Goodbye, Mr Nice: Howard Marks dies of cancer

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Once one of America’s most wanted men, “a modern-day folk hero”, and someone who very much lived up to his moniker Mr Nice, former drug smuggler Howard Marks has died at age 70.

He announced he had inoperable bowel cancer last year, and died peacefully on April 10, surrounded by his four children.

A family statement said “he fought the illness with grace and humour”.

Smuggling cannabis: a wonderful way of living

Born in 1945 in Kenfig Hill, a small Welsh coal-mining village near Bridgend, Howard Marks went to Oxford University where he earned a degree in nuclear physics and post-graduate qualifications in philosophy.

Turning his back on academia, he starting making a career out of smuggling cannabis, laundering funds through a boutique in Oxford.

The operation soon became much bigger, and he was soon using the music gear of British bands to smuggle tonnes of cannabis into America.


howard marks

But his illegal operations soon caught up with him, and in 1973 he was arrested in the Netherlands. He told investigators he had been asked by British intelligence to infiltrate IRA drug-smuggling operations. Marks was extradited to Britain but went on the run – the makings of which was so fanciful his memoir read like a best selling crime thriller.

He claimed to have used 43 different alibis – including Mr Nice – and while fugitive for six and a half years continued to smuggle cannabis.

He was eventually apprehended in 1980, but his charm – and his MI6 excuse – led to his acquittal, and he was sentenced to just three years after admitting a lesser charge, time served on remand.

Marks and his family then moved to Majorca, where he was tracked down by an American drug enforcement officer, who eventually, after coercing one of his accomplices into recording incriminating conversations, arrested him and flew him to Florida, where he was charged with racketeering.

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He was sentenced to 25 years at one of America’s toughest prisons – Terre Haute, Indiana – and was released on parole in 1995 after serving seven years.

Loved there by fellow inmates and guards alike, he spent this time teaching inmates and writing. Then, he moved back to Majorca, where he wrote Mr Nice, his autobiography.

it’s impossible to regret any part of my life

Marks moved to Leeds in 2005 after the break up of his marriage, and became a brand ambassador for Azucar tapas bar, close to his home at Brewary Wharf. His travel memorabilia covered the walls and he could often be seen writing in the bar and talking to customers.

He went on to release many more books, including Señor Nice.

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Marks had a successful column in Loaded magazine and became a prominent campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis – even standing as an MP four times on that single issue.

He also toured a one man show, appearing at theatres and venues across the country and at festivals, including Long Division in Wakefield.

In 2010 Mr Nice became a film, starring Marks’s friend Rhys Ifans.

Mr Nice

Reflecting on his career, he said: “Smuggling cannabis was a wonderful way of living – perpetual culture shock, absurd amounts of money, and the comforting knowledge of getting so many people stoned.”

Crime generally pays very well but if I was advising someone on whether or not to follow my criminal path I would suggest he throws a brick into the nearest police station, gets arrested and sees what that is like before going any further.