Former drug smuggler turned writer and performer, who came to prominence following publication of his autobiography, has died of cancer
The writer, performer and former drug smuggler Howard Marks has died, aged 70, after suffering from cancer. Marks, who said he had no regrets about his life when announcing his illness last year, was described as a “truly lovely, entertaining and inspiring man” as news of his death broke on Sunday.
He first came to the public’s attention when he published a bestselling memoir in 1996, the year after his release from a US prison, where he had been incarcerated for drug offences. Marks, known to many as Mr Nice, was a “true modern-day folk hero”, who had done “so many funny, shocking, illegal things”, his friend and former colleague James Brown – the creator and founder of Loaded magazine – told the Guardian on Sunday.
Brown described the process by which he came to hire Marks to write for the magazine in the mid-90s, before the latter reached the height of his fame: “Steve Pyke rang me and said, ‘I’ve just taken this guy’s photograph for his book cover, he’s just out of jail, he’s got an amazing story, you’ve got to get him in the mag, he’s perfect’.
“We did, he was, I read the book, and then gave him a column. He later told me it was his first job after he’d ‘gone straight’. Every month, I’d ring him the day after it was due in, and he’d say, ‘Can I send it in about 45 minutes?’ and in it would come, rolling out of a fax.
“Usually, it was just a report of his latest experience going through customs, but I loved having him in the magazine. He stood for everything we loved. Mr Nice was a thrilling book. Howard is a bloody great example to us all.”
A “huge print” of Pyke’s famous portrait of Marks still hangs in Brown’s home.
Marks was born in 1945 near Bridgend, in Wales. He was educated at the University of Oxford and turned his hand to cannabis smuggling. After being caught by US authorities in 1988, he was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment in the Terre Haute federal penitentiary – “America’s toughest”, he claimed. He was released on parole in 1995, having served seven years.
In his later life, he became a campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis. In an interview with the Observer in January last year, in which he revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer, he said: “Of course, the legalising of marijuana for medical purposes is to be welcomed. But, personally, I never wanted to have to wait until I had cancer before I could legally smoke.
“I want it to be legalised for consuming recreationally – and I’m pleased to see they have now done this in four US states. After my experiences at the hands of the US legal system, America is the last place in the world that I thought would be leading the charge.”
Marks worked in the music industry after appearing on the Super Furry Animals’ 1996 song Hanging with Howard Marks. He ran the record label Bothered and was also a DJ. On screen, Marks had a cameo appearance in Human Traffic, in which he discussed “spliff politics”, and was played by his friend Rhys Ifans in the 2006 film about his life Mr Nice.
He also had a career as a performer, giving talks across Britain about his life as a cannabis smuggler, as well as his drive to see the drug legalised. He also ran a one-man comedy show, An Audience with Mr Nice. He worked as a Loaded columnist for five years.
At the 1997 general election, Marks stood for election in four parliamentary constituencies on the issue of cannabis legalisation and said he later applied to be position of drugs tsar created by the Labour government that subsequently took office. Keith Halliwell “pipped me at the post”, he said.
In last year’s Observer interview, Marks said he had come to terms with the news of his illness by “learning to cry”.
He said: “I’ve never cried before. In prison, I cried deep in myself but I had to be the tough guy, I couldn’t let any vulnerability show. But then I think, how long am I going to be living for anyway? I don’t want to be living until I’m 350.
“The strange thing is I haven’t actually felt a moment’s depression at all. I feel people have come back from a lot worse than this, and it’s about trying to resume a normal routine as soon as possible … and just carry on living.”