It’s extraordinary that the gigantic counter-cultural movement known to most people as the era of the hippies still awaits a major comprehensive account. Professional historians appear to look away in embarrassment, not least, perhaps, because they themselves were involved in their student days and would rather forget it. But, lasting from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, this was a global event involving tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people. It changed many of them forever, even if most were quick to double back into conventional lifestyles. And the semi-sacramental use of illegal marijuana was without any doubt the bedrock of the entire phenomenon.
Thai Stick is not this elusive historical overview, but it does attempt to be an account of one important aspect of that era of “deviant globalization” — the cross-border trade in marijuana. It’s credited to two authors, but in reality is written by the first, Peter Maguire. Maguire, at one time a researcher into Khmer Rouge atrocities, largely bases this new book on extensive interviews conducted by a self-confessed former participant in the smuggling business, Mike Ritter. He’s rightly credited as co-author.
It’s an amazing book to come from Columbia University Press, and they apparently had doubts as to its suitability to their list. But it manages to combine academic respectability (it has 40 pages of notes and bibliography) with a breezy colloquial accessibility. It has some of the authenticity of Richard Neville’s Play Power (an early account from 1970) and Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven (a modest overview dating from 1987).
The Vietnam War is central to the story. Many young Americans of this generation had made themselves outlaws by dodging the draft, so smuggling illegal drugs didn’t seem too big a step to take. Also, these early traders were informed by the “underground” ideology of vegetarianism, pacifism, Eastern philosophy, astrology and the rest, so that importing marijuana was helping distribute an agent that, they thought, would bring about a fundamental change in any user’s mindset. Thai sticks weren’t only the equivalent of single-malt whisky, as someone comments here — they were for many the sacrament of a new religion.
By Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter
Columbia University Press
Surfing itself begins the book — some of the ’60s generation considered it a form of ritual meditation. But it led to a longing to surf the best waves worldwide, something some of the traffickers achieved. Drug guru Timothy Leary — well described by historian David Farber in the foreword as “simultaneously charlatan and shaman” — considered surfers to be an advanced form of humanity.
In the mid-’60s most of the marijuana in California came from Mexico. Next came the US homegrown variety, presumably cultivated from Mexican seeds, and then, following the “hippie trail” east to Afghanistan, Nepal, Thailand and Bali, the more powerful Asian product was increasingly in demand. Early travelers were apparently astounded by the potency of Afghan hashish, and Thai sticks — a dozen or more heads of the plant tied together round a thin bamboo rod — were soon fetching high prices all over the US. Forty-five years ago, a kilo that would cost US$3 in north-eastern Thailand would sell for US$2,000 in any US city.
This book follows the fortunes of Californian surfers turned drug-traffickers. There are tales of long-haired, suntanned young men traveling round the world first-class, tipping generously, and making their way to lavish houses on Bali’s Kuta Beach. Yet a former agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), extensively interviewed for this book, says that he was in a way impressed by their ethos. They were people who would never, ever pull a gun on you, he says.