The following is an edited transcript of a podcast interview with Peter Maguire, coauthor of Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade. The excerpt starts with midway with Maguire talking about the marijuana smugglers.
For another interview with Maguire, you can listen to Waking from the American Dream.
PM: Yeah, these were modern day pirates who basically needed to find a way to finance their endless summers and growing up in southern California they were sort of our heroes and I was a young lifeguard in Malibu and knew many people in this world and for many years I kind of tried to, to pretend I was you know, a straight history professor that didn’t have this other life that I had led before I moved on to academia, but I figured it was time for me to come out of the cannabis closet.
Q: These surfers that were part of this giant drug trade, just, they didn’t think it was immoral
PM: No, absolutely not.
Q: Certainly there were people executed, who were caught….. I don’t understand why this story hasn’t been , well, part of the vernacular of the war on drugs.
PM: Well, you know you figure that you had a generation of, of many of these guys were draft dodgers, and had basically been turned criminal as a result of, of dodging the draft and evading service in the Vietnam War, or you know minor criminal convictions for marijuana use and they just left the system.
And in case of my co-author Mike Ritter, he was a draft dodger, went to Afghanistan, began, they all began, very small and the thing just escalates, and so by 1974, the Thai stick, the finest marijuana, really, of the 1970’s, grown by the hill tribes in, in northeast Thailand, one pound of Thai sticks in the United States was $2000 in 1974.
So basically, if you could fill a boat with Thai sticks and get it back to the United States you could set yourself up for life.
One of our favorite narrators, Mike Charley Tuna Carter, one of the great captains of the Thai marijuana fleet, he brought back six tons in I think 1975 and netted something like twenty million dollars that he seal-a-mealed, put in igloo coolers in his yard and called it the bank of the igloo underground.
But that’s, that’s half the story.
The other half of the story is the Southeast Asia 1975 to 1979 was probably one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world given not only the pirates, the boat people, the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Navy, so the DEA was the least of the worries that the Thai smugglers faced.
Q: Well, in going, in going through the Pirates and Perils chapter, I can’t believe that they were taking that kind of risk, but for $2000 you could buy a house in 1974 for that.
PM: Oh absolutely. And my co-author, Mike Ritter, he would contract Thai fishermen, and Thai fishermen will traffic in anything. Smuggling is not really frowned upon in Thailand as long as you make money. And marijuana to the Thais is grown in every garden in the Northeast. It’s a therapeutic plant, really not many people even smoke it, it’s used in chicken soup, it’s used to sooth menstrual cramps, and help pregnant women, and the idea that, that the US government was coming down on this, the Thais had a hard time taking it even seriously.
Q: So, when the DEA decided that they were going to go after this, the way that they did why do you think it was specific to that?
PM: Money. It was all about money. And there was one DEA agent in particular who we interviewed extensively, named James Conklin, and he was a Vietnam veteran who understood Southeast Asia. He very candidly told us that in his early years in the DEA, he started in the BNDD, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, that marijuana was called kiddy dope and they weren’t allowed to touch it and they had to focus on heroin. And he said the thing that turned the tables was the money and that he got a tip from an informant about a Thai marijuana smuggler’s house in Santa Barbara and then he began to see the assets that these guys had and it absolutely blew his mind and he was the first one to really begin to get his head around it. He single handedly pretty much took down the Thai industry. So by 1988 they arrest Brian Daniels who had two gigantic loads come across the Pacific. One was in a boat captained by two former Green Berets and it had been loaded by the Vietnamese military. And so you know, money transcends all things. And the actual smugglers, I really would compare them to the rum-runners or the moon-shiners of the North Georgia mountains where there was arbitrary law against it this, but they didn’t see it as immoral or anything else.
Q: Well it was Dave Catenburg who you cited was a former Vietnam veteran, who said that in the 70’s it was a Robin Hood sort of thing.
PM: Oh absolutely.
Q: And the links that you make between these people who were draft dodgers, who are Vietnamese vets, who are Vietnamese military, there were no obstacles for them anymore, it was like they had just one currency.
PM: Absolutely, and you know for many, and it was interesting, for many who served in Vietnam and for many who were draft dodgers, the defining event of their lives was the Vietnamese war and so you had these very disparate groups come together in the post ’75 period, because you had Vietnam vets who had trade craft language skills, knew the country, they could procure loads, and then you had the surfers who could sail boats, offload boats and all that and they formed an uneasy alliance which breaks down over time and many of the former military guys become confidential informants and are much more comfortable dealing with the government and turning on their former co-conspirators and pretty much everyone gets busted, everyone.
Q: What is a Thai stick? I always thought it was marijuana wrapped around a stick and enhanced with other drugs. This is from Curious in Tennessee.
