scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Howard Marks, 70, drug smuggler turned author

<?EM-dummyText [Drophead goes here] ?>

Mr. Marks was “the Marco Polo of the drug traffic,’’ according to a drug enforcement agent.EPA

NEW YORK — Howard Marks, an Oxford-educated drug trafficker who at his peak in the 1970s controlled a substantial fraction of the world's hashish and marijuana trade, and who became a best-selling author after his release from a US prison, died Sunday. He was 70.

His death, from colorectal cancer, which he disclosed last year, was confirmed by Robin Harvie, publisher for nonfiction at Pan Macmillan, which released Mr. Marks's final book, "Mr. Smiley: My Last Pill and Testament," in September. No other details were provided.

Mr. Marks's drug-smuggling career started at Oxford University, where he studied physics and philosophy in the 1960s and peddled marijuana on the side. (He swore off harder substances, like heroin and cocaine, after his friend Joshua Macmillan, a grandson of the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, died of an overdose.)


In his 1996 autobiography, "Mr. Nice" (Donald Nice was one of his aliases), Mr. Marks wrote that his induction into the drug trade followed a chance encounter with a Pakistani supplier.

He eventually teamed up with James McCann, an Irish Republican Army operative, who arranged for large shipments of hashish through Ireland. Mr. Marks and his accomplices then laundered the proceeds through a staggering array of front companies. They widened their activities to include the United States and Canada in 1973.

Mr. Marks was arrested on drug charges in Nevada in 1976, but he failed to appear in court and fled. His elusiveness made him something of a legend; in 1979, he appeared on a stage in London, flanked by Elvis personators, only to disappear again. He was eventually arrested in the Scottish Highlands, where he had imported 15 tons of marijuana from Colombia with a street value of $30 million, and in 1980 he faced narcotics charges in London.

To the government's embarrassment, he was acquitted at his trial after arguing that he had been an agent of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA (In fact, his relationship with the agency had ended years earlier.)


"That was intimidating, to see that he had defeated the system, that he had somewhat created an aura about him that he was untouchable," Craig Lovato, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who helped bring down Mr. Marks, later told the PBS series "Frontline."

Those escapades inspired a 1984 book, "High Time: The Life and Times of Howard Marks," by the investigative journalist David Leigh, which portrayed Mr. Marks as a playboy in London and New York who was partial to expensive suits.

It was the United States that eventually brought him to justice. In July 1988, Mr. Marks and his wife, the former Judith Lane, were arrested on the Spanish island of Majorca and were charged, along with 20 accomplices.

They were accused of involvement in a drug-smuggling ring that encompassed — along with Britain, Canada, and the United States — Australia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, and West Germany.

The authorities seized more than $9 million in cash from the group, in addition to properties including a 103-foot-long boat in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"Mr. Marks was the Marco Polo of the drug traffic," Thomas V. Cash, the special agent in charge of the Miami division of the DEA, said at the time. "He perfected smuggling methods and intricate laundering operations involving many countries around the globe, and this is why it took efforts in so many countries to complete this case."


According to the indictment, Mr. Marks's network smuggled "thousands of tons" of marijuana and hashish into the United States and Canada from 1973 to 1988. Sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1990, Mr. Marks was held in a high-security federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., before he was released in 1995.

Returning to Britain, Mr. Marks capitalized on his notoriety, writing his autobiography, the first of several books he would publish, including a novel. The autobiography was the basis for a 2011 film.

"Those of us who were old enough in the 1960s and early '70s to recall the smug, superior attitude [tinged with paranoia] of the period's hipoisie will recognize his type and wonder exactly what happened to all those Mr. Tambourine Men preaching drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll," New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote in his review of the movie.

Mr. Marks also ran for Parliament, unsuccessfully, in 1997 on a single-issue platform of cannabis legalization.

Dennis Howard Marks was born on Aug. 13, 1945, in Kenfig Hill, a village in southern Wales. He was twice divorced; his second wife, Judy Marks, wrote her own memoir, "Mr. Nice and Mrs. Marks: Life With Howard," in 2006. He leaves their three children — Amber, Francesca, and Patrick — as well as a daughter, Myfanwy, from a previous marriage.