‘Mr Nice’ by Howard Marks

Book 13 of 45 Days of Book Stories


Title: ‘Mr Nice’
Author: Howard Marks (13 August 1945 – 10 April 2016)
Date of Publishing: 1996
Original Publisher: Secker & Warburg
The book is an autobiography of Marks as a drug trafficker. Through the story, he describes his first encounter with substances in college and the journey from there to the point when he himself became a dealer. As part of his ‘business’, Marks had to adopt various aliases, of which ‘Mr Nice’ was one he had borrowed from a convicted murderer.


Whenever we come face-to-face with a personality that appears as a phantasm – an unknowable illusion – we ask this question – who are they really? Mr Nice or Howard Marks is no exception to our curiosity. From the nom de plume, or rather a nom de drug lord, to the smiling black and white face on the cover of this book, he seems gentle and welcoming. And yet we want to know just how nice is Mr Nice?

The book, declared by Marks and others as his autobiography – would only tell part of his story. That from the 70s and 80s. Almost 20 years post the publication of Mr Nice, Marks gave us Mr Smiley in 2015. A year before his demise, after losing his battle with cancer. Marks lived with no regrets, and always asserted he was not glorifying the drug-life, but simply reporting and sharing his experience of it. In Mr Smiley we find him taking to pills, and participating whole-heartedly in the rave culture of the 1990s.

The surface facts such as – Dennis Howard Marks was born in 1945 in Wales. And during his time studying Physics at Balliol College in Oxford, Marks first tried cannabis. To then assert, that what started as a college drug-deal led to Marks becoming a notorious drug smuggler of international fame. All these statements, though true, do not really tell us about the man. Be it as a drug-addict (albeit it, be a highly functional one), a small-time drug-dealer, to then becoming a drug-lord and smuggler, to then being caught and incarcerated for 7 years in one of the toughest Prisons in Nothern America – Terre Haute. At this point, we must take a pause, and look at the many aspects of Howard Marks unveiling themselves. We learn that he becomes a jailhouse lawyer for the inmates at Terre Haute. Along with that, he teaches English to the prisoners and helps them pass their GED exams. All this and more leads to his early release for being a “model prisoner.”

Marks isn’t done re-inventing himself, post his release Marks decides to document his life. He has led a clean and healthy lifestyle whilst in prison as he has been sober – no drink, no drugs, no alcohol, no smoking and no sex. So, we get an autobiography! Marks writes about his experiences, the book comes out in 1996 and results in his international fame, with titles of being a “folk-hero”, an advocate for the legalisation of cannabis and a symbol for drug-lovers everywhere. Even with this list of what all Marks did, and who he was, do you feel you know the real Mr Nice now?

I didn’t, at first, but this quote from an interview of his on RTÉ – IRELAND’S NATIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE MEDIA – gives us a glimpse I feel. In 2010, Howard Marks appeared on the broadcast channel’s Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy, with Rhys Ifans ( you may remember him as Hugh Grant’s lanky and zany flatmate in the 1999 rom-com, Notting Hill). The two were promoting a British independent film adaptation of Mr Nice, called Mr Nice. In the segment, Marks when asked about his thoughts on the excesses of drug-us, especially hash and marijuana, honestly and nonchalantly tells us, all in a charming Welsh accent,

” …aah yes, I think, almost anything by definition, if you take too much of anything, or then in excess, it’ll cause some abuse, ….I think it’s an inappropriate drug for some people, I mean, I’ve met people aah, whom it doesn’t suit. I think most people are probably are in inappropriate circumstances in which they shouldn’t take it. I’m just lucky – it enhances whatever I like. “

Howard Marks on the Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy, 1 October 2010

Why This Book?

