The Last Golden Days of Marijuana Smuggling

It was the summer of 1986, and my dad didn’t know his pot empire was about to come crashing down.

Author Tony Dokoupil, at age 3, with his father in the Bahamas, circa 1983.
Author Tony Dokoupil, at age 3, with his father in the Bahamas, circa 1983.

Courtesy of Tony Dokoupil

Adapted from The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana by Tony Dokoupil, out now from Doubleday.

Gulliver Academy was my family’s first choice for turning drug money into education, something the federal government could never confiscate. It was home to “the big names and big bucks of South Florida,” according to a defeated Miami Herald reporter who toured the school with her son, “feeling nervous” in her Toyota. It was also one of the best private schools in America, and my parents were feeling pretty satisfied with themselves in June of 1986, when I walked the stage in a little white robe.

It was only a kindergarten graduation, but my father decided to host a party for the entire class. He rented space at the Falls, an open-air mall built on a series of man-made lagoons. It was a weekend, early afternoon, and as moms, dads, and grandparents walked into the restaurant, their eyes fell on bottles and bottles of booze. Behind them was a man pouring drinks, trying to pull people into his state of mind: my father, of course. That same month, his marijuana was secured in Colombia.

He was lucky to even be working in the summer of 1986, more than 15 years after selling his first desiccated bricks of Mexican reefer. His whole profession was being pushed into history. Marijuana was here to stay, but the business of marijuana was undergoing a profound shift toward domestic suppliers, the era of high-end homegrown reefer. My father and his friends could see the shift manifest in the pages of High Times, the Rolling Stone of the marijuana underground. The magazine’s long, boastful features about “Wheeling and Dealing” were replaced by short, knowledgeable tear sheets on how to make your marijuana love you. Full-page ads for counterintelligence equipment were replaced by the same for kits that help growers detect the sex of a plant and stop rabbits from eating their crop. The magazine even hired a companionable green thumb—the Ann Landers of pot—to answer readers’ questions on soil acidity and light density.

In fact, if not for an assist from the federal government, my father’s confederacy would have been forced into retirement earlier. Instead the Reagan administration became a kind of unwitting partner, opening up the market for smugglers by arresting growers in record numbers. In 1982 the Drug Enforcement Administration eradicated more domestically grown marijuana than was previously believed to exist. The year after that federal and state agents used military helicopters, U-2 spy planes, and thermal imaging to spot crops from the sky. The air brigades were followed by 100-man crews, marching shoulder to shoulder, clearing the land with three-foot machetes called bush axes. In Kentucky the state troopers burned so much domestic pot, they complained of “light-headedness” near the fire.

By the summer of 1986 the raids had gotten so bad that many pot farmers took the summer off. Many others—in a preview of the future—moved indoors. They bought extension cords and generators, and learned to recreate the equatorial sun with 1,000-watt bulbs. By 1987 they would flood America with marijuana again, and give birth to the modern world of weed. But for one more season, my father’s talents could still be used. The ring decided to go bigger than they ever had before: 35,000 pounds, the exact amount that the feds used to throw around as a single day’s supply of dope in America.

* * *

The cocktail-napkin version of the job hadn’t changed in years. My father’s partner was a New Englander named Willy Terry, a tall, loose-limbed man who gave off the air of a high school jock reciting lines in a school play. He was a full-time smuggler, but when people asked what he did, he would look them hard in the eye, as though to say, “You seriously want to know?” Terry cloth. I invented it. Willy got old tankers or tugboats of weed from Colombia to the Caribbean islands, where the load was parceled out to private sailboats. They headed for summer spots: the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Cod, the Hamptons, and other points as far north as Maine. My father took the load over at the shoreline, jockeyed the trucks, and ran the stash houses. He turned over tons of dope in a matter of days, sending a wave of money washing across time zones, across a team of wheelmen and sailors and endless gophers, all the way back to the dirt, to the farmer working the end of a hoe in midday sun.

Willy spent the month of the smuggle on the Dutch side of St. Martin, doing cocaine and watching the World Cup from a storm-damaged suite in a grand hotel. The grounds were closed to the public while repairs were underway. But Willy found someone in management who was willing to let a drug dealer in while tourists were locked out. He also found a generator and a satellite television. He was bored with Colombia, bored of 10 years on the same trails, the same roads, shaking the same hands. There was a sameness to smuggles out of Colombia in the 1980s era, just as there was a sameness to smuggles out of Mexico or Jamaica in the decade before.

