Little has been written about the early history of the modern cannabis trade. Its pioneers are shrouded mystery, yet they laid the foundation for what became the biggest illicit business in the world. Francis Morland was probably the first British-born “drug baron” of the 1960s, an acclaimed sculptor from a well-connected Quaker family who exhibited around the world but found his lifestyle outstripped his income. He spotted the potential market for drugs among the rising counterculture, and in the mid-1960s, before the word “hippie” was commonplace, made vital connections with suppliers in Morocco and Lebanon. Soon he was shifting substantial quantities of hashish to both the UK and Europe.
But the real money in the Sixties’ pot market was in the USA, where demand was far greater and prices higher. In 1971, Morland was busted by Scotland Yard’s Drug Squad, but was released from custody on bail to await trial. Rather than sit around to face his day in court, he and Harvey Bramham, a former roadie with the folk-rock band Fairport Convention, loaded a yacht called Beaver with a ton of high-quality Moroccan resin and sailed it across the Atlantic to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Their plan was to move it from there to the mainland – and to make a small fortune, as Morland recalls in his newly-published autobiography:
Our plan was based on a chap called Ken Wainman, an American whose parents had kept a holiday home on St Croix, the most southerly of the American Virgin Islands. According to him, Christiansted, one of its main settlements, was a laid-back port full of lotus eaters like himself. More importantly, it had an international airport with regular flights. Ken claimed that once you landed on St Croix you were officially in the United States, so if you then caught a plane to Miami or New York you were effectively just taking an internal flight, without having to run the gauntlet of US Customs. That sounded good.
The next day, we reported to Customs and Immigration. Our story was that we had been cruising the Virgins with the owner, a New Yorker, and he had gone home. We were here to fix up the boat and so on, and expected to be in town for at least a month. We booked a slot in the boatyard for the following day and got permission to remain on the jetty until then. Then we reported to the Stone Balloon, a louche coffee bar favored by the young and, apparently, draft dodgers avoiding the Vietnam War, long-haired and well into “the scene”, The walls were draped with posters of Che Guevara, Marsha Hunt and Huey Long, worn copies of Rolling Stone magazine lay scattered about and the Grateful Dead played on the jukebox. The barman was an elegant black guy, a retired police officer from New York. I loved it.
Ken seemed a bit shifty when we met. And he was amazed to hear what we had come with.
“A ton? You’re kidding me.” He didn’t seem pleased. “How are we going to move a ton here?”
“Here,” I spelt out, “is the biggest market in the world.”
“What, a hundred hippies?”
“No. I mean the United States of America.”
“Oh, the US. Who is going to take it there?”
“Well, you are, aren’t you? You said you could get girls to fly it over there twenty kilos at a time.”
“You seen what a bottle of whiskey costs here? They’re giving it away. Why do you think that is?”
I had noticed this phenomenon: lines of shops selling watches and cameras at giveaway prices.
“Because they are duty free?”
“Exactly. Arriving in the US from here is the same as from everywhere else. Worse in fact. Because of its duty-free status, they are especially careful about smuggling.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell us that?”
Ken tried to pretend that this was some new development but the truth was he’d been guessing with his previous story – and dreaming. It was back to the drawing board.
Over the next few weeks we sold a kilo on the island so that we had some money to fix the boat and live. Another forty kilos we buried inland. The bulk of our cargo we were going to sail to the north-eastern US; Ken was to arrange for us to be met at Providence, Rhode Island by his sister, who had a place there. Harvey resolved to fly to New England, where the Woodstock Festival was coming up, to warm up some contacts there for our eventual delivery. He said he would take charge of the money side of things and needed to arrange bank accounts in Switzerland. That was a huge burden off my mind, because it was not my plan to sail home with $1 million in cash stashed in my hold to a Europe now no doubt on the lookout for me. But I needed a crew and that meant talking with the hip crowd in St Croix to find reliable lads who would sail up the coast of America with me and deliver to Rhode Island.
