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.
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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.