Richard Stratton is a legendary counterculture outlaw who pioneered the illicit smuggling of hash and marijuana into the United States during the height of the War on Drugs, founded High Times and Prison Life magazines, and now runs the film production house, Big House Multi Media. He has a new book out, Smugglers Blues: The True Story of the Hippie Mafia. We sat down with him for a chat about his new book, smuggling drugs and the upcoming election in America.
The book is based on your infamous smuggling exploits, including a multi-ton load of Lebanese hash, explain?
It was to be the mother and father of all loads: seven and-a-half tons, fifteen thousand pounds of primo blonde and red Lebanese hash, and fifty gallons of honey oil. The load had a wholesale value of US $15 million. My end alone would amount to five million. All we had to do was get it out of Lebanon and into the U.S. without getting busted.
There were smugglers who had done bigger trips. In fact, all that year New York and the East Coast had been flooded with low-grade commercial Lebanese hash that depressed the market. But my partners and I were determined to bring in only the best quality, all Number One or Zahra, zero and Double Zero, dealer’s choice. I firmly believed and operated under the principle that if you brought in a good quality product, and put it out on the market at a reasonable price, the trip would generate positive energy, and good karma would follow. Certainly that held true on this trip.
But you had some complications on this trip right?
Everything could of and nearly did go wrong. Civil war raged in Lebanon. I was holed up for weeks in a penthouse apartment in West Beirut while the war seethed all around me. The apartment building we were living in was struck by rocket fire. Fortunately, we were out at the movies watching The Shining when the rocket hit. I like to say Jack Nicholson saved my life. We bought half a million kilos of dates in Iraq and had them shipped overland to Beirut to use as cover for the load of hash. Then, with seven containers on the docks in Beirut ready to be loaded aboard a Greek freighter and shipped to Newark, New Jersey, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon. Our ship was the last to leave before the port was closed.
What did you do after that?
I checked into the historic Chelsea Hotel to wait for my ship to come in. But when the load arrived in New Jersey, customs flagged it and told my partners they wanted to escort the containers to the bonded warehouse for a secondary inspection. This, given the profile of the shipment, was highly unusual. My partner was ready to abandon the load at the docks. But that would have been a clear indication that we knew there was contraband hidden in the cartons of Iraqi dates. It was decided that we would wait until late on a Friday afternoon, and then pick up only two containers that contained just dates, in hopes that the customs inspectors would examine them and then, anxious to go home for the weekend, clear the entire load.
Of course, we didn’t get to choose which containers we would pick up. And the customs agents brought dogs with them when they inspected the load. But they must have been trained to sniff out heroin and not hashish. For even though the container the customs men inspected contained dates and hash, they missed the load. The hashish gods were good to us. By Monday of the following week, we had all fifteen thousand pounds stashed in a safe house on Staten Island. Now all we had to do was sell it without getting busted. Nobody ever said the dope smuggling business was easy.
The book is the first of a trilogy right?
This book is part of a trilogy, Smugglers Blues and Gulag America, which I finished, that’s about my whole prison experience in the feds (Federal Prison). That second one will be out a year from now. The third one is called In the World and that’s about when I got out and got into the film business and making documentaries and Prison Life magazine and all that. That will come out two years from now.
Why did you decide to smuggle marijuana and hashish?
It was about how Americans ultimately, in a propitiatory democracy, have to always question authority and have to always be there to say, ‘it’s not simply a question of my country, right or wrong’. It’s a question of when my country is right I’m behind them, when they’re wrong I’m opposed to whatever they’re about. So the thing that fascinated me about marijuana and about the marijuana experience in America was the politics of it, the politics of marijuana prohibition and what that said about our government and how our government lies to us about so much, about how they lied to us about various assassinations, how they lied to us about the war in Vietnam and how they lied to us about marijuana.
That was the thing that really interested me and what I got out of what I did was the sense of the independent American spirit that is always there to say, wait a minute, maybe these people who are running the country are full of shit and now I think more than ever it’s important. We have this presidential election that’s coming up now. Who knows what could happen, you know? It’s up in the air. We’ve got some very odd people running for president and some crazy people who are in power not only in this country, but all over the world.
How far back does this marijuana thing go?
Here is what John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief, told Dan Baum, for an article in Harpers: “You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
You were a crusader, but you also made money?
The money, of course, was important. Without the profit from the importation and distribution of cannabis, we couldn’t keep bringing it in and supplying the millions of Americans who wanted to get high, make music, make love, write poetry and criticism, and defy the assholes who were trying to send them to Vietnam to kill, or to send them to prison for altering their consciousness. America is an idea before it is simply a country. And the idea is that as Americans we have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marijuana is a catalyst to freeing consciousness. That was my primary motivation in becoming an outlaw.
Richard Stratton spoke with @sethferranti.