It was July by the time we left. With me were Red and Brad, both in their early twenties with military call-ups to avoid. Red turned out a good sailor and Brad a good cook. They also liked the boat to be shipshape. They were to get five kilos apiece for their work, on delivery. I left forty kilos stashed on an island called Fallen Jerusalem, my ace in the hole in case anything went wrong. Intrepid treasure hunters may like to seek it out, for I never went back to get it, although what nature has done to it I dare not guess. Then we were off.
The journey took three weeks and was beset by a lack of wind for days at a time. We followed the coast of America, perhaps 300 miles out, and there were times when heavy mist fell and we seemed to be moving through a muffled cloud of steam. My well-honed navigation skills with the sextant were rendered useless and for days at a time we didn’t have a clue where we were. The three of us talked a lot. Brad, who knew Ken Wainman well, didn’t trust him. I wasn’t sure I did. Brad was also unwilling to go to Rhode Island because he feared our reception there. I was for cutting straight to the chase, where the market was: New York.
“You want to sail up the Hudson and dock in New York?” exclaimed the astonished Red. “No way! More pigs there than a Chicago abattoir.”
Brad was of the same view. They had the typical amateur understanding of smuggling: find a small cove, land the cargo at night, rent a car, load the gear. This is a mistake made by smugglers and dealers who believe that farms and empty country with no cop station for miles ought to be safer than the main street of a great city. They’re wrong. Life is quiet and uneventful in the country; everything gets noticed and tongues wag in the local bar.
“I want to hit the dock and hail a yellow cab,” I said.
“You crazy? The place is stiff with cops.”
They were adamant; they would go up the Hudson with me, but then they were off. They were having nothing to do with the unloading.
I did agree that I needed to reconnoiter the 79th Street marina, on the Upper West Side, and book a slot. And it would be wise to make some phone calls to see the lie of the land. That was how we came to make our first stop in Sandy Bay, opposite Manhattan, a low-lying, dreary New Jersey foreshore used mainly by working boats. I didn’t want to stay long, as it was not an obvious place for a stylish yacht to spend its time. I dinghied ashore, walked for what seemed miles before I could find a cab, then went into New York City and booked into the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street. It was time to make some calls.
Harvey was at Woodstock but said he’d fly straight down to New York, where he thought he had a buyer for most of the load. Ken was incommunicado; there was a rumour he’d been busted in Miami and his sister wouldn’t return calls. Harvey agreed that a fast delivery to New York was our best bet.
I was back on the boat that night, and at seven the next morning we saluted the Statue of Liberty as I, under the pseudonym “Charles Hamilton Brice”, skipper of the Beaver with his mutinous crew, sailed up the Hudson to arrive with over a ton of cannabis resin in the heart of NYC.
The boat basin is a largish marina next to Riverside Park, while 79th Street, which terminates there at a roundabout, is an important cross-island thoroughfare. The Washington Bridge loomed upriver in the summer haze. You could say it was bang in the middle of Manhattan, although in those days the area north of Riverside Park was regarded by white people as a dangerous reserve for drug-deranged blacks, called Harlem. The embankment opposite the basin is raised high and built into it was a large restaurant extending out onto a deep terrace. There my crew left me, bags slung over their shoulders and American passports in hand.
I (right) set about folding and rolling sails, making good the lines and sheets, and adjusting the fenders, watchful for I knew not what. Eventually a basin official with a classic New York girth rolled up.
“Where you come from, buddy?”
“American Virgins, St. Croix,” I said.
“That’s a way. You British?”
“For a while. I need to replace my crew. Call me Hamilton.” I stretched out my hand to shake his and he gripped in warmly.
“Welcome to New York, Hamilton. You got anything you shouldn’t have?”
“Food, animals, plants, things like that?”
“Nothing like that. Bit of cheap booze maybe.”
He chuckled. “Hammy, fill in this form and bring your passport by. And have a nice stay.”
It seemed I was in.
Later I walked to the roundabout behind the café. Cabs were no problem, although hauling the product up the slope was going to be hot work. August is a killer in New York. The humidity was terrific, the heat dense and oppressive. Walking a block put you in a muck sweat.