PM: That is an urban myth. Basically at the time and growing up I thought the same and they would say, oh, it’s opiated Thai stick, they’re dipped in opium, but in fact it was incredibly strong cannabis sativa that was masterfully tied to a piece of, a small piece of bamboo, often with a thread of hemp fiber. And it was just like so many things in Thailand, they tie them to a stick and in the northeast they would take the marijuana and tie it to a stick and then keep it in the kitchen and then when they wanted to smoke it, they would wrap it with often just newspaper and pull the stick out and smoke it. So that’s the genesis of the Thai stick and it’s a very small window, it’s like ’74 to ’76, ’77, and then the Thais get greedy and they overproduce it and this little boutique industry disappears. An interesting side-note, the first marijuana I ever smoked, at ten years old, my neighbor stole a Thai stick from his neighbor and we wrapped it in a piece of notebook paper and the ensuing intoxication was so strong, I didn’t smoke marijuana again for about three years.
Q: Lydia writes in, and she said “Co-authors in crime.” She says, “Wow, Shannyn, white surfer boys doing dope and trafficking, turning it into a big criminal multimillion dollar enterprise, getting away with it for a long time, yet a black kid walking down the street in the United States with marijuana residue in his empty pockets goes to jail, and then prison for huge stretches.
PM: I would completely agree with her that we have a two-tiered criminal justice system. I grew up with uh, many members of the Crips who spent a great deal of time in prison. One of my best friends who is in the book wound up doing nine years and so she’s absolutely correct. However, my co-author went to prison, and most of the Thai scammers went to prison, they lost everything, whatever riches they earned were all taken, so I would say, um, she’s about half right. But I would totally agree with her on the criminal justice system and in the sentencing in the Thai cases it was really twisted in that the masterminds would often turn informant where the guys who touched one bale would wind up doing serious prison time. So I’m writing a second book right now that will deal largely with the legal fallout of all of this.
Q: (And it should be said that you, you do go into it in the book that the two scammers who were captured were executed.
PM: Yeah, four Americans were, that’s how the book started. I was a war crimes investigator in Cambodia, I found the confessions of four Americans in a prison in which twenty thousand went in and about twenty survived, and people suspected they were CIA agents, and I knew that they were marijuana smugglers given my background growing up around surfing and in southern California. All four had come from California, and I then reached out to people I knew in the surfing community and they said, oh, there’s a guy named Mike Ritter you need to talk to, he was in Thailand at the time and that’s how I met my co-author.
Q: it was curious to me how the surfer culture became so much a part of this….here are these bronze gods with like paddle boards with bags over their heads posing for pictures.
Q: Well, yeah, and many of the photographs, most of the photographs in the book were given to us by smugglers from their personal archive and surfers possess the trade craft to do it. Many were good sailors, they were very comfortable in the surf, in unloading boats, in bringing it onto open beaches, and so it was just a small window of time and the real moral of the story is about Pyrrhic victories.
And so the DEA busts most of the surfers because they’re not hard criminals and who replaces them? True gangsters, and so the true gangsters come in and in the early ’80’s they ramped the thing up and, to forty, fifty ton loads, and the DEA busts them, completely destroys the Thai marijuana industry, one of the true successes in the war on drugs, and then what happens? In the places they’re most successful in eradicating marijuana, Thailand and Hawaii, it’s replaced with methamphetamine.
So you know, and now, I mean it’s ridiculous, and now we have this pharmaceutical drug industry where the baby boomers can nowtake a pill. America consumes something like ninety percent of the world’s opiates, and we’re going to bust a young black guy for marijuana residue in his pocket. America has a very schizophrenic relationship with drugs and I think it’s time we all grow up and that’s part of my reason for writing the book and the medical cannabis thing I’m out in California and it’s basically legal here but it’s a joke, I mean, you pay a doctor to get a card and even that is kind of dishonest. I mean I feel like enough’s enough already.
Q: I’ve talked to a lot of law enforcement people come on who are for the legalization of marijuana because it’s just insane, what people are doing, what they’re asked to do, as law enforcement andone of the biggest lobbyists working against the legalization of marijuana is the private prison industry.
PM: Yeah, it’s the prison industrial complex and as you correctly pointed out, the people who really favor legalization are law enforcement, you know, they don’t want to bother with it, and ironically the people who are pushing the hardest against legalization are the black market pot growers. It’s sad to me that they’re going to get left behind, the price is plummeting, and these kind of Qall Street cretins and these Monsanto types are trying to elbow their way in and you know they make this Frankenweed now grown under lights and ridiculously strong and now the anti-marijuana people point to that and say, ‘oooh, look at this,’ and, and my response to that is, look, here’s ever clear and moonshine and there’s Coors Light. It’s not all the same. And so, I think the next critical step is a way to kind of categorize marijuana, so that people know what they’re getting and they know how strong it is then they can make those choices in the same way that someone can walk in a liquor store and make a choice about what proof alcohol they want.
Q: JB says, “….former law enforcement here….some people get far harsher sentences than others, it is race related, also class, We have the biggest criminals of all, Wall Street who will never do any time for any thing.”
PM: Well, in that, I, you know, one of the things that’s really struck me is, you know, like it or not, like them or not, the Thai smugglers were the true capitalists, these guys Adam Smith would have been proud of, where you know, Wall Street, they’re a bunch of pussies. They made a bad bet and then they went crying to the government with their hands out and they’re, you know Wall Street’s sweet as socialism now, this is not capitalism, this is Adam Smith is turning in his grave.