The 1970s were a time when you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing the Beatles, war was rampant in the Middle East, and cannabis fueled the counterculture. Really, it wasn't much different than today, except for one fact--the revolution was real.
Through out the 70s, trailblazers, agitators, and activists challenged the status quo with an increasing level of intensity. The struggle for African-American civil rights morphed into the Black Power Movement, protests against the war in Vietnam turned violent at Kent State, and a group called Weather Underground responded to police brutality with bombs.
Given the context, it's more than a little surprising how non-violent the drug smugglers were. Actually, it was only the marijuana smugglers. It's a distinction worth making. Drug smugglers operate purely out of profit motive and are part and parcel of the War on Drugs. The marijuana smugglers of the 1970s not only imported their product, they fought to legalize it.
Recently, I had privilege of speaking with Richard Stratton, one of the last great hippie marijuana smugglers. Stratton was one of the original members of the Hippie Mafia, a California-based, loosely organized band known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.
Stratton's new book, "Smuggler's Blues," details his life as one of America's most wanted smugglers, and outlines exactly how he managed to get a ton and a half of Lebanese hash through customs in a $15 million deal while under DEA surveillance. It's a story worth telling, both for the exciting, round-the-world escapades that led up to it, and the light Stratton shines on the failures of America's war on a psychoactive plant.
During our interview Stratton revealed some of his secrets. Knowing that the Iranian revolution had disrupted America's supply of delectable dates, Stratton posed as a buyer for a giant packaged food corporation and traveled to Lebanon to source an alternate date supply. Of course, the dates were simply a cover for the real cargo, Lebanese hashish.
But he couldn't stay ahead of the Feds forever. In 1982, Stratton was hit with a long stretch of hard time because he wouldn't give the feds his buddy, Norman Mailer. Stratton got 25 years as punishment for refusing to cooperate. I asked Stratton what he was most proud of from his smuggling days. His response? Not being a rat. He told me that after being arrested, prosecutors offered him an out. If he became an informant for the government and testified against his friend Norman Mailer, prosecutors would drop his charges and release him. Stratton refused. Unlike members of the Italian Mafia, Stratton lived by the same type of creed that drove activists of all stripes in the 70s. Since he willingly did the crime, he would willingly do the time.
Stratton spent eight years in federal prison. But he didn't just sit and rot. In prison he became his own advocate and successfully vacated his sentence on the grounds that he should only be punished for the crime he committed--not for his refusal to impugn the name of an innocent third party. He also developed his latent skill as a writer and wrote his first novel while serving time in the Federal Penitentiary.
No matter how you feel about Stratton's marijuana smuggling career, you have to respect his ingenuity, drive, and code of honor. But there's no question that he personally benefitted from selling an illicit substance, and that his personal gain came at the cost of lives destroyed by greed and violence. When asked, Stratton admitted that the number of lives ruined from his involvement in criminal activity weighed heavily on his conscience. The real tragedy of this story however, is how little we've collectively learned from the turbulent times Stratton was a part of.
Any semblance of the romantic marijuana smuggler outlaw that may have existed in the 1970s has been replaced by ultra-violent cartels and synthetic pharmaceutical epidemics. The reactionary police state spawned by the counterculture continues to double down on an obviously flawed policy of prohibition and mind control at any cost. The stakes have been raised to such artificially high levels that former drug smugglers don't even recognize themselves as drug smugglers. Smugglers have the blues. The rest of us have a giant mess to clean up.
What I find most amazing is how one group of people played a part in history. Stratton and his gang's actions had real consequences-- after all the years of effort and sacrifice, it made a difference in society. A few drops here, and a few drops there made a river. Because of Stratton and other movers and shakers throughout the decades, marijuana is now legal in a growing number of the States.
Check out my interview with Richard Stratton - He's an amazingly nice person that has had an amazingly crazy life - but who wouldn't want to live a life like his and do it his way? I think most of us would stand in line for that kind of excitement!