I returned to the Chelsea Hotel downtown and extended my stay there to a week. It was a cool place, proud of its flophouse atmosphere even though it had all the mod cons. Being unkempt and bearded, as I now was after weeks at sea, I fitted right in. Best of all, the Chelsea had telephones in all the rooms, and air conditioning. A remarkable feature of New York at this time was the ubiquitous aircon; every building was festooned with add-on white-boxed machines purring without pause and the most wretched diner would greet you with a blast of cold air. If you had a cab waiting out the front of the hotel, you could get through most of the day feeling the heat only in sudden wafts as you ran between cab and building and vice versa.
I got to work straight away, hammering the telephone. Harvey told me to introduce myself to Bill Linus, who worked in a printworks-cum-publishing office called Alternative Publishing somewhere around 50th. I took a cab there and buzzed the entry phone.
It was a handsome, brick-built industrial warehouse block tucked between the familiar skyscrapers. Each floor was open plan with stays and pulleys in 1920s ironwork still attached to the supporting columns. Between the floors were caged iron staircases and in the corners on each floor were simple cabins open to the floor, where people worked at desks. Over the open areas were hundreds of boxes, some baled, some packed, and rolls of newsprint. I could hear the hydraulic churn of a heavy press somewhere. The building housed several alternative publication businesses, a different one on each floor. Bill Linus was on the third. Posters, flyers, local newspapers, pamphlets, books and other junk bestrewed his space.
Bill was an entrepreneur, tall, slim, dressed in denim and a pioneer of the ponytail. He invited me into his office, a chaotic swirl of signed photos of authors and sexy silhouettes of afro-headed nudes, and sat me down. I introduced myself by putting a kilo block on the desk in front of him. He was cool about that.
“Mind if I roll up?”
He rolled a joint on the desk, lit up and drew deep. Other employees came and went without batting an eyelid. To some of them he offered a toke, and they savoured it like oenophiles with a good Bordeaux. Bill seemed to be getting sleepy.
“That’s a heavy high,” he sighed eventually. “What do you want for it?”
“Eight hundred dollars per kilo, if you take the lot. A thousand dollars if you take only half and climbing if I have to sweat round this greenhouse to find other buyers.”
“And the whole lot is?”
To my surprise he did not do the usual intake of breath and whistling stuff. He got right up.
“I’ll need to talk to some guys.” And he was gone.
Half an hour later, during which time I read a booklet called How to Bust the Bust, a half-finished handbook on being arrested with drugs, he came back. He handed over an envelope with pictures of Madison inside. I counted them. Eight hundred dollars.
“So the lot?”
“We’ll try and take it all. If we can’t move the whole lot in ten days we’ll look at the price again. Meanwhile, cash on delivery?”
“Harvey’ll be dealing with the money.”
“You’re a cool dude,” said Bill. “Your British gentleman’s word, huh?”
With $800 in my pocket I could get to work. The first thing to do was get all the dope off the boat and for that I needed somewhere to stow it. I rented a one-bed service flat for $300 a fortnight, renewable, on 53rd Street, nice and close to Alternative Publishing. The plan was to move the dope in 100-kilo goes to the flat until the boat was empty. Then I could concentrate on distribution.
I had two Revelation suitcases, my dad’s, which had completed the trip from England with me. The hinges and catches were on a ratchet so you could double the size of the case. I could get anything up to sixty kilos in, with a coating layer of clothes, without it looking absurdly heavy.
And so my routine began: loading the cases on the boat, getting the basin trolley, rolling it up the ramps to the roundabout, calling a cab, loading the cab, returning the trolley, back to the cab and off to 53rd Street. Pay off the cab, haul the cases up three storeys to the flat, unpack and stow it and back down with the empty Revelations into a cab and back to the boat. For some of this I eventually rented a car out at the airport, which I could leave in a car park stack next to the basin.
One time when I was in a heavy sweat pushing the trolley up the ramp to the roundabout, two cops in full uniform joined me, one on either side. I thought they were seizing the trolley but they weren’t. They were helping me.
“Jolly decent of you chaps. You’d never get a British bobby helping out like that.”
“Always glad to help, sir. Have a nice day.”
