Howard Marks was like the James Bond of marijuana smugglers. In the 1970s and 1980s, he traveled under at least 43 false passports and exported tons of marijuana and hashish from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines and South America, while banking in Hong Kong and Switzerland. He lived a high rolling lifestyle. Mick Jagger and John Lennon came to his parties in New York, and for a very short time, he was an operative for the British intelligence service, MI6. He had connections to the Irish Republican Army, the Mafia and several international drug rings. Though a criminal, he also held himself to a strict ethical code: He only ever smuggled cannabis products and he was never involved in violence. He continues to fight for marijuana’s legalization today.
So a few weeks ago, I was more than a little surprised to receive a text message from a friend: “Howard Marks is here in Taipei. Is anything happening today?”
The last time Marks, a Welshman, was in Taiwan was 1988. He was on the run from the US’ Drug Enforcement Administration, and days after his departure from Taipei, he was arrested in Spain and eventually extradited to the US, where he was charged with trafficking over 100 tonnes of cannabis into the US and sentenced to 25 years in prison. After seven years in a maximum security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, he was paroled and returned to the UK.
One of Marks’ false passports bore the name Donald Nice, a name he used for the title of his 1995 tell-all, Mr. Nice: An Autobiography. The book is now ubiquitous in the weed-friendly backpacker locales of southeast Asia, and it has cemented his status as a counter-culture legend.
We met up that afternoon for a beer, and then later that evening I joined his small party, running up an exorbitant bill at a sake bar on Anhe Road. Marks now makes his living as a writer and a speaker, touring the UK and delivering his extensive collection of drug stories as a form of stand-up comedy. For this trip — his first visit to Taiwan in 25 years — he was on assignment writing a travel story for The Guardian. He was with his daughter Amber, a criminal lawyer and writer, who was writing about Taiwan for a business magazine.
I couldn’t help asking: On the flight in, did you see that drug smuggling warrants the death penalty in Taiwan?
“Yes I did,” said Marks. He was almost theatrically nonchalant. “And when I came here before [in the 80s], I think there was also that notice then. Or at least I knew they had the death penalty for it. But then they do in Thailand, Singapore and elsewhere. But I had no intention of exporting from here or importing to here. I was just using it as an administrative headquarters and a place to live.”
Marks’ book, Mr. Nice, includes a small section about his time in Taiwan. But over the course of several chats and numerous hand-rolled cigarettes, I found there was more to his history here. On this trip, he had come back to Taiwan to make a reckoning of sorts.
Temple of the Dog
Marks made three visits to Taiwan in 1987 and 1988, staying for four to five weeks each time. He stayed at the now closed-down Fortuna Hotel on Zhongshan North Road, which was in close proximity to the red light bar district of the Combat Zone. He was a regular at some of the rowdy nightclubs that emerged at the end of the Martial Law era, including Buffalo Town and Hsa Lin (夏林).