A gringo who wanted to buy the country’s reefer could fly into Barranquilla, a Colombian port city. He could stay at El Prado Hotel, the watering hole for visiting white guys who travel light and hope to have a conversation. By walking in and lying by the pool, his intentions would be as well-known as those of a man wearing hiking boots at Everest base camp. After a day or two, if no one approached, he could go outside and lean against a taxi. Every driver in town could yank a chain of associations and help an aspiring felon fulfill his dream.

After a few days of whiskey and accordion trios, a smuggler would find his way into the backseat of a Ford Bronco, a pile of tires on the cushion next to him, unsmiling men in front. Almost all the marijuana smuggling happened on a sparsely inhabited peninsula shared with Venezuela. It was officially known as the Guajira Department and the only road in was a ribbon of asphalt that hugged the coast from Barranquilla to Santa Marta, a city of white beaches framed by abrupt snowcapped mountains, the highest in the country. After Santa Marta, the roads got bad, the spare tires became necessary.

Four hours into the climb a State Department billboard warned U.S. passport holders that continuing into the countryside may be fatal. In a typical year in the 1980s, American authorities recorded dozens of missing gringos in the region, none of them likely to turn up in a morgue. One local marijuana lord was busted with an in-home crematorium and a lot of ash in the pan. The DEA found a cave near the Venezuelan border with at least 100 bodies in it, all presumed smugglers. And the countryside was pocked with fresh holes, the last signs of drug dealers who were sometimes treated like lame racehorses, shot dead and buried if their plane would not take off, their boat leaked, their truck failed to start.

Willy sent a deputy to make the trip that year, and by the middle of the month this gopher had arrived in Riohacha, the capital of the Guajira. It was to marijuana what Medellín or Cali was to cocaine. The local disco had a marble dance floor. Some of the fancier cartels had caletas—hideouts in the mountains—outfitted with mini-fridges stocked with Heineken. Others operated out of warehouses, and kept the gringos out of the jungle altogether. But the luckiest smugglers—my father’s partners included—were offered the magic of a behind-the-scenes experience. They were brought through the “staff only” door of a marijuana factory, as close to the source as Americans would get until they took over the market themselves.

To appreciate what this must have felt like for a smuggler, remember that before marijuana became an over-the-counter experience, the very process of securing a single joint was an ecstatic challenge, a high before the high. Then multiply the feeling of a score by all the levels between a joint in your bedroom and a crop in Colombia, all the dealers between a 10-gram baggie on a corner and a 10-ton boatload on an ocean, all the miles between evading American parents and evading international law enforcement, all the hours and the years of freedom at risk if you falter, and then square that number to account for the sheer economic power of it all.

The patriarchs of local farms presented samples of their finest crops, hoping my father’s gang would buy the field, feed their family, make the year a good one. It was that moment, as the farmer waits and America waits, that hooked smugglers on the life. It was also the moment that lit a slow fuse in my father’s brain. Even as he enjoyed my graduation, he boiled with forbidden euphoria, the knowledge that in a single load he was about to sell enough marijuana to roll a joint for every college kid in America.

It’s the kind of kick that changes a person. It changed my father. Later that fall it also changed the lives of millions of Americans. Maybe it changed them only by a degree or two but all the joints that followed from that 35,000 pounds of pot put millions of people into an altered state of mind, where maybe they found a friend, discovered politics, made love. Some certainly got busted but most just got high, joining the 100 million Americans who have done the same during the last 40 years.

In September, the very night that Ronald Reagan delivered his biggest drug policy speech since declaring the war on drugs, my father and his sales partner were splayed out beneath the 14-foot ceilings of New York’s Plaza Hotel. They had between them $1.5 million. Another $10 million was already out of the country, on a journey around the world and into foreign banks and deep into the bilge of a few sailboats. They didn’t watch the address itself, but if they had it would have confused them.

Reagan compared the fight against drug traffickers to the counterpunch that followed Pearl Harbor, dubbing it “another war for our freedom.” And he brought good news from the front lines. “In four years the number of high school seniors using marijuana on a daily basis has dropped from one in 14 to one in 20,” the president said. What’s more, he continued, “shortages of marijuana are now being reported.”

Forgive him, he didn’t have the latest figures.

Adapted from The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana by Tony Dokoupil, out now from Doubleday.