Harvey arrived from Woodstock and wanted me to get the stuff shifted by making daily deliveries of fifty kilos to Alternative Publishing. But he wouldn’t come the boat. He had sunk into the alternative scene and was picking up the rising paranoia of acid abuse, Nixon and Vietnam. I was happy for him to leave the handling work to me. Each day I would do one or two excursions with the Revelation cases. Then at some time during the day I’d go round to Alternative Publishing with fifty kilos in a case, again by cab. Often I’d hang out there for a while and maybe eat takeaway pastrami-and-ryes with the staff.
There was also work to do on the boat, so I was also busy painting the wheelhouse and resealing the hatches. I had told the guy at the Basin office that I might be selling the boat, so it was not surprising that one afternoon a couple of men who looked like father and son appeared on the pontoon, admiring the Beaver’s lines.
“My dad’s winding down,” said the younger one. “He was thinking of like a retirement thing. A boat he could live in for some of the year with Mom, like the winter months, down Florida and Bahamas. You know what I mean? He wants a good-size yawl.”
And so on. They had a quick look around and purported to consider where a grandchild could sleep and things like that. Then they left.
No sailor would mistake the Beaver for a yawl. I didn’t like it, but what could I do? Keep moving the dope.
Harvey was more wary. He had accumulated a big stash of dough, around $200,000, and we agreed he would fly back to Europe with it. He clearly thought I was doomed.
“Why not wait until we’ve sold the lot?” I asked. “You think it’s going to come on top?”
“It’s what I fear,” he said.
“And you’re going to leave me to face the music?”
“Better you face the music with some money in the bank.” He was right; there was no point us both being wiped out.
After he had gone, it reached a stage where there were about forty kilos on the boat and 400 kilos in the flat; the rest had been delivered and paid for. My deliveries were becoming fewer and clearly I was stretching the capacity of our buyer. Time seemed to slow down, yet there was an unpleasant expectancy in the air.
It came to a head one lunchtime. I was eating peaches out of a tin with a fork on the pontoon when they appeared at one end, a young man and a girl in plain clothes and three other men in boiler suits with the Institution of Customs Enforcement (ICE) slogan across their chests.
“Hamilton Brice? We have reason to believe you have a large quantity of cannabis resin on board this boat and I have here a warrant to search. You want to tell us about it or are you going to make us do it the hard way?”
I was a goner as far as the dope onboard was concerned, but the reference to “on this boat” implied they didn’t know about the flat. I’ve said this before and others believe it too about me: I don’t panic, and I give myself time to think. I’m not a brilliant thinker, in fact much of what has happened to me makes me seem an idiot, and I try to do too much on my own. But what helps a little is that I lack imagination. I don’t in the moment of crisis see the disastrous times that loom ahead, and so I never go to pieces.
“You’ll find it in the forecabin. About forty kilos. When you’ve got that we’ll talk some more.”
They found it alright. They searched me and bagged my belongings, then sat me down in the saloon. While the girl made some tea – “That’s what you Brits like, right?” – they grilled me.
It was time for my damage limitation story. I told them a guy in a bar in Christiansted had asked me to deliver this forty ki to a guy in New York. They had found Harvey’s number but he was safely back in the UK. So OK, I said, it might have been this Harvey. I was to take this dope to the Chelsea Hotel and eventually he was going to come in a cab and pick it up; in fact he was due this afternoon and I had been about to take a cab there. This was sort of true: the last forty kilos was packed into one of the suitcases, although it wasn’t going to the Chelsea.
In the event this was a clever piece of improvisation, because they now wanted to do next was stake out the Chelsea with me and ambush whoever came to collect. I was cuffed and marched up the ramp to their cars and our little convoy proceeded through the midtown traffic to the Chelsea. The young man and the girl walked me into the hotel, I got the key and we went up to my room. I had passed the attitude test and I was no longer cuffed. We stowed the case, then went downstairs and waited in the foyer.
An hour went by.
A yellow cab drew up, and a young couple got out and were paying the driver. I rose to my feet.
“It’s them,” I whispered urgently. “I’ll go and get them in. Wait there!” Amazingly, they did. I walked fast out into 23rd Street and hustled the arrivals away from the driver’s door.
“Don’t worry. I’ll pay. I need this cab. Just go!” To the cabbie I said, “Just go, go, go! I’m being chased. There’s a hundred bucks in it if you can get me away from here.”
