Today’s anti-hero protagonist was a physics graduate at Oxford, and in later life became a stand-up comedian, best-selling author and recording artist.
But it’s what he did in between those things that made him a folk hero, or rather an anti-hero. At the peak of his activities, in the 1970s and 1980s, he was at the head of a drug-smuggling empire, responsible for importing the largest ever shipment of cannabis to the UK.
But the reign of this anomalous drug lord did not rely on firepower nor intimidation. It rested solely on his charisma, his ability to forge useful contacts, his inventiveness, and industrial quantities of cheek.
This is the story of Howard Marks, better known as ‘Mr. Nice’.
The Welsh Elvis
Dennis Howard Marks was born on the 13th of August 1945, in Kenfig Hill, South Wales. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father was a skipper of merchant ships. Young Howard would travel frequently on his father’s ships. His earliest memory is of him throwing the sailors’ cat into the sea, the only occasion on which his father used corporal punishment.
Besides this incident, Howard was a happy, bright, and studious child, entering Garw Grammar School at the age of 11. That same year, he developed his first scam.
By flicking a thermometer, he could increase his temperature reading. He could then simulate a rare condition: undulant fever. He spent weeks in a hospital ward, being fed medicines and pampered by attractive nurses. This is how he first experienced sexual arousal, and an early taste for drugs!
The ruse could not go on forever and Howard had to return to school. Soon, he developed the worst possible reputation: that of being a nerd. As a reaction, he modeled his persona after Elvis Presley. Howards was a good piano player and could hammer out some of the King’s most popular tunes.
To bolster his popularity, Howard became friends with an older, bigger, and meaner boy, Albert Hancock.
Albert took him under his wing and introduced him to the only night life that Kenfig Hill had to offer: the local pubs.
Around the age of 15, Howard became a fixture of the scene, spending his evenings swigging beer, puffing on ciggies, and singing Elvis Presley hits for the other patrons.
When his dad found out, he was grounded for six months. With little else to do, Howard went back to studying and nailed his school exams at the age of 16. He could now access the advanced level certificates.
The subjects he chose were Physics, Chemistry, and Maths – by day, that is.
In the evening, he was still pursuing an advanced diploma in booze, live music, and sex.
But surprisingly, he kept getting good grades at school! So much so that the headmaster of Garw convinced him to apply to Balliol College in Oxford, to study physics.
Howard showed up to the admittance interview completely drunk on beer – but somehow nailed it!
Coup de Grass
When Howard first moved to Oxford in September 1964, he made an interesting discovery: attending lectures was not compulsory! So, with plenty of spare time he dedicated himself to his favorite activities: networking and chasing girls.
The time for exams came along and Howard realized he had studied little to nothing.
Not a problem. With a daring burglary he broke into the offices of the examiners and stole a copy of the test papers!
During his second year, his network and popularity expanded. Howard was constantly surrounded by friends and adoring girls. Former Oxford mate John Nicholson said that “there was instant sunshine wherever Howard went.”
One of his then girlfriends, Lynn Barber, claimed that he seduced her with two simple words: “come here.” During this period, Howard made a new friend in Denys Irving. A landmark acquaintance, which introduced the young Welsh to Indian food – and cannabis.
It was a revelation. Howard was hooked – both on tikka masala and ‘grass’.
His room at Balliol became the backdrop of a constant party. People came in and out at all times of day and night, dancing through the wafting mist of reefers.
Then, willing to explore new boundaries, Howard accepted an offer to try LSD.
The results were far from exhilarating. He plunged into a period of suicidal, miserable thoughts: a ‘bad trip’. It culminated with an incident in which he shot at a passer-by with an air gun.
The gun was not loaded, but the intended target filed a complaint with John Jones, the Dean of the College. The Dean was rather forgiving, issuing only a reprimand to Howard, who would not touch LSD again. Free of bad chemical influences, Howard returned to his diet of beer and weed.
During his final year at Oxford, Howard and two friends moved out of College into a house in Paradise Square.
They shared lodgings with a heroin addict, known to the local police. It was only a matter of time before Paradise Square was raided in a drug bust. The coppers found the butt of a joint and took Howard and friends into custody.
Once again, the sympathetic Dean stepped in. He talked the police into releasing the boys, and even convinced Howard to take his studies more seriously.
And he did. The party animal was able to morph back into a nerd when needed, and he passed his final exams. But if he wanted a degree, he had to carry out several lab experiments, something he had little practice with.
What he had practiced … was cheating! He obtained a set of experiment results from other students and copied them onto his lab report.
It worked: Howard Marks emerged from Oxford with a second-class honors’ degree in physics.