How the Book and I Met

Like many books in my home library and my shelves, this too came to me from the Universe. It’s back to University, I’m on the surf team for the University of Durham and a fellow surfer Beth invites us all for drinks and toasties to her College Bar. One called the Undercroft (as it is literally located in an 11th-century undercroft), The Undie for short. I don’t drink, those days I would always be nursing a coca-cola or then a non-alcoholic J20 – the Spritz Apple & Elderflower used to be my favourite. So there I am, whilst my friends and teammates are getting drunk and I’m enjoying the music, my cheese and mushroom toastie with a side of J20.

Amidst some chatter, some triumphant shouts and anecdotes of all of us riding waves early that morning, I decided to pull out a book I’d been reading. I’d been meaning to get to it all day as I only had the last ten pages left. Mind you, we were in an English College Bar, it’s not a club, there are people playing darts, pool, chatting, studying, talking. So me pulling out a book, was totally par-for-the-course! The book was Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser, published in 2003, it looks at how drug-trade, pornography and migrant labour are the pillars of the United States of America’s underground economy.

So, I’m sitting, Indian style, engrossed in my book, and I feel a tapping on my knee. I look up to find Beth’s friend from Australia Simon holding the exact same book. He’s just half-way through. I guess he too couldn’t put the book down. We smile in a – ‘oh this is a weird but cool coincidence’ – and then proceed to get into a discussion on the pros and cons of recreational and medicinal drug use. I’m arguing con with its crippling neurological, social and spiritual impacts, and he’s arguing pro for it’s medical and historical legitimacy perspective. It’s interesting to share facts we’ve picked up in our various readings around the subject when suddenly it’s time to leave. Just as I say my goodbyes, Simon shares that he just finished reading Mr Nice and how he’d love for me to have it. As he flies back to Australia that very morning, I say don’t worry about it, I’ll get a copy. But surprisingly the next day, Beth hand delivers it to my house. It’s a Sunday, my laundry is all done, the cooking is pre-prepped and I have no assignments due for the coming week. So, I sit down with a cup of earl-grey tea and begin to read. By the evening I’ve finished the entire book – all 466 pages of it. It’s gripping, filled with action, shock and most of all it’s emotionally moving! More than a book about drugs, or the trading of drugs, it’s about the motivations and evolution of Mark’s life, told in a truthful and familiar style that is intoxicating.

A Quote Worth Sharing

If you search for quotes from Mr Nice – you won’t ‘f find many as the book is difficult to quote in parts. It unfolds like a fiction-novel with twists and turns, lots of conversation between an array of characters. A pre-cursor to all the Narco Seasons on Netflix. In parts, you’ll find these short, quick and shocking ruminations about drugs, corruption, Marks’ fears and excitement. Marks peppers the entire book with these moments of “reflection” and in parts the “unveiling” of the political and powerful who sustain and partake in the drug trade. A great example of his thinking and later his advocacy work for the legalisation of cannabis can be seen in this extract,

“My new career has begun. Trading in cannabis would remain my active profession for the next eighteen years.

My views on cannabis differed in some ways from those of Jarvis and the two Charlies. They were far more radical than I and tended to see hashish as a new meaningful currency capable of overthrowing the fascist overlords. They wished hashish to remain illegal. [We were true outlaws: we didn’t really break laws, not real ones; we just lived outside them. We didn’t pay tax because we didn’t want out money being used by the armed forces to kill innocent foreigners and by the police to bust us. We just wanted a good time, and we worked hard and took risks to get it supplying a badly needed service. I went along with most of this but couldn’t begin to condone the punishing of those who wished to smoke marijuana and, therefore, could not logically condone the illegality of the hashish trade.”

Howard Marks, Mr Nice, Pg 68-69

For me, the randomness of the book being left for me by a stranger I’ve never met or heard from again, just adds to my reading of the book time and time again. The 17 chapters, titled with the various “identities” of Marks tells us a lot, and maybe nothing at all of the real Dennis Howard Marks who lived from 1945 to 2016. But, the journey is so worth it, you’ll have to read it to find out, just how much!