It was a complete lie; I didn’t have a cent. But unbelievably he went, as fast as he could. Which, unfortunately in the traffic, was very slowly indeed.
I should have run.
There followed a farcical twenty minutes in which we were blocked in slow-moving traffic, only able to turn right and right again. I was spluttering an incoherent account of being caught up in error in some gang shootout and all the time we were working our way round the block back to where we started. Then a hue and cry went up, police sirens everywhere, blue lights flashing and NYPD cars cutting through the late- afternoon logjam.
I left the cab as quickly as I had got into it, chucking my wristwatch to the cabbie as payment, and sprinted across the road. I had seen a barber and I hadn’t shaved or had a haircut for a while. Maybe if it was all shaved off, I would get away.
No sooner was I inside the barber’s parlour than I could see a cop walking towards us. I ducked back out and ran down towards First Avenue. Coming the other way were two fit and determined-looking plainclothesmen. I surrendered.
They led me to their vehicle and bundled me in. Then two traffic cops came up and tried to stop them. It was the narcotics Feds that now had me, in the form of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), and an unholy turf war broke out as to whose prisoner I was. After a lot of crackling radio and heavy swearing, calm was restored and it was conceded that I was the property of ICE, and the narcs handed over their prize. Not that it made any difference.
The BNDD had themselves raided Alternative Publications that afternoon and had been planning to pick me up at the Chelsea, where they knew I had been staying. They had recovered fifty kilos from Alternative and arrested four or five people there. An even more calamitous sequel was that a sharp-eyed exhibits officer puzzled over the boat keys. One looked familiar to him. It was of unusual manufacture and mainly issued by one particular New York locksmith. After some cunning tracing work, they identified the flat on 53rd, and 400 kilos more were recovered.
All that remained was identifying me. Unless I wished to hide from my family that I was to spend the next four years in a federal penitentiary, that too was a foregone conclusion.
Exactly a year after my first arrest in London, I was collected from one of the twenty-man cages that filled a federal warehouse in the Bronx, was taken to the US District Court South, and pleaded guilty in front of Justice Croake. That winter I was sentenced to eight years in prison. My luck had run out.
“IT AIN’T SO bad,” a character called Johnny “the Trick” Manolo told me on the five-hour prison bus ride from the West Street detention centre in the Bronx to Lewisburg Penitentiary, Pennsylvania.. “You’ll be with the crème de la crème. Take it slow. Don’t make any pals you might regret. Take your time, watch, remember. Most important thing, get on the right wing, with people you can get on with. Don’t do nothing in the first week. Guy asks you a question, you answer polite. But brief. You won’t be asking him no questions. Why would ya? You’re not short of time. There’ll be guys say they can get you jobs in the kitchen or the stores. Just say you’ll take your time. You need to get your bearings.”
A guard stood at the front of the bus facing back towards us. This being America, he had some kind of shotgun across his chest.
“That’s good advice you’re getting, Hamilton,” he called out to me. “Now listen up.” He then gave us the welcome lecture to “the federal correctional facility of Lewisburg”, like he was proud of it and wanted all of us to have a good time as his guests. He talked like we were one big happy family, with maybe a trace of sarcasm.
“There’s fourteen hundred of us in eight blocks. There are two floors and four wings on each block. When you leave reception, you’ll be in one of these wings. Some of the wings are freer than others. Depends on your conduct and why you’re here. Some of us are kidnappers with homicide, some are traitors, some obscenity artists, some revolutionaries, some are drug smugglers like Hamilton here. He’s English in case any of you wanna learn to speak good.”
There was a round of sarcastic clapping.
“Each wing has its cells, the good guys get one to themselves generally and they’re open most times to the rest of the wing. Others get sent to the Jungle. You’ll find a day room with TV, shower and washrooms. It’s not so bad. You leave the wing to eat and to work and to recreate but you’d better get on with those guys on your wing. You won’t be partying with the rest of the guys much else of the time. Lock up, 8 P.M. Lights out, 10 P.M. Reveille, 6 A.M. Any questions?”
