legality, but the government are still as totally useless, ineffectual and irrational as ever. I have a lot of faith in the youth, though. I don’t see them making the same mistakes we did. That’s for fucking sure.

What kind of advice would you give to young people?

Howard Marks: I think it’s really about the fact that you just don’t have that much control over things: it was Lennon who said, ‘Life is what happens to you when you make other plans,’ and largely that’s true. I suppose the advice I would give a young person is just to actually realise that. I mean, you can’t control everything because so many things are going to fucking happen that you don’t expect, but you can control your attitude to whatever happens: it’s best to just listen to that little voice inside you and not try to fuck anyone up... love is very important.