My dad, Mr Nice: life as the daughter of Britain’s best-known cannabis smuggler

Show caption Howard Marks’ passport photos used as evidence in his 1981 Old Bailey trial Howard Marks My dad, Mr Nice: life as the daughter of Britain’s best-known cannabis smuggler Howard Marks was a notorious drug smuggler. He was also a caring, fun father, says his daughter Amber – now a barrister and pharmacology expert. Could her family archives shed new light on his life of crime? Duncan Campbell Sat 21 Aug 2021 06.00 BST Share on Facebook

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In 1988, 10-year-old Amber Marks was woken at her home in Palma de Mallorca by the sound of her younger sister Francesca screaming. She got out of bed and found two strange men in the hall, one of whom would shortly introduce himself as Craig Lovato of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

In the statement made at the time, she described the scene: “I went into Mummy’s arms and asked what was happening. She said she didn’t know… I cuddled Mummy who was being sick… Lovato turned to Mummy and said he was going to extradite her and Daddy to America… Lovato asked for the keys of the car and I fetched Mummy’s handbag. He took the keys and gave her the purse, and said she’d need it where she was going. I asked him to please bring her back to say goodbye if they were going to extradite her. He said, ‘Maybe.’”

Daddy was Howard Marks, Britain’s best-known cannabis smuggler, who was being arrested and would be held in prison in Madrid until his extradition to the US. After that, Amber would not see him again until nearly five years later, when she was able to visit him in federal prison in Indiana. Mummy was Judy Marks, who would also be held in jail for 18 months while her children – Amber, Francesca, seven, and Patrick, one – were looked after by friends and relatives.

The statement is one of hundreds of artefacts that appear in Becoming Mr Nice: The Howard Marks Archive, a book that Amber has assembled and narrated. It is a cornucopia of memorabilia, including letters and photos to and from Howard in prison, his extremely imaginative defence case for an earlier trial, which led to an Old Bailey acquittal in 1981, and copies of the passports for his many aliases, including that of Donald Nice, which gave him the title of his bestselling memoir, Mr Nice.

Amber is now 42, a qualified barrister and on maternity leave from her job as a lecturer in law and pharmacology at Queen Mary University of London; she is also the author of Headspace, a book about the surveillance society. Her son, Joan (the Mallorquín and Catalan version of Juan) Howard, was born in March – and appears to have inherited his grandfather’s benign smile.

From left: Francesca, Judy, Amber, Howard and Patrick Marks in 1995

Compiling her father’s archive from more than 100 boxes of material has been a long process. Before he died in 2016, at the age of 70, Howard had told Amber that she might find the court transcript for his Old Bailey trial entertaining, and it duly features prominently. The thrust of his defence was a (completely bogus) claim that he had been working for Mexican intelligence to combat terrorism and the trafficking of hard drugs. He even included a suggestion that his Mexican handlers in Miami gave him membership of the “Mutiny”, a well-known haunt of all kinds of drug smugglers, and membership of the Costa del Sol tennis club, a place frequented by individuals the Mexican government was interested in. “I was told which days and evenings to turn up at these clubs and also to take tennis lessons. I became quite proficient at tennis.” No wonder the trial judge observed: “I hope the jury are following all this, because I am a little lost.”

Amazingly, the wheeze worked and he was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. He had been planning to mount a similarly elaborate defence for his trial in the US in 1991, but decided to plead guilty after two of his former associates agreed to give evidence against him. He was sentenced to 25 years but released after seven.

She was also surprised to discover her own take on things as a 10-year-old. In her 1988 statement she notes that there were “male secretaries with notebooks” present during the raid who she now realises must have been Spanish detectives. “Lovato told us that his plan was to lock both my parents up for the rest of their lives. Reading the statement now reminded me a bit of Kafka’s The Trial,” she says.

He was my dearest friend. We made each other laugh. We travelled together, to festivals and cannabis fairs

“There was also ample evidence of the huge efforts he went to while in prison to have us kids taken care of, for example – which was reassuring given the stick he was often given in some parts of the press for being a careless father.”

Howard always believed that Judy was arrested only to put pressure on him to plead guilty so the children would at least be reunited with their mother. One of the items in the book is the telegram Judy sent to Howard in 1989 as she set off for the US, where she would plead guilty on a minor charge of conspiracy and be allowed to return to her family: “Am flying Friday. Pray for me. I hope see you soon. Love you. Judy”. (Judy has since written her own account, Mr Nice & Mrs Marks, published in 2007.)

Amber remembers well the difficulties of that time. “There was a meeting of the parents of children [at the school she attended in Mallorca] who wanted to have us excluded because they said Howard’s reputation was bringing the school into disrepute, but the staff said no.”

So what was he like as a father? “He enjoyed us as children. He laughed at things we did and said. He told me children’s stories and sang songs he made up for and about me. He was an energetic enthusiast and shared his interests with us – especially music, but also dancing, Monty Python, train sets, ant farms and the latest tech. He never teased us if we were scared but reassured us… He took us with him everywhere he could – round the world, restaurants and markets.

“I remember the difficulty I had as a teenager [in Mallorca] persuading the boys that it really was only cannabis my dad had smuggled; it was incomprehensible to a Spaniard that someone could be sentenced to 25 years for ‘chocolate’ (cannabis) alone. I remember inviting them to dig up our garden to find the missing millions when they refused to believe we were no longer loaded!”

