Howard Marks

Drug dealer turned raconteur Howard Marks' is compelling, but his charm doesn't win over Andrew Johnston

There is no question that Howard Marks has had a colourful life. The 64-year-old has been an Oxford student, a teacher, a drug dealer, a drug smuggler, a best-selling author, an award-winning newspaper columnist and a raconteur. The man who allegedly once controlled 10 per cent of the world’s hashish trade is now, by his own admission, ‘an established anti-establishment figure’, so much so that a film based on his 1996 autobiography Mr Nice is in production with Rhys Ifans in the lead role.

Tonight’s spoken word show at the Black Box in Belfast begins ignominiously. First, Marks’ microphone isn’t working. Then, there’s no sound with the accompanying video (Marks has brought a compilation of news clips about his numerous arrests). Eventually, the problems are fixed and Marks gets a new mic with a coloured cable. ‘It’s green,’ he grins. Everyone cheers. ‘I’m completely wankered,’ he adds. More cheers. To say this is a partisan crowd would be an understatement. The packed room is hanging on Marks’ every murmur.

For someone who has gone straight, the Welshman certainly likes to revel in his past crimes. Marks boasts about the 43 aliases, the 89 phone lines and the 25 companies it took to run his drugs empire. He brags about his gangster connections. He speaks for 15 minutes about how he once grew enough grass to cover a Swiss mountain range. The audience love it, but for those of us who have never smoked it can get a bit boring.

In probably the most interesting segment for the non-converted, Marks talks about how Elvis Presley and Bob Marley were both part Welsh (Elvis’s ancestral surname was ‘Presili’; Marley’s biological father hailed from Wrexham). It’s fascinating stuff, but it goes right over the heads of the assembled weed aficionados. They want more banter about dope, and they get it.

Marks wheels out stories about judging a reefer contest in Amsterdam (he got stoned in his hotel room for a week), selling skunk-filled aromatherapy pillows in Switzerland (where only physical consumption is illegal) and offloading cannabis oil with the THC taken out to the Body Shop (to be used in its hemp cosmetics line).

In the second half, Marks focuses mainly on the hypocrisy of the government in imposing a smoking ban whilst happily allowing other health hazards to continue, such as cars driving at dangerous speeds. He doesn’t consider that it might be possible to be against both smoking and speeding, and he isn’t likely to be challenged by anyone in this crowd.

Marks is a compelling character, but the fact remains that he is most famous for smuggling hundreds of tons of drugs around the world, often in association with the Mafia and the IRA. It’s hard to accept that no one has ever come to any harm because of him.