Howard Marks obituary


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

of dying.”

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...

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