The best thing about Howard Marks was his voice. It was soft, friendly, reassuring, but unmistakably mischievous. He was just naughty enough to be believable as a drug smuggler and just safe enough to earn a hearing in the mainstream.
There was never anyone like him before and there hasn’t been since. In so far as drug dealers become celebrities, it’s in the vein of Pablo Escobar. Some people might portray them as outlaw legends, but anyone with any sense would go out of their way to avoid meeting them. Marks was different. Everyone wanted a pint – or realistically a spliff – with him.
By the time he popped up on Human Traffic, the late 90s film which acted as a tribute to the ecstasy and clubbing culture of the period, he was transformed into a kind of shamanic wise man. His ghost floated around at afterparties, where people were coming down and starting to lose the plot, to explain spliff etiquette. But he still had that unmistakable glint in his eye and that gorgeous, smoke-filled Welsh accent.
His cameo in the film reminded me Hunter S Thompson’s acid-tinged yearning for “somebody… or at least some force” to be “tending the light at the end of the tunnel” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Or even Bob Dylan’s appeal to the Tambourine Man to play him a song. Those who enjoy doing strange things to their mind very often find that they need an intuitive sense of assurance when things get weird at four in the morning. For many of them, they find it in stories about DMT’s mechanical elves or poetic visualisations from the big drug writers. The Human Traffic cameo showed that Marks became a curiously British version of that archetype.
Politically, Marks did wonders. It wasn’t through policy or hard thinking about decriminalisation or any of that stuff. Marks’ columns were never much to write home about. It was simply that his manner helped to make cannabis safe. It translated perfectly into that instinctive sense among members of the public that cannabis was ultimately pretty harmless. After all, if this was what cannabis smugglers looked and sounded like, the stuff itself must be pretty tame.
Marks was about as a close to a national treasure as a drug smuggler is ever likely to get. There’s no concrete political result which follows from that, but it set a tone in which more liberal ideas about cannabis had the space to breathe.
But for me and many others, his political influence was irrelevant. Marks was the glint in the eye and the wry smile, and the sense that someone, or at least some force, was tending the light at the end of the tunnel.
Ian Dunt is the editor of politics.co.uk, political editor of the Erotic Review, and appears regularly on radio and TV. Tweets @IanDunt