Thu, Dec 26, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade

A rollicking account of how young Californian surfers became big-time Thai marijuana traffickers during the 1970s

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

Things were to change later as the gigantic profits to be made became known. Imports were then by the ton, DEA arrests increased proportionately, and colleagues were ‘’the best friends money could buy.” But even the later chapters of this book are the stuff of schoolboy stories, featuring pirates, 40-foot seas, abandoned cargoes, rooms full of money (the trade was invariably carried out in cash), and a flash of light at night on a remote beach with an answering signal from out at sea. Smuggling doesn’t seem to change much, whether it’s of marijuana, moonshine during the US prohibition years, or brandy in the UK in the 18th century.

The differences between SE Asia and the US in those distant times are always to the fore. Marijuana was allegedly seen as a medicinal herb, and something to keep old men happy, in the Thailand of the 1960s. There’s one story of police encountering US smugglers carrying US$60,000, taking US$5,000 of it, and then waving them on.

As for the authors, Ritter is described as making US$5 million in 1986 before giving up trafficking. But in 2003 he got a call from the US authorities that eventually led him to believe that if he paid US$1 million he’d remain a free man. A judge thought differently, however, and sentenced him to two years. He served one year in a low-security institution, then six months in a halfway house. On his release he enrolled for a degree at the University of Hawaii, and continued work assembling material for this book. Maguire, who describes himself as having been “a peripheral participant,” now designs and tests boats for the US military.

Thai Stick, with its insider knowledge and careful, extensive research, certainly contributes to our understanding of a past era. If it’s generally sympathetic to the men whose exploits it describes (women were less often involved), this was perhaps part and parcel of researching the story in the first place. That it also manages to be a rattling good yarn is merely an additional asset. Columbia University Press is to be congratulated on their courage in publishing what seems to be a pioneering account, and for taking the long historical view of a billion-dollar business, albeit an illegal one, that was effectively conducted by amateurs.

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