HOWARD MARKS, RIP.
April 17, 2016
The O-Zone: My Antisocial Diary
November 9, 2015
The very first phone call of the week doesn’t bring great news. I’ve been promised U2’s only Irish press interview in advance...
DENNIS HOWARD MARKS,
August 13, 1945 – April 10, 2016
It’s been said that there are really only two types of drug dealers:
those who need forklifts and those that don’t. At the height of his
criminal career, Howard Marks - who passed away in Wales last
Sunday at the age of 70 - was definitely in the former camp.
The widely celebrated Welsh cannabis-smuggler-turned-
writer/performer had been diagnosed with inoperable bowel
cancer a little over a year ago. Last Monday morning, the
following tweet was posted on his Twitter account: “In the early
hours of 10th April 2016, Howard Marks died peacefully in his sleep
surrounded by his four loving children. Goodnight Mr Nice.”
Although deeply saddened at the news, I was thankful that I’d
been able to say goodbye to my dear old friend. Last November,
during the inaugural Metropolis Festival at the RDS, I did a public
interview with Howard (which was filmed and will be included in
the forthcoming feature-length documentary The Real Mr Nice).
Backstage in the green room, we had a chance to reminisce. He
had lost weight and his trademark Keith Richards hairstyle had
been reduced to a greying crop, but otherwise his spirits were
good and he was as charming and self-deprecating as ever. He
explained that he saw cancer “as a way of living rather than a way
We first met in Dublin in 1996 when he was promoting his
autobiography, Mr Nice. Published a year after his release from
prison, that book became an international bestseller, selling well
over a million copies.
By any standards, his was a life well lived. Born in 1945, he was
raised in the small Welsh coal-mining town of Kenfig Hill. He
spoke only Welsh for the first five years of his life. An incredibly
bright student, Howard won a scholarship to Oxford’s prestigious
Balliol College, where he earned a degree in nuclear physics.
He could have prospered as an academic, but the straight life
wasn’t for him. Instead he turned his considerable talents to
international drug smuggling – operating for many years under
43 different aliases (including 'Donald Nice'). At one point, it was estimated that he
controlled 10% of the planet’s cannabis supply.
His biggest single shipment was 30 tons of Thai grass, worth
about €100million, which he shifted from Thailand to Canada.
Many of his loads of Moroccan and Lebanese hashish were
smuggled to America in the sound equipment of unwitting English
rock bands. Other shipments from India and Pakistan passed
through Shannon Airport.
Although he was first arrested in 1980, he was acquitted by a
British court when he managed to convince the jury that he was
acting as an agent for MI6.
His luck finally ran out in 1988, when he was arrested in Spain by
the American Drug Enforcement Agency and extradited to the US. He was
sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. Having served seven years
in Indiana’s maximum security Terre Haute Penitentiary, he was
unexpectedly released when it was discovered that the DEA had
falsified evidence against him.
Already notorious from his criminal career, he became a bona fide
celebrity following the release of Mr Nice (which was later turned
into a movie starring Rhys Ifans, and was the subject of his long-
running one-man show). In 1997 he became a campaigner for
drug law reform and unsuccessfully stood for Parliament on the
single-issue ticket of cannabis legalisation.
A true renaissance man, he made his living from writing (he wrote
five further books and was a Loaded columnist for many years),
DJ-ing, spoken word performances and acting.
Despite all of this, I’ll mainly remember him as a really great
friend. In locations as diverse as Galway, London, Amsterdam and
Ibiza, I enjoyed many adventures – and misadventures – in the
company of this eminently charming man.
Always generous, Howard did me many more favours than I ever
did him. He included my work in his bestselling anthology, The
Howard Marks Book of Dope Stories, and wrote the foreword to
my autobiography, The Story of O, in 2000. He happily agreed to
fly to Dublin in November 2010 to launch my interview collection,
Selected Recordings (unfortunately, his flight was cancelled
because of the big freeze).
Howard also once put me in my one of my all-time favourite
books. One night in the late Nineties, following an appearance on
The Late Late Show, we were sharing a spliff in his room at the
I spotted a rather unwieldy looking manuscript on the table.
Howard explained that he had been asked to write an
introduction to Robert Sabbag’s classic 1976 book about cocaine
smuggling, Snowblind, but the publishers hadn’t been able to give
him an original copy. “It’s a real pain in the arse carrying this
bloody thing around everywhere,” he complained.
When I told him that I had an old Picador paperback edition at
home, he begged me to get it. So I hopped in a taxi. When the new
edition eventually appeared, the first paragraph of his
introduction explained that Snowblind had been hard to find but
“eventually, Olaf Tyaransen of Dublin’s Hot Press temporarily
parted with his copy.” It was typically generous of him.
During our Metropolis interview, I asked Howard if he had any
regrets. Although he knew the end was near, he quite cheerfully
replied, “No, no regrets. I don’t think you can regret anything if
you feel okay. I feel happy and okay now so I can’t possibly regret
anything that brought me to this position.”
Rest in peace, my old friend...
John Cooper Clarke
April 2016 (1)
November 2015 (1)