Howard Marks: My Philosophy

In 2011, Howard Marks talked to Julian Baggini about prison, pot and Hempel's paradox.

Academic philosopher or international drug smuggler? It's not a career choice many people find themselves having to make, but then Howard Marks has been in innumerable situations the majority of us can hardly imagine. Having opted to take the criminal route, Marks went on to become Britain’s best known, and most-loved, dope dealer.

It's not surprising that his earlier forays into philosophy are overlooked in favour of the colourful story of life as a crook. Only ever dealing with marijuana, never “hard” drugs, Marks was involved with multi-million dollar smuggling operations that brought him into contact with the the likes of the IRA, MI6, the Mafia. He was caught on several occasions, once being extradited from Spain to the USA where he served seven years in an Indiana prison. Once release, he published a best-selling autobiography, Mr. Nice, which turned him into a cult figure. Since 1997, he has regularly performed live shows, in which he recounts tales of his life as an outlaw in his distinctive, gently lilting Welsh accent.

It's all a far cry from life in Oxford's Balliol College in the late sixties, when, as a physics undergraduate, Marks first came across philosophy, through friends who were studying it. “The people who were philosophers seemed to be a much more interesting bunch than the people who were nuclear physicists,” Marks told me when I met him at London's Groucho Club, the favourite private club for movers and shakers in media and entertainment. He was persuaded by the philosopher and Balliol admission's tutor Alan Montefiore to have a go at philosophy by writing an essay on the definition of good. This, Marks found, “was very very complicated, not what I was hoping for at all. I discovered that it was much much harder than I realised and I switched back to physics.

“What was most inhibiting was the idea of coming up with anything new or novel. There was just so much written about moral philosophy that it seemed an impossible task to come up with anything original. Great minds have set themselves to it for millennia. Obviously I'm not going to contribute a fucking thing to this.”

In a way, “it was case of bad luck. Had it been something like the existence of space and time I would have been much more at home with it.” Indeed, his interest in philosophy did not go away, which is why he went on to take the one-year postgraduate History and Philosophy of Science diploma at Oxford, over 1968-69.

Marks had been spurred on to do this by his reading of Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy while he was doing a postgraduate teacher training course. “I would still recommend it to anyone as the best book of philosophy that's ever been written, and Russell's probably one of the best philosophers that's ever been,” says Marks. Russell taught him, in The Problems of Philosophy, “that philosophy isn't around to provide any answers it's just a matter of framing the right questions. I liked that angle as well.”

Because of his mathematical abilities, Marks found Russell's “eloquent” writing about logic compelling, and was grabbed by some of the paradoxes he discusses, particularly Hempel's, which shows that, in strict logical terms, the statement “All ravens are black” is equivalent to “Everything that is not black is not a raven.” This became the subject of his postgraduate thesis.

The world of Oxford philosophy in late sixties was very easy-going, and Marks loved it. “It was great. I did feel very privileged very early on to be sharing spaces with brilliant minds. I became a personal friend of Freddy [A.J.] Ayer, for example. We just hit it off personally and he would drop round occasionally to my rooms and have a chat.” If you read Ayer's autobiography, A Part of My life, after Mr. Nice, you'd never have guessed this. Ayer's life story is told with an almost autistic detachment, while Marks is clearly an impulsive hedonist. So is there a side of Ayer he just didn't show, or a side of Marks that people don't know about. “Probably a bit of both. He was a big Tottenham Hotspur supporter and I just thought that was incongruous that he would be going to a football match every Saturday. And I suppose my interest in philosophy is totally inappropriate to my career too. It's more just seeing the human side of him that he never seemed to express.”

Marks also got to know Michael Dummett. On one occasion Marks missed a tutorial because he was in court speaking on behalf of someone who had been arrested on a demonstration against Enoch Powell, the conservative whose notorious “rivers of blood” speech inflamed anti-immigration feeling. Marks felt less guilty about playing hooky, however, when he discovered that Dummett was also there, speaking for another arrested demonstrator. “It's a wonderful combination: the right morals, a brilliant mind and someone who smokes himself to death. I found that very comforting.”

There was, however, one connection between philosophy and his future career. Marks claims that, although he found doing physics more difficult when stoned, at least some philosophy was easier when high. “Philosophy is about finding counter-examples and I found it easier to find a counter example to any so-called true statement that anyone would make, and one that would be deemed original.”

Marks thinks this has something to do with the fact that “The nature of cannabis is that it manifests itself as time seeming to slow down. I reason that there's only one possible explanation for that which is that one is thinking quicker.”

Sceptics would say this is people may think they are more profound when stoned, but they're just engaged in “bull-sessions”, the facileness of which becomes evident in retrospect. “Yes, I think that happens too,” agrees Marks. “But I notice, even with my writing these days, I know my writing's better when I'm stoned. There's no question about it. I look at it when I'm stoned, I look at it when I'm on coke, I look at it when I'm straight, I look at it when I'm pissed, it's undoubtedly better when I'm stoned. Far more tangents present themselves and therefore more interest.”

Following the diploma, Marks got a place at Sussex University to study philosophy of science. At that point, an academic career looked like a real possibility. “No other career occurred to me other than smuggling or dealing, which was the only other competitor.” But was he really attracted to it or was it just the only thing that seemed open? “The latter. I quite liked the comfort of an academic career. I quite liked not having to do much in the real world, the inexhaustible amount of topics an academic can deal with, whereas if you're not an academic it's quite a humdrum list of things you have to deal with. Plus I quite liked the romance of the old rooms and the library. Socially it would be fine, lots of short terms of sitting around pontificating.”

