Goodbye to Mr Nice - the drug smuggler who became a folk hero

Once one of America's most wanted men, 'a modern-day folk hero', and someone who very much lived up to his moniker Mr Nice, former drug smuggler Howard Marks has died at age 70.

Howard Marks pictured in Azucar bar in Leeds in 2010.
 Picture: Andrew Bellis w1482c013
Howard Marks pictured in Azucar bar in Leeds in 2010. Picture: Andrew Bellis w1482c013

Mr Marks, who set up home in Leeds after being released from American’s toughest jail, rose to become a cult figure after releasing his autobiography Mr Nice in 1996, which was later made into a film starring Rhys Ifans.

He announced he had inoperable bowel cancer last year, and died peacefully on April 10, surrounded by his four children.

A family statement said “he fought the illness with grace and humour”.

Howard Marks pictured in Azucar bar in Leeds in 2010. Picture: Andrew Bellis w1482c013

Born in the small mining village of Kenfig Hill, Marks first became involved with drugs during his time studying nuclear physics and philosophy at Oxford University.

Turning his back on academia, he starting making a career out of smuggling cannabis, laundering funds through a boutique in Oxford.

The operation soon became much bigger, and he was soon using the music gear of British bands to smuggle tonnes of cannabis into America.

But his illegal operations soon caught up with him, and in 1973 he was arrested in the Netherlands. He told investigators he had been asked by British intelligence to infiltrate IRA drug-smuggling operations. Marks was extradited to Britain but went on the run - the makings of which was so fanciful his memoir read like a best selling crime thriller.

Howard Marks pictured in Azucar bar in Leeds in 2010. Picture: Andrew Bellis w1482c013

He claimed to have used 43 different alibis - including Mr Nice - and while fugitive for six and a half years continued to smuggle cannabis.

He was eventually apprehended in 1980, but his charm - and his MI6 excuse - led to his acquittal, and he was sentenced to just three years after admitting a lesser charge, time served on remand.

Marks and his family then moved to Majorca, where he was tracked down by an American drug enforcement officer, who eventually, after coercing one of his accomplices into recording incriminating conversations, arrested him and flew him to Florida, where he was charged with racketeering.

Marks pleaded guilty and was charged to 25 years to be served in one America’s toughest jails, the maximum security federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Howard Marks pictured in Azucar bar in Leeds in 2010. Picture: Andrew Bellis w1482c013

Loved there by fellow inmates and guards alike, he served seven years teaching inmates and writing before being released on parole and moving back to Majorca, where he wrote Mr Nice, his autobiography.

Marks moved to Leeds in 2005 after the break up of his marriage, and became a brand ambassador for Azucar tapas bar, close to his home at Brewary Wharf. His travel memorabilia covered the walls and he could often be seen writing in the bar and talking to customers.

He went on to release many more books, including Señor Nice, and in 2010 Mr Nice became a film, starring Marks’s friend Rhys Ifans.

Marks had a successful column in Loaded magazine and became a prominent campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis - even standing as an MP four times on that single issue.

Howard Marks pictured in Azucar bar in Leeds in 2010. Picture: Andrew Bellis w1482c013

He also toured a one man show, appearing at theatres and venues across the country and at festivals, including Long Division in Wakefield.

Tributes have been paid from across the publishing and music worlds.

Friend and former colleague at Loaded magazine James Brown told The Guardian that Marks was a “true modern-day folk hero”, who had done “so many funny, shocking, illegal things”.

He said: “He stood for everything we loved. Mr Nice was a thrilling book.

“Howard is a bloody great example to us all.”

Charlatans singer Tim Burgess tweeted: “A sad day. Howard Marks has died. What a story, what a life. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night x x”

Rob da Bank - the founder of Bestival - tweeted: “Very sad news that our mate and hero Howard Marks has died. An hilarious, beautiful and anarchic man who will be much missed X”

He said one of his favourite memories of Marks was him reading bedtime stories at the festival “like a beloved grandpa”.

He posted a picture on Instagram of Marks reading surrounded by children and also praised his dubstep DJ-ing skills.

DJ Edith Bowman tweeted: “Very very sad to hear the news about Howard Marks. Lucky enough to interview him a few times and never a sharper funnier mind did I meet X”

In an interview with The Observer in January 2015, Marks said he had come to terms with his illness. He said: “It’s impossible to regret any part of my life when I feel happy and I am happy now, so I don’t have any regrets and have not had any for a very long time.”

Reflecting on his career, he said: “Smuggling cannabis was a wonderful way of living - perpetual culture shock, absurd amounts of money, and the comforting knowledge of getting so many people stoned.”

A family statement said: “In the early hours of 10th April 2016, Howard Marks died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his four loving children.

“He fought the illness with grace and humour.

“His death was 21 years to the day since his release from prison in the United States, his second bout of imprisonment for cannabis smuggling since his miraculous acquittal at the Old Bailey in 1980.

“One of his last acts was to set up the Mr Nice foundation, to ensure the causes dear to him continue to receive his support.”