American academic and author Peter Maguire is best known for his work on war crimes and legal issues surrounding conflict. Weighty issues of state like the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia are more his fare and stand in stark contrast to the drug smuggling days of the 1960s, 70s and 80s that feature in his latest book, Thai Stick – Surfers, Scammers and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade.
This article first appeared in The Edge Review
By Luke Hunt
That business thrived on the antics of young surfers from California, Hawaii, Australia and elsewhere — men and women who dreamed of perfect waves in exotic locations like Bali, access to cheap pot and deep pockets. For many, smuggling would become a way of life, earning them the description from one critic as the “Laurel and Hardy of the high seas.”
Maguire, an accomplished big wave surfer himself, and his co-author Mike Ritter, an equally accomplished drug smuggler, take the reader on a fantastic joy ride from the innocence of the early Balinese days of smuggling to Thailand, from where enormous quantities of marijuana were shipped across the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast of the United States, earning some millions of dollars but also years in jail.
Many of the scammers got both, but Maguire and Ritter are sympathetic. After all, pot was and is considered relatively harmless and those smuggling the drug were a different breed of dealer to the maniacal Mafia and Mexican drug cartels who would come to dominate the international heroin and cocaine trade of recent decades.
“Unlike the soldiers on R&R who ate Texas T Bones and flocked to sleazy bars like the Sandbox and the Fantasy Club, the scammers preferred to eat noodles and drink at the outdoor food stalls,” they write of those who hung out in Pattaya. They were “an unlikely mix of hippies and Vietnam veterans who shared little more than the fact the Vietnam War was the defining event of their lives. For scammers, the draft had turned many into fugitives, and for career soldiers, Southeast Asia felt a lot more like home than America.
“Once word got out that it was easy to score Thai sticks in Pattaya, a Thailand-Bali axis began to emerge, and no group was better represented than the surfer scammers.”
Initially, surfboards were hollowed out and suitcases built with false bottoms that were then stuffed with hash. Crates of the stuff were sent home by grunts through the US Post Office. As Thai sticks – seedless buds of high grade marijuana rolled and tied in sticks – emerged, so too did an array of characters lining up to handle trans-Pacific sales. Among them were the hippies from the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, who used profits from sales of Thai sticks to support the free distribution of acid across America.
“The Brotherhood was a messianic Utopian movement in American history. I would totally contend that they were a religious organization. They took massive amounts of LSD and thought they saw God; it was probably a reflection off the van,” Maguire said. “They could have made a hundred times more money, but they chose to distribute hallucinogens instead.”
Businesses turned to empires and, as one official from the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) put it: “I remember it was three million dollars a ton and these guys are bringing over ten tons at a time so you’re talking thirty million dollars. It was staggering in the eighties.”
One of their biggest fears was the Khmer Rouge, who had taken control of Cambodia, shut it down and turned the entire country into one very big gulag. Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were clean living friends from schooldays in Long Beach, California, allured by promises of adventure in the Far East. Their scam went wrong when their boat sailed off course and they were arrested and taken to the dreaded S-21 torture and extermination camp in Phnom Penh, where they perished only weeks before Pol Pot was ousted by an invading Vietnamese army.
As for the DEA, Thai customs, Interpol, local police and immigration officers, they were simple nuisances to be dealt with and avoided with all the skill of a sharp mariner confronting bad weather.
Throughout, the authors successfully capture the imagery of idyllic beaches and surfing that makes this a memorable read for those who can remember the era. It also serves notice on the long-running American war on drugs, which would end the classification marijuana as a soft drug and put thousands behind bars and cost billions of taxpayer’s dollars without making a dent on pot sales in America.
That seems to have changed. One by one, states in America have begun legalizing marijuana, which is also readily available for medical purposes in places like California. The smugglers, who made and lost fortunes along with years spent behind bars, may have had the final say.