However, Sussex proved to be a great disappointment. “It didn't have the feeling of noble halls of learning and all that sort of thing. Everything from the rooms to the people, I just didn't like it.” That extended to his tutor, the Polish logician Jerzy Giedymin “a brilliant guy but so fucking boring.” He was there just a year and quit. “And that was it really. Until I got nicked.”

That is the curious fact about what Marks describes in his autobiography as his “sincere and lasting interest in the history and philosophy of science.” He did come back to it, “but only when I was in prison. Each time I was busted and it looked like I'd be down there for a while, then I would immediately think, now's the time to go back to it and study it again, because there's little else to do. I don't read anything about it now. All that I've talked abut is purely from memory from the old days. This is the longest in my life when I've not been in prison. You've caught me at my philosophical worst.”

This is perhaps one of the most surprising arguments for the virtues of prison. “The same is true of yoga and physical fitness. I only do that when I'm in prison. It's debauchery completely otherwise.”

Indeed, Marks thinks incarceration did him a lot of good. “I think in my case I certainly emerged from prison a better person than when I went in there. Stronger moral fibre, less of a dick head, less arrogant, a more humble person, some sort of social agenda these days at least, realising one's own impotence, lack of control over events, all sorts of things Not that that would be enough reason to check in, but it certainly didn't do me any harm.”

However, Marks also says “the just deserts bit of prison, the punishing, the revenge bit, I think that's disgusting.” He also claims “prison is no deterrent at all. No one commits a crime, including the crimes I did, thinking they were going to get caught. The only deterrent is a very high detection rate. If the chances of getting busted are 99% you're not going to do it.”

This sounds a little odd, because surely, doing what he did, he must have known getting caught was likely at some point, and, indeed, he got caught more than once. “An awful lot of people don't get caught. I got caught because I was stupid. I kept telling everyone I was a dope dealer, did anyone want to buy it?” It's certainly true that if you want to evade the law, co-operating with a major biography of you by David Leigh, as Marks did, written while he was still in the business, wasn't the wisest move.

He may not read and philosophy these days, but its training may have stayed with Marks in less obvious ways. For instance, he agrees that it helps him articulate the case for legalisation of drugs, something he actively campaigns for, and actually stood for parliament on in 1997, shortly after his release from American prison.

“One of the first proponents of the escalation argument, that those who take this are more likely to proceed to some other drug, was a professor of pharmacology at Oxford, Professor Paton. He showed all the statistics and everything and confirmed his hypothesis that if you take dope you're going to end up taking smack, but he'd actually got an incorrect application of Bayes's theorem. He made this elementary probabilist error in propounding the escalation argument which has had a tremendous effect on the world, you know, the gateway theory, all all obviously complete bollocks, based on a professor's ineptitude in statistics.”

So what is the case for legalisation? “To render cannabis less harmful to society than it is at the moment. I think it's that simple. I think the argument applies to every recreational drug so far discovered, certainly every one I've tried. One would have to allow for the possibility that someone either synthesises or discovers a drug that if you take it makes you kill people and rape them, that, yes, of course that should be illegal, whether it's natural or not. But I haven't come across one like that except possibly alcohol, the only one that is legal.”

Many are attracted to the general idea but can't see how to practically make drugs available in ways that aren't potentially destructive, especially to the vulnerable. “I think it would depend a lot on the drug one is considering, and that should be linked to the relative harm of the drugs. Professor David Nutt, the one who was sacked [as UK government drugs advisor], has a scale of harms and one of his criteria for assessing the harm of any drug is the difference between the dose that gets you stoned and the dose that will kill you. If those two are very close then clearly that drug is dangerous in a way it wouldn't be if those doses were very different. So if one's tinkering around with something that, if you take a little too much, you're going to end up dead, yes, that can't be administered at a greengrocers. Cannabis could, whereas perhaps heroin ought to be administered by doctors.

“There are four main ways of distributing drugs. One is licensed premises, one is just ordinary retail markets, one is through the doctor and the other one is through organised crimes. Why all the governments have decided on this last option as the way to do it, I don't know.”

In the meantime, however, to get involved in the illegal sale of drugs means getting involved with some pretty unsavoury people. Marks says there's a different explanation for each. With the IRA, he says “you have to remember that Harold Wilson sent in the army in 1969 to defend the Catholics. Sympathy for the catholic minority in Northern Ireland was just part of the socialist agenda at the time.”

When it comes to organised crime, Marks argues smuggling is no different from any other venture. “You go high enough in any business and you come across organised crime. You're going to run across the Mafia anyway. You're going to run across really corrupt bent people right at the top of the bankers.” The only difference, he claims, is that “You can have your blinkers on or not.”

Nevertheless, his lifestyle certainly exacted a heavy price at times on his wife and children, whom he often says he adores in the book. “Oh it did, yeah, particularly the children. I think the psychological scars are still there. The kids went through what can only be called suffering.” However, he says “It's hard for me to regret anything now because I get on with my kids so well, they get on with me very well, we're all OK. It's very hard to regret your past if you're OK in the he present – you don't want to risk changing anything.”

Overall, would Marks say he has had a good life? Many people find it attractive and glamorous, but the hedonistic pursuit of altered states does not exactly get a good press in philosophy, which values staying as in touch with reality as possible.

“I don't think taking naturally growing herbs and substances takes one away from reality that much. Lots of experiences affect the mind. We are used to altered states from the days when we would spin around as kids just to get giddy, or have puja or baptism or go to a psychiatrist. We're used to altered states. Why there should be this prejudice against altered states of mind caused by chemicals I don't know.”

And is philosophy going to feature in his future?

“It depends on whether I get nicked or not,” he says, not for the first time breaking into a sincere and hearty laugh.

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This interview originally appeared in Issue 54 of The Philosopher's Magazine.

Julian Baggini's book, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will, is published by Granta in the UK and by Chicago University Press in North America.