Actually all the time I was at Lewisburg I was treated with respect. This was partly because I was English and partly because cannabis in America was still a cottage industry with very few big players. I wasn’t treading on anyone’s toes and I made a change from the usual inmate, with my good manners and diffident English style.
The prison was a great big hulk of brick-built blocks astraddle a central corridor, the control building, put up in the 1930s with little expense spared. It had a running track, cinema, gym, library and basketball court. Best of all it had tennis courts, two of top quality clay, and nobody used them. It also had a library, into which they were happy to induct me when they heard that I was a craftsman willing to sort and bind their books, a block transfer of slushy novels from a dull US Air Force base which needed a lot of weeding. I did mornings at the library, then broke off after lunch, when the governor was happy to let me play tennis all the afternoons that the weather, when it improved, permitted. The winner stayed on. I was a university-class player so I got very fit.
Nice though all this sounds, it was, of course, surrounded by a high wall and machine gun towers, floodlit at night and patrolled by dogs on running leashes. This was where the next three years of my life were to be spent. Later we had some Watergate convicts pass through on their way to the open prison at Allenwood, but the guards there were apparently so jumpy that some inmates applied to come back to Lewisburg, where the security was more relaxed.
There’s not a lot to be said for prison. One compensation is that you meet people who have led the strangest lives and done the weirdest things. In the refectory you queued by race: blacks, Latinos, whites. I would join the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam cons because I didn’t know any better and they got spare ribs. I met the likes of Huey Newton and Ishmael X. Once Ishmael X came to me in the library and asked me if I’d rebind his Koran. He’d been good to me in that queue, so sure I would. It was in a terrible state because he gave readings from it every prayer time on his wing. This book was part of a kind of cult issue from Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims; he enjoyed free labour on his big ranch as tribute from his following. They also had to buy a journal of his, Elijah Muhammad Speaks.
His accent was familiar and I asked him where he was from. St Croix, would you believe. We chewed the cud about the island. I didn’t like to ask him why he was inside, but I found out. He was Ishmael LaBeet, one of a group of black civil rights activists who had invaded a golf course in St Croix and shot repeatedly at a group of privileged white tourists, killing eight of them. Many years later, this polite man hijacked an American Airlines plane and diverted it to Cuba.
The Panthers had a strike one day in the furniture department where they worked. We all went on sandwich and Kool-Aid rations and prison lockdown, to the delight of the screws, until the whole prison except the Panthers voted to get back to normal. After that we never saw the Panthers again.
Although we all ate communally, it was along an endless corridor hall connecting the wings. You got to see people from neighbouring wings but not the distant ones. Violent prisoners tended to be segregated away from us white-collar types. I met Jimmy Hoffa, and hung out with Guido, a big-time steel union boss. He was educating himself in the “Mafia structures of Renaissance Italian city states”, believe it or not.
I eventually got onto the “honour” wing, where I used to play a lot of chess. One of the inmates was in a federal prison because he had stabbed an officer in another prison for confiscating a jug of hooch. And he had been in that prison because he’d shot his grandfather, who had shot his dog. I beat him twice quite easily and was playing him a third time when this composed, smart-looking man, maybe ten years older than me, put a coaster under my mug of coffee. Next time I picked it up, I saw he had written the single word “lose” on it. Sound advice.
I got parole and in the summer of 1974 I was transferred by Immigration to Pittsburgh Holding. It was a dreadful place where we slept two to a bunk in our cells. People screamed all night because nothing is more to be avoided for most deportees than their expulsion from the Land of the Free. I made a huge fuss, and when they looked up my story I became a bit of a novelty cause célèbre – someone who was actually looking forward to going home! So I was taken shopping at Sears by the guards and even given a joint to smoke and asked for my autograph. Finally, I was flown to New York, where I spent another ten days in a similar facility. Some of the deportees there were hobbled with leg shackles to discourage them from running for it prior to their flights. Then I was driven to Kennedy, marched across the tarmac, and handed over to a Pan Am air hostess. My passport was returned. For a few hours I was free.
At Heathrow, I emerged into arrivals to see my family there to welcome me. But so were the police. They had not forgotten me.
In September 1974, at the Old Bailey, Judge Abdela took into account the three years I had served in America, handing down a comparatively lenient eighteen months.
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