From Consumer to Entrepreneur
The last, intense, period of studies – and cheating – had somehow pushed marijuana out of Howard’s existence. He was going straight: no drugs, little booze and a steady girlfriend, named Ilse, whom he married in December 1967.
The two moved to Notting Hill, in London, and signed up to a teacher-training course.
Howard, however, soon lost interest in the course. He had started drifting back into his old ways, hanging out with an old Oxford friend, Graham Plinston.
This was the pivotal moment which set Marks on the road to becoming Mr. Nice.
Plinston was not only a consumer of hashish, but also a dealer. Howard became his associate, helping shift his ‘merchandise’ to a vast network of friends: first while based in London, then Oxford, and later in Brighton.
Shortly after this latest move, Howard hit the big time, when Graham Plinston was busted in Germany.
Marks contacted Graham’s old suppliers, essentially inheriting his network, while he was in jail.
In this period, Howard left behind the last remnants of respectable life. He broke his marriage with Ilse and returned to London to expand his activities. Soon, he was controlling much of the cannabis and hashish imports to London, distributing them to local dealers in Southern England.
When Plinston was released and returned to Britain, he and Howard continued working together, this time as partners on an equal footing.
Their main supply route originated in Pakistan: a third partner, Mohammed Durrani, had enrolled several diplomats, who smuggled the drugs via Switzerland. Marks invested his ill-gotten gains in throwing lavish parties, and showering acquaintances with gifts and favors. In exchange, some of them helped with selling dope at street level. Others participated in setting up legitimate businesses as fronts, such as the fashion boutique Annabelindas in Oxford.
By 1971, Howard and Graham were tired of working with Durrani and the Pakistani diplomats, who kept 80% of the profits.
As they looked for other smuggling partners, they considered Jim McCann: a volatile man from Belfast, who claimed to be a member of the Provisional IRA, the Irish Republican Army.
In a meeting in Cork, Republic of Ireland, McCann asked Marks to organize the transport of cars filled with weapons from Wales into Ireland. McCann would take the guns, replace them with dope, and ship the cars back to Britain.
Marks immediately refused to smuggle any guns.
McCann was adamant that Howards had to ship something, anything, to Ireland.
They settled for … pornographic films (!)
Business kept on growing, so much so that Marks and Plinston attracted the attention of the British Secret Services.
One of their agents, Hamilton McMillan, had been friends with Howard at Oxford. The two got in contact, as McMillan wished to exploit Howard’s network to infiltrate the ‘underworld’.
Marks had established business relations with crime syndicates inside and outside the UK, including the US-based ‘Brotherhood of Eternal Love’, aka the ‘Hippie Mafia.’
He had been supplying them via an ingenious scheme. If a British band was about to tour the US, Marks ensured their amplifiers and speakers were filled with hashish! If no tour was scheduled, no problem: the Welsh smuggler would organize fake tours for non-existing bands.
One of such consignments was intercepted at JKF Airport in New York. This attracted the attention of the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, and the agent that would become Howard’s nemesis: Craig Lovato.
But before Lovato could do anything, his Dutch counterparts beat him to the punch. Marks had been arrested in Amsterdam whilst on a ‘business trip’.
Interrogated by the Dutch authorities, he spun a story so unbelievable that it worked: no Mr Dutch Policeman, I am not a vulgar dope dealer! I am an agent on Her Majesty’s service! I have been hired by MI6 to infiltrate the IRA’s drug-smuggling ring!
Or something to that effect.
As a result, the Dutch promptly extradited him to Britain.
While on bail awaiting trial, Marks was not idle, organizing shipments of hashish from the Middle East to the US. In New York, the dope was bought by a powerful Mafia family: the Gambinos.
This connection led to a very unpleasant experience.
The Gambinos had dispatched a ‘mafioso’ to collect cash from a deposit box in Amsterdam. Marks was to give him details on where to find the money. When the box turned out to be empty, the Mafia man paid a visit to Marks. He gave him a beating and then threatened to kill his family, unless he paid him £10K in cash.
A terrified Marks phoned his dad Dennis, asking to bring a suitcase full of money, which he had hidden in his parents’ home.
When Marks met the thug again, the man was apologetic. His boss back in the US had told him that Marks was an ‘OK guy’, who didn’t deserve that kind of treatment.
To apologize, the Gambinos offered to help him jump bail.
It was tempting … but if Howard simply disappeared, then his parents would lose the £40,000 they had deposited as bail!
Being the nice guy that he was, Marks couldn’t allow that!
He had a better idea.
In September of 1973, a Customs officer showed up at Howard’s Oxford flat and took him away. It later turned out that Customs had never sent anybody to collect Marks.
The police suspected a kidnapping! Who could have abducted the drug dealer? The Mafia? The IRA? Or … himself?
