TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

The Straight Dope
Written by Denis Faye

(July 8, 2013) 

WHERE TO LOOK

If it’s within your abilities to have “coffee” with your local dealer, you’re all set. No need to read further. However, if Jerry Garcia was still alive the last time you bought pot (I’m not saying that’s me, but it might be), you might need a plan B.  

You can always hang out online in places like Bluelight’s Drug Culture Light, but you’re never going to be 100 percent sure if you’re talking to the real thing or some nerd who’s seen the adrenaline injection scene from Pulp Fiction too many times.  

Instead, consider going old school and reading a couple books on the topic. In addition to Howard’s autobiography, Mr. Nice, he recommends To Live Outside the Law: Caught by Operation Julie, Britain’s Biggest Drug Bust by Leaf Fielding, a first person account of a ‘70s LSD dealer’s bust and subsequent jail time. “It's a very well written book and you can see that the people involved were very, very nice guys,” explains Howard.  

High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler by Brian O’Dea is another popular autobiography by an international drug dealer. This one set in the ‘80s.  

Finally, while Howard doesn’t generally suggest looking to The Man to find out more about drug culture, he does suggest contacting the folks at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an “international 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization of criminal justice professionals who bear personal witness to the wasteful futility and harms of our current drug policies.”  

In Howard’s words, “It's just a bunch of sort of ex-DEA, ex-cop, ex-Secret Service people who claim that they're now switching sides. Obviously, there's going to be a fair sprinkling of infiltrators, for sure, but I think it would be worth chasing down.”  

Talking heart-to-heart to a drug dealer is no easy task.

When my editor asked me to interview a dealer for Technically Speaking in light of the popularity of shows like Breaking Bad and Weeds, I thought it would be a piece of cake. After all, millions of people take illegal drugs every day. How hard could it be to reach out to my friendly neighborhood pusher man?

The answer is “really hard.” Tracking them down wasn’t too tough, but getting them to be interviewed on the record was something else, especially considering I’ve become soft around the edges as a journalist and record all my interviews for later transcript. Apparently, drug dealers don’t favor digital recorders, regardless of whether they’re completely out in the open or duct-taped to a narc’s chest.

Finally, I stumbled across Howard Marks, an Oxford-educated drug dealer turned actor/political activist who was more than happy to talk to me, probably because he’s already bared it all in his autobiography, Mr. Nice, which has also been made into a movie by the same name written directed by Bernard Rose and starring Rhys Ifans and Chloe Sevigny.

Howard took the time to talk to Technically Speaking from Britain about what dealers are really like and how they’re represented by film and television. It turns out that they’re normal people just like us – except for maybe that digital recorder thing.

What do movies and television get right about drug dealers?  


Photo: Showtime
Mary Louise Parker in Weeds. 

Very, very little in the ones that I've seen. Generally, they are a scapegoat of the sort of Hollywood ethic, if you like, that vice must be punished. So basically they all tend to begin with “drugs are fun” and end with “drugs are bad.” It's not sort of viewed as a recreational activity that's commonplace, which of course it is. Whether we should criticize films for not being realistic or not is another matter.

What about all the ethical quandaries? You have the good drug dealer who never deals to kids and then the bad one who deals to anyone. Does that happen in real life? Do you have those lines?  

Yes, some people are quite evangelical about their drug dealing. There are some who would only do marijuana, but would never in a million years do anything else. There are those that certainly avoid any direction contravention of what they see as an age limit. So yes, the range of personalities that exist among drug dealers is no smaller than the range of personalities that exist among any of the criminal or any other person.

Sure, they’re just people – and are they bad compared to Big Tobacco or unhealthy food manufacturers who have a façade of the law on their side? Drug dealers don't have that.  

Yes, they don't have that at all, you know? Of course, the law has to be embodied in film ethics, to some extent, I can see that.

What are some common clichés that you do see in the movies or shows you see that just cause you to slap your head?  

I mean Reefer Madness [Screenplay by Arthur Hoerl] is the great example, of course, the most ridiculous kind of portrayal of marijuana ever. But I suppose it's no more ridiculous than, say, Less Than Zero [Screenplay by Harley Peyton]. That's quite ridiculous too, you know?

But are you talking about the dealers or the people who take drugs, how their minds and bodies react?  

I'm thinking more of the way their minds and bodies react. I mean if only marijuana sort of turned every beautiful, attractive female into a nice, loose lay.

Do any movies or shows do a good job?  

There’s Weeds, the TV series, which does portray marijuana use as a normal activity and with likeable characters rather than people who were evil in any sort of sense. I didn't like it that much, to be honest. It’s rather shabby, but that would be an example.

Do you think, here in the States, will the increasing legality with marijuana change the way that drug dealing is represented in film and TV?  

Yes, it's inevitable that that will happen, and it was very, very surprising to the rest of the world that America was so pioneering in medicinal marijuana use, and that will take its effect. Although I welcome it basically, I'm slightly hesitant regarding marijuana users as necessarily sick by definition. I'm not too happy about that one.

Is there anything you'd like to see in a movie or TV show regarding drug dealers?  

Just drug dealers who are capable of being nice in every way possible other than law breaking. The film they made about me, actually, was okay. It sort of didn't represent me in a bad light, and it had a happy ending, so that's very rare.

But wouldn't there be a difference between someone who deals in a drug like marijuana – which is gentler than alcohol as far as I'm concerned – and someone dealing crystal meth?  

Yes, there's a massive difference in the two drugs but each of them would be less harmful to society if legalized and controlled.

Okay, but it's pretty easy to hurt yourself with heroin or crystal meth, so would the people who choose to deal those be a different type of person?  

Necessarily they would, they would be sort of be less concerned about the effects of what they're doing in the same sort of way arms dealers must be, you know? But I wouldn't see them as any worse than that.

That’s very interesting because Hollywood sometimes portrays arms dealers as not so bad guys.  

That's right, yes. This very much illustrates your point. They do have the facades of doing the right thing.

But do hardcore drug dealers, deep down inside, think they’re doing the right thing?  

There's a lot of heavy money – heavy payment can erode one's moral fiber, of course.

Welcome to the world. Besides telling them to take drugs, if a screenwriter is going to write a script about drug dealers, what specific advice do you have?  

I have no idea how to write a screenplay or anything like that! I suppose, just keep it real. If they are writing anything about drug dealers get to know a few.

Interesting you should say that because it took me a long time to find a drug dealer who would talk to me.  

Oh yes, I'm sure that that is the case because they've no reason to trust you. I mean you could be a cop, and you could be building up a case against them.

How might a writer approach a drug dealer in a way that earns their trust enough to learn about what they do?  

Concentrate or narrow down the field to those who've already written about their exploits to some extent.

And what makes someone reach that decision, to come clean about all this?  

I decided to “come clean,” as you say, because I was offered a large amount of money to write an autobiography. There was no other motivation.

And what about square sources. Do people still say “square?”  

I know what you mean, but no. You get far too much of a brainwash feel there. I mean there's plenty of that, interviews with DA people on YouTube, and they do look ridiculous and sort of incapable of having any flexibility of mind at all other than sort of trotting out what they've been brainwashed to trot out. It's very hard with law enforcement, unless you're talking about ex-law enforcement.

Once you get out then you speak the truth a bit more?  

Yes, yes.