Howard Marks is a best selling author and a former international drug smuggler now living in Leeds. He talks to Chris Bond.
HOWARD Marks does his jacket up and takes a drag on his cigarette.
It’s not that long ago that smoking was commonplace but these days smokers are forced outside and on a cold winter’s evening such as this it’s not the most pleasant, or glamorous experience.
Most people welcomed the smoking ban when it was introduced in 2007 but Marks, who shot to fame following the success of his autobiography Mr Nice, has been one of its most high-profile critics and talks about his opposition to the ban in his popular one man show, An Audience with Mr Nice.
He will no doubt be preaching to the converted when he takes to the stage on Sunday for a sell-out show at The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, when he will be extoling his alternative views on smoking. “J M Barrie gave up smoking and wrote a beautiful book called My Lady Nicotine about what he missed and I’ve read up a lot about these shamans in South America who use it as part of their medical treatment and I’ve found out a lot about the medicinal qualities of tobacco,” he says.
Marks was once described as the “most sophisticated drugs baron of all time” and his life certainly hasn’t been dull having worked at one time with the British Secret Service and been connected in the past with the Mafia, MI6 and the CIA.
Born in a quiet mining village in Wales, he went on to study nuclear physics at Oxford University where he was first introduced to marijuana, and rather than follow a career in academia he embarked on a life as an international cannabis drug smuggler.
He was finally busted in 1988 by the US Drug Enforcement Agency and was sentenced to 25 years in one of America’s toughest penitentiaries, before being released on parole in 1995 after serving seven years. He’s philosophical about his stint behind bars. “Not being with my family was the hard part, but I never saw it as a tragedy. I just lost at a game I had decided to play,” he says.
He returned to the UK where he was offered a six figure sum to write his autobiography, the title of which comes from his old nickname. It quickly became a bestseller and Marks admits he was “astonished” by its success.
“When I wrote it I was writing for fellow geriatrics to give them a sense of nostalgia, but none of those people bought it, the kids bought it,” he says. “It whirlwinded me into a situation I was hopelessly unprepared for but nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed.”
Since then Marks, who now lives in Leeds, has reinvented himself as a writer, record label boss and counter-culture raconteur. He even applied to be the UK’s drugs tsar before Keith Halliwell was appointed.
He believes attitudes towards drugs have changed in the UK. “Cannabis has become much stronger but the main change is the prevalence of it. When I started in the 60s it was almost a luxury for middle class academics, the postman wasn’t smoking or the plumber, but now they’re all at it.” He’s also, not surprisingly, in favour of relaxing the drugs laws.
“I’m firmly in favour of straightforward legalisation because I think it would be less harmful to society if it was legalised and controlled.”
Looking back on his life he agrees that it’s been eventful. “It wasn’t predictable, even by me. There have been sad times when I was separated from my family but I think it’s worked out all right.”
Now, at the age of 67, he’s content doing his shows and writing.
“It is a bit like singing for my supper and it doesn’t pay like the old game but I don’t want to go back to all that, this is fine,” he says.
Howard Marks, The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, January 27.
The life and times of Mr Nice
Howard Marks was born in a small coal mining village in Wales in 1945.
A bright child, he went on to study at Oxford University in 1964 where he gained a degree in nuclear physics and first started smoking marijuana.
In the 70s he set up an international cannabis drug smuggling business before being jailed for 25 years in 1988. He was released on parole seven years later.
In 1996 his autobiography, Mr Nice, became an international bestseller. It was made into a film in 2010.
His first crime fiction novel, Sympathy for the Devil, was published in 2011.