The Customs man was in fact a London friend of Howard’s and the two had staged a fake abduction. Technically, he had not ‘jumped bail!’
I (heart) Mr Nice
By the late 1970s, Marks had become one of the most wanted men in Britain.
He adopted a variety of disguises, assumed names and fake passports. He later claimed to have 43 bogus identities, including the iconic ‘Mr. Nice’, when he bought a passport from convicted murderer Donald Nice.
What was the secret of his success? According to criminologist Carlo Morselli of Montreal University, it was the nature of his organization.
Unlike South American cartels, or the Mafia, Howard’s operations were not run as a militaristic outfit with rigid structure, codes of honor, and quasi-bureaucratic procedures.
Howard relied instead on an informal yet cohesive network of contacts and friendships, which operated smoothly thanks to a culture of mutual favors and shared profit. Such an organization did not require the use of violence to operate, therefore didn’t attract excessive scrutiny from police forces.
Thanks to his network and chameleon-like skills, Marks was able to slip in and out of Britain undisturbed, shifting tons of cannabis across continents.
At a later stage, DEA Agent Lovato estimated that between 1975 and 1978 Marks had shipped to the US 24 loads of marijuana and hashish, for a total of 25 tonnes of dope.
These operations “had involved the Mafia, the Yakuza, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Thai army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Pakistani Armed Forces, Nepalese monks, and other individuals from all walks of life. The total profit made by all concerned was $48,000,000″
But clearly it wasn’t enough for ‘Mr. Nice’!
In 1979, Marks received 50 tonnes of cannabis from the Trafficantes, a Mafia family based in Florida. He delivered it to the Scottish coast, via a fleet of tugboats, yachts and dinghies.
Unfortunately for him, the market was too well supplied, and it took too long to shift the ‘grass’.
The Trafficantes got restless. If Marks couldn’t sell the dope fast enough, they would take matters into their hands.
A group of them reached the UK, but they weren’t very discreet. The Customs office put them under surveillance, until they saw them meeting a tall man, who looked a lot like Marks.
The police launched a series of raids, leading to the arrest of Howard and six associates. More importantly, they confiscated the largest consignment of cannabis ever imported to the UK, worth over £20 million.
That’s £76 million, or $103 million in today’s money.
Howard couldn’t be prouder when he saw the headlines … but he was due for jail!
As he awaited the trial, in 1980, he took the occasion to marry his latest sweetheart, Judy Lane. Their daughter Amber, aged two, was the bridesmaid. They went on to have two more children: Francesca, in 1981, and Patrick in 1987.
In November 1981, Howard went on trial. His defense attorneys performed a miracle.
They claimed that, at the time of the ‘Trafficante deal’, Marks had an iron-clad alibi: he was in Mexico, your honor, on an undercover assignment to combat terrorism and the trafficking of hard drugs!
The defense even produced passports and hotel bills to substantiate their claim. An unidentified Mexican secret agent showed up to testify in favor of Señor Marks!
All of this was fabricated, of course, but it did the trick.
The trial judge remarked: “I hope the jury are following all this, because I am a little lost.”
The jury were indeed following, many of its members spellbound by the charismatic personality of Mr Nice. One of them was seen doodling a heart.
Unsurprisingly, the jury declared the defendant not guilty.
Marks was released in 1982, with all intentions of going straight. But in 1983, he was offered the chance to sell 250 kilos of cannabis.
He accepted – and was back in business.
He established ties with a provider on the Afghani-Pakistani border, and the two supplied tons of dope to the US, entering the market by plane or boat. All the profits were laundered in travel agencies, paper mills, or deposited in safe accounts in Hong Kong.
In that period, Howard, Judy, and the kids relocated to Palma de Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain.
To locals and other expats, Howard was a loving father and husband, adored by his children.
They could not suspect that Mr Nice was running a perfectly oiled drug-smuggling machine, spanning 5 continents.
But Mr Nice did not suspect that a DEA agent he had never met, had been shadowing his every move for years, waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Thanks to British and Dutch investigators, Craig Lovato had learned that one Jim Hobbs acted as Marks’ phone operator from Amsterdam.
Hobbs picked up phone calls from associates all over the world, and then connected them to Marks’ home in Palma.
Lovato received authority to wiretap the lines and listened patiently for months.
Howard and his accomplices were always careful to speak in code: for example, ‘champagne’ was ‘marijuana’; or ‘Mozambique’ stood for ‘Mexico’ and so on.
These phone calls could not be used as evidence. Nonetheless, Lovato was able to reconstruct important nodes in Howard Marks’ network.
He learned that his brothers-in-law George and Patrick Lane were essential cogs, purchasing drugs from major suppliers or laundering profits.
