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).
On his final visit to Taipei in 1988, he was quite conscious that a dragnet was closing in around him.
“I was a marijuana smuggler for many years, and I had reason to believe — partly because there was a bent DEA agent who was tailing me — that they were about to arrest me. I was working a lot, exporting from Thailand and banking in Hong Kong. Most of my work was in the Far East. I also had a front of a travel agency in England. It was a very big one, and was the agent for China Airlines. So I thought maybe Taiwan would be the place to go on the run, because there was no American embassy here. It just seemed like a sensible place to hide and a place where I wasn’t known.”
“So I came here with that intention. I had a false passport, and an entry stamp that was faked.”
In the mornings, Marks would have coffee at a Filipino-run bar called Nesty’s. The place was named after the proprietor, and Nesty’s brother-in-law was a small-time gangster. One day, Nesty told Marks he was taking his brother-in-law to the Dog Temple, or the Eighteen Kings Temple (十 八王公廟), on Taiwan’s northeast coast. It was a place where Taiwan’s criminals and prostitutes regularly went to pray for guidance. The temple was built near the site of a shipwreck during the reign of the Tongzhi emperor (1862 to 1874) of the Qing Dynasty. The 18 kings refer to the 17 disaster victims and the single survivor, a dog. The human victims were all buried in a single grave, and at the interment the dog leapt into the grave and refused to come out. In the end it was buried with its master. A pair of dog statues now serve as religious icons and paragons of loyalty. Loyalty is very important to gangsters.
Marks told us this much at the sake bar and said he wanted to revisit the temple two days following. I offered to drive him out, and he gladly accepted.
The Dog Temple is on a desolate stretch of coast, and is neighbored by Taiwan’s first nuclear power plant, which sits only several hundred meters away. The coastline consists of upturned shelves of black volcanic rock, which extend into the sea as treacherous reefs. During the winter months, the northeast monsoon pummel these reefs and the mountains behind them with wind and rain. Though we arrived on a sunny September day, the onshore winds were already howling.
On Marks’ first visit in 1988, he remembered the parking lot was full of black Mercedes, and the place was swarming with gangsters and prostitutes. There was only one dog statue then — it was more than two meters tall. That big dog has since been replaced by two smaller ones, and the parking lot was largely empty. We were met by a gaggle of old ladies selling charms. Marks happily shelled out NT$100 for two of the cheap, gilded chains, and soon placed one around his neck.
Back in 1988, with drug agents on his tail, Marks recalled thinking the temple “would be a sensible place to go and seek advice. So I asked the dog whether I should go home to my children, or stay here in Taiwan, and the answer came — at least this was my understanding through a translator — the answer came to go home.”
So Marks flew to Plama, Spain, to his wife and children. “I immediately got arrested and spent the next seven years in prison. Certainly for the first few years, I really wanted to kick that dog up the arse, I mean really give it some punishment. This has been my first opportunity today. But I didn’t kick it up the arse, partly because its arse was pretty inaccessible.”
The dogs icons are now raised up on an altar, and in the incense pot in front of them, supplicants plant cigarette butts alongside incense sticks. Marks rolled a cigarette, took a couple drags, and stuck it into the ash.
“So I hugged the dog instead,” continued Marks. “Because I’m actually quite happy now.”
Behind the altar, climbing a hidden stairwell to a small, dark room above the temple, we discovered a cabinet full of small pink paper slips bearing fortunes. In Taoist temples, such fortunes are selected at random by supplicants. Some temples have hundreds of fortunes, but this temple seemed to have only a few. I opened only one of three or four drawers in the cabinet, and it was full of the same fortune. It was labeled “the third poem,” and is possibly from a series of “divination slips of Guanyin.” The fortune bore a close resemblance to the one that Marks chose in 1988. It read:
Fortunate airs are rising, they are most auspicious
Travelers will find benefit in returning home
If burdened by legal affairs, settle them peaceably
A harmonious marriage will produce a son
It was a good fortune, and in Marks’ case, it was clearly advising him to return to his family in Europe. However, we would later notice that its meaning was not so cut and dry. Once Marks made his peace with the dogs, we drove on to Tamsui (淡水) for a seafood dinner. Upon a second inspection of the slip, we found another quatrain, printed in smaller type just next to the larger fortune. It read:
This sacred word will bring luck to one of noble heart
But for a scoundrel it will bode ill fortune
Many contradictions are apparent
The return of good fortune cannot be determined
Upon reading this, the woman translating for us burst out laughing, before stuttering in English, “You didn’t read the fine print!”
Marks had a good laugh as well. At 67 years old, his criminal days are behind him, and he is with his family again. Perhaps you could say his karmic accounts had been settled.
Drug smuggling, now and then
I asked him about the difference between smuggling now and then, especially the extreme violence surrounding the drug trade in northern Mexico.
“It wasn’t like that in the hippy days. The penalties have gotten bigger and bigger, and the loads have gotten bigger and bigger. So you only got the tough hard-nuts doing it these days. And they tend to be violent. But in my day, at least when I started, it was a hippy, love-and-peace sort of thing.”
I asked if he thought drug laws are to blame for the culture of violence that’s grown around drugs.
“Of course,” he replied. “I entirely believe that.”
Though decriminalization of marijuana is becoming more common in the West, Marks is critical of this, saying that it does not solve the problem of the criminal culture. “If you decriminalize any drug, at first the consumption is likely to increase because people aren’t afraid to take it anymore. And if the consumption increases, then the demand will increase and the supply will have to increase. But if that supply remains criminal, then you’re further criminalizing it.”
“So decriminalization is illogical,” he continued. “You can’t condone the consumption of something, and make the supply illegal. It just doesn’t make any sense. Legalization is the only rational way.”
It was an odd discussion to be having in Taiwan, where selling any quantity of marijuana means a minimum of five years in prison, and testing positive for marijuana use can put one in jail for a month. Thinking I was changing the subject, I asked Marks: After your last week here, what advice would you give visitors to Taiwan?
“First of all, to make sure they come here,” he said. “And yesterday, I spent two hours in a head shop, where you can buy everything from a bong to a grinder. There clearly is a marijuana smoking culture here. So I would mention that.”