Howard Marks with members of the Met police at Notting Hill Carnival, 2005

In 1993, she was able to visit the penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, with Francesca, thanks to Howard’s loyal old Oxford University friend Julian Peto (now a distinguished epidemiologist) arranging a visit. A photo of their meeting features in the book. I also met Howard in Terre Haute during his sentence to interview him for the Guardian. I was struck then by how well-regarded he was by the prison staff. “Ah, you’ve come to see Narco Polo, have you?” said a prison officer with a smile. They were happy for me to take photos and make tape recordings in ways that would be unthinkable in most British prisons.

He was, as Amber notes, a popular figure inside. One of the photos she found shows him with Veronza Bowers Jr, a Black Panther in jail for the murder of a US park ranger in 1973, a crime of which he still protests his innocence. Bowers used his esoteric healing skills to look after Howard when he was ill with prostate issues and skin disorders. An article Bowers wrote about his methods called Healing From The Inside appears in Amber’s book. Another fellow prisoner whose photo appears in the book was the Corsican Laurent “Charlot” Fiocconi, one of the characters on whom the 1971 film The French Connection was based.

“I was surprised by how much material he had kept from that time in prison,” she says. “Combined with his letters, it paints a prettier picture of his daily life than I feared at the time. I enjoyed reading his comments about the behaviour of chipmunks in the prison, and about his sporting activities. And the documents reveal the petty injustices meted out on a daily basis – and the efforts Howard went to fight these on his own and others’ behalf.”


In 2015, Howard, by now suffering from terminal bowel cancer, performed in what was essentially a farewell concert at the Forum in Camden, London, in which the actor Rhys Ifans – who played him in the film Mr Nice – and Alabama 3, Cerys Matthews, Super Furry Animals and John Cooper Clarke all participated. Howard entertained a full house by reading his letter of application for the post of anti-drugs coordinator, or drug tsar, which had been advertised by the Blair government at an annual salary of £75,000.

In his application, reproduced in the book, he describes his suitability for the role and explains his US incarceration thus: “For the first half of the 1990s, I was employed by the United States Department Of Justice, permitted to enter the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ convict section, and allowed to teach incarcerated drug traffickers. I did that for seven years. I can keep down a job… I would gladly risk and even sacrifice my life right now to achieve the eradication of all illegal drug trafficking in this country. I am 100% committed.” He received a polite response from the recruitment manager, regretting that he would not be interviewed but adding that, “I hope that your disappointment will not prevent you from applying for other positions which the Cabinet Office will advertise in the future.”

What was it like when he came back home after being in prison? “He was very gentle and vulnerable when he first came out. He put a great deal of thought and effort into rebuilding our relationships on an individual basis – doing different things for and with each of us. He was released shortly before I sat my A-levels. He was a godsend: he got up before all of us and brought me breakfast in bed, and he took over all my household chores so I could study. He calmed me with techniques he had learned in prison when I was anxious on the morning of my examinations.

Sacks of cannabis used as evidence in the Old Bailey trial. Photograph: courtesy of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise

“He was my dearest friend,” she adds. “We made each other laugh and took pride in each other’s accomplishments – he cried at my book launch! We shared books. We travelled together, to festivals and cannabis fairs, in Europe, Taiwan, Pakistan and Chile. He was wonderful with my friends. He told me he believed it was a parent’s duty to take care of a child’s friends, because of how important they were.”

Howard’s regret at the time of his death was that, despite his efforts, catalogued in the archive by posters of him as a candidate for the Legalise Cannabis Party, the laws remained unchanged in the United Kingdom. Amber was intrigued to find evidence of much earlier political commitments. A letter to his parents after the 1968 anti-Vietnam war protests outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, recounts that: “I was very surprised at how ruthlessly violent the police were. They would just charge into the crowd on horses with hooves kicking and truncheons swinging.” A visit by Enoch Powell to Oxford sees him taking part in what turned out to be another violent clash.

Howard’s days at Balliol College, Oxford, in the 60s provide material on the class system at the time. In a typescript that he compiled for John Jones, then dean of Balliol, who had asked years later for his recollections, Howard recounts that when he attended the college for a preliminary interview in 1963, another candidate asked what school he was from. He told him he had been at Garw grammar school. “‘Where’s that?’ he asked. I answered. ‘Oh, Wales!’ he said, very scornfully. I asked him which school he came from. ‘Eton,’ he said looking down at the floor. I couldn’t resist asking, ‘Where’s that?’ but he didn’t reply.” Appropriately, perhaps, Amber now feels that the best home for those hundred archival boxes would be a university.

One of the letters reproduced in the book is from Howard to his parents about his wedding to Judy in 1980 while held in Brixton prison awaiting trial on the earlier charges. Amber, two, was a bridesmaid. “Halfway through the service I turned around and Amber caught my eye,” wrote Howard. “She gave me a smile and what appeared to be a knowing wink.” She has somehow managed to retain that knowing wink throughout her life.

• Becoming Mr Nice: The Howard Marks Archive by Amber Marks is published by No Exit Press on 26 August priced £19.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy for £17.39 from Delivery charges may apply.