The big surprise came when Howard connected with an eccentric British expat in the Philippines: Anthony Patrick Andrew Cairns Berkeley, Lord Moynihan.
The aristocrat had made a fortune managing brothels in the Philippines and was said to travel with a grenade launcher in the trunk of his car. Marks and Moynihan hit it off and sought to make business together: Mr Nice asked the Lord if he could help him buy land in the Philippines, to establish his own marijuana plantation.
In February of 1986, President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos was deposed after 21 years in office. Lovato knew that Lord Moynihan enjoyed the protection of the regime: with Marcos gone, he would be at his weakest.
DEA agents flew to Manila and convinced Moynihan to cooperate, in exchange for his own immunity. His job would be to wear a hidden microphone to record incriminating conversations with Marks.
Moynihan delivered – and in July 1988 Lovato and the Spanish Police arrested Howard and his wife Judy.
Now, Mrs. Marks was never a part of the organization. But she had picked up some calls on behalf of Howard, which was enough for an indictment.
As Marks was resisting extradition to the US, Lovato offered a deal: if he accepted to be tried in America, the DEA would release Judy.
He went on trial in Florida in 1991. This time, he did not try any creative defense shenanigans. When Howard’ brother-in-law George announced he would testify for the prosecution, he agreed to plead guilty.
‘Mr Nice’ was sentenced to 25 years, to be served at the Terre Haute penitentiary, Indiana. There, he acquired a new nickname: ‘Narco Polo’.
But he also gained a reputation as a model prisoner, popular with wardens and convicts, to which he taught grammar and philosophy classes.
Eventually, thanks to his good behavior, Howard Marks was released on parole in 1995.
A Folk Hero
Howard emerged from prison a new man, with a new career: that of an all-round entertainer.
In the span of five years, he appeared on the debut album by the Super Furry Animals, founded record label Bothered, worked as a DJ, and launched a successful one-man comedy show.
Theaters were sold out, as audiences laughed at Howard’s anecdotes of his lawless life. He later collected his stories in the best-selling autobiography ‘Mr. Nice’, adapted into a film starring Rhys Ifans in the lead.
Marks later admitted a short relapse into drug dealing in the mid-1990’s. He had bought a large quantity of ecstasy, ready to hit the market of dance clubs. But he realized that he had been sold an adulterated batch of pills, and refused to ‘push’ them.
The experience convinced him that synthetic drugs were too easy to be tampered with. They could not compete with the wholesomeness of natural drugs. That is when he started campaigning for the legalization of cannabis, even standing for election in four parliamentary constituencies.
He did not win a seat, but that did not deter him from campaigning during the following decade.
In the early 2010s, Marks was celebrated as a cult figure or folk hero. He continued to publish books, even venturing into crime fiction in the early 2010’s.
But in January 2015, he announced some very sad news to his admirers: he had been diagnosed with late-stage colorectal cancer.
In a BBC interview in October 2015, he revealed he had tried a variety of treatments, with unintended consequences:
“I took about eight weeks’ supply of cannabis oil … in one hit. Along with everything from apricot seeds to moths, all the crazy crackpot anti-cancer things you can take … I just took the lot and got sectioned, and put in the ‘nut-house’ for two weeks.”
But no treatment, neither experimental nor ‘crackpot’, could help at that stage.
Howard Marks died on the 10th of April 2016.
Our format certainly could not do justice to the myriad of capers that filled the picaresque life of today’s protagonist, that is why I encourage you to read his autobiography ‘Mr. Nice.’ The link in the description below.
He left this world leaving a dilemma behind. Did he deserve his folk-hero status, for eschewing violence, sale of hard drugs, and efforts to legalize cannabis? Or was he just another drug lord, a criminal whose actions should be condemned?
I will leave you with Howard’s own reflections, from one of his last interviews.
“Pretty much every drug would be safer to society if legalized and controlled, rather than left up to the criminal fraternity …
“Of course one has to have the caveat that if a drug is discovered or synthesized that makes you want to kill people and rape people, then make it illegal, obviously.
“I haven’t taken every drug in the world, but I’ve taken a lot, and I haven’t come across one that makes you like that. Except possibly alcohol, which is the only one that’s legal.
So, none of it makes sense to me.”
Mr Nice: The Incredible Story of an Unconventional Life, by Howard Marks
Craig Lovato’s investigations
Structuring Mr. Nice: Entrepreneurial Opportunities and Brokerage Positioning in the Cannabis Trade
Rogue Males: Richard Burton, Howard Marks and Sir Richard Burton, by Rob Walters
Other general Bios:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/aug/21/my-dad-mr-nice-amber-marks-howard-marks https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/10/howard-marks-dies-aged-70 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/11/howard-marks-obituary