Howard Marks (1945-2016)

What a life! Now that Howard Marks has ambled off to Hemp Heaven, one can only marvel at the sheer breadth, depth and weight of the incredible experiences he crammed into his three-score-years-and-ten. Thankfully, he recorded his extraordinary adventures for posterity in four page-turning autobiographical yarns, Mr Nice (also made into an enjoyable movie), Howard Marks’ Book of Dope Stories, Senor Nice and Sympathy for the Devil, to leave a legacy that can inspire future Welsh generations to strive to emulate his dazzling example.

Oh, how Wales cries out for a few more like the Mynydd Cynffig space cowboy! This Wales of conformist, conventional, unquestioning, uncritical, reactionary, rightwing, pre-programmed, obedient robots; this Wales of happy-clappy uncuriosity, bland banality, and risk-free mediocrity; this Wales of smarmy sycophants, cheerleaders for the status quo and stooges of the British establishment; this Wales of hypnotised, deluded collaborators, toiling and shopping so that a small elite can live lavishly; this Wales sleep-walking to oblivion…this is a Wales that represents everything Howard Marks fought against with the only weapons he had: supreme intelligence, perceptiveness and humour – and a pair of balls.

For a working-class, Welsh-speaking boy to get to Balliol College, Oxford, in the 1960s, when only 1% of UK 18-year-olds went to any university let alone Oxford, was virtually unprecedented and shows the natural cleverness and talent of Marks even before he was introduced to the mind-expanding love of his life at Oxford: Mary Jane. Marijuana. Cannabis sativa. Dope.


Grass and hashish opened his searching, intrepid brain further and, like any thoughtful, idealistic youngster of the era, Marks duly turned on, tuned in and dropped out of the UK’s rotten-to-the-core mainstream. Entirely unmotivated by money, self-interest or power, he took on the noble responsibility of distributing the hard-to-obtain, outlawed weed – firstly just among his mates until, rising to the top of the underground pyramid through wiliness and courage, his dealing evolved into an international operation. In this way he inevitably came face to face with the dark forces that run the planet. For decades he outwitted, outmanoeuvred and outran the true criminals, MI5, MI6, the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia – in other words, all the secret, unaccountable agencies with vested interests in the narcotics trade, in laundering money, in protecting wealth and in social control. Eventually the mighty resources of ‘law and order’ nabbed him and, after extradition from Spain to the US and a show-trial in Florida, he was sentenced to 25 years in Terra Haute federal prison, Indiana – a high-security, heavy-duty hell-hole full of murderers, rapists and madmen. Yet, even in this most unconducive of all conceivable environments, Howard’s humanity, hilarity and high-mindedness triumphed. Before being released on parole in 1995, he had become legal adviser, educator, therapist and much-respected best pal to most of the jail – in itself an achievement that beggars belief and illustrates the unique calibre of the man.  Never beaten, never crushed, never selling out, his post-jail creativity as writer, raconteur, performer, bohemian icon and all-round entertainer, giant reefer perpetually in hand, put the cherry on the cake and elevated him into the select echelons of all-time Welsh greats.

To the end Howard Marks campaigned for the legalisation of cannabis, and lived long enough to see his life’s work begin to make progress around the world. Even in the US, so long the hawks in the utterly counter-productive ‘War on Drugs’, pot is now completely legal for recreational and medicinal use in four States (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington) and decriminalised in 18 others. Naturally, the UK is an exception to this welcome trend. Here stifling straightjackets are a way of life and ‘liberalism’ is reserved for super-rich tax dodgers and corporate juggernauts while the disposable subjects are policed by more rules and regulations than anywhere else on Earth. Cannabis was first made illegal in the UK in 1928, more by accident than design in a general clampdown on all narcotics. This ludicrous law against a native plant (so hardy, easy to cultivate and integral to human culture and history that there are more than 5,000 words for it globally) was gradually turned into a convenient way to persecute and harass those who were traditionally drawn to the fabulous herb: black people, lefties, artists, intellectuals, philosophers, idlers, free-thinkers – in fact, anyone who dares to question the imbecilic nostrums of prevailing orthodoxies. The law has destroyed lives, criminalised the innocent, denied unquantifiable numbers a medicinal boon and fostered a network of violent, supranational drug gangs making fortunes out of prohibition and black markets – while stashing it all away, of course, in the UK’s handy portfolio of offshore tax havens (eg: Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, the Virgin Islands – and the Isle of Dogs).

Over and over again, scientific reports and academic commissions for governments all over the world have concluded that anti-cannabis laws are a nonsense. But since when did reason have anything to do with British governance? Led by a towering hypocrite who regularly inhaled at uni – when he wasn’t sticking his penis into the orifices of dead pigs at classy revels with other Hooray Henry hooligans – the Tory government couldn’t possibly countenance anything that might raise consciousness or challenge capitalism’s competitive ethos with a co-operative alternative. Meanwhile, the most powerful, destructive and dangerous drug of all, alcohol, is available at giveaway prices everywhere, the better to foster a numb, dumb, blotto, broken people, oblivious to what’s really going on. As the old hippy axiom put it: “Alcohol is for those who want to forget; dope is for those who want to remember”.

Wales would have to be firstly independent and secondly run by progressive forces for it to join the sane, benign, forward-thinking countries that are relaxing their cannabis laws.  Here it’s out of the question so long as the Assembly is controlled by the type of befuddled, uptight conservatives who recently tried to outlaw e-cigarettes, people Howard Marks held in derisive contempt. Dispensing entirely with evidence-based, rational argument, Labour health minister Mark Drakeford, increasingly resembling a prudish Old Maid getting hot flushes at a glimpse of piano leg, was reduced to a peculiarly revealing argument: e-cigs may be harmless vapour but they normalise the act of putting something in your mouth and sucking. O0-er, Mrs! We can’t have that! Incredibly, instead of being kicked down the Senedd steps and dunked in Llyn Ych-a-fi, Drakeford nearly won the March vote: it only failed because Plaid decided to vote against at the last minute – much to the distress of another puritanical nanny, the AM for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Off topic: can anyone please explain to me why Dafydd Elis Thomas is still a Plaid Cymru member and not where he belongs, licking envelopes for the Labour party? On topic: the likes of Mr Drakeford and ‘Lord’ Elis Thomas forever bang on about the importance of “role-models” to impressionable children (apparently such simpletons are sure to start on the slippery slope to a Golden Virginia habit if lured by the sight of an adult having a pretend smoke); but don’t seem to care one bit that their own authoritarian, knee-jerk instinct to ban things and restrict personal autonomy makes them the very worst role-models currently at large in Wales.

Diolch yn fawr Howard fach. The fight goes on. You are stardust now – just don’t bogart that joint man.