Richard Stratton and I became friendly in the very early ’90s not long after the publication of his first novel, Smack Goddess, and release from a federal penitentiary where he had just done eight years for bulk importation of marijuana and hashish. Stratton was a big guy, but friendly and open — anything but a hard man — and it’s been impressive to see the way he’s put his grueling experiences to use, editing the magazine Prison Life, working on High Times, consulting on Oz, and making documentaries for HBO. He now lives with his wife, Antoinette, and their 7-year old son, Ivan, in New York City. For more on Stratton’s strange trip through the subculture, see Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life, in bookstores this week from Simon & Schuster, and his own book, Outlaw Blues, scheduled for release in early 2014.
ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST: Were you a writer who became a smuggler or a smuggler who became a writer?
RICHARD STRATTON: I was a writer who became a smuggler. But I was also a smuggler who became a writer.
On the New York cocktail circuit with close friend Norman Mailer
Let’s begin with the smuggling. How did it begin?
I started when I was in college — I went to Arizona State. My roommate and I used to go down to Mexico, and one time we went into one of those cantinas where you can drink and the girls are all there. You choose a girl and wander off to a cheap room. I remember his line to me: “I’m not going with one of these girls unless she looks like Marilyn Monroe and only wants ten dollars!” He went with the first chubby little puta who came along. The guy at the bar asked me, “You wanna girl?” I said, “No, I want mota.” Marijuana. He called over his son who probably was nine or ten. The kid took me down an alley to a place where they fixed flat tires. A guy whose name was Pepe said, “How much?” I said, “Just a coupla joints.” He said, “Oh, no! I only sell kilos.” They were bricks of Mexican commercial weed. It was a hundred dollars a kilo. I had $300 on me so I bought three kilos. That was my first smuggling venture. That was 1964.
You had a business plan?
I knew I could sell ounces for $20 in Boston, and in those days the border between the United States and Mexico was porous. My roommate had an old pick-up truck and I would hide a couple of kilos in the doors. I’d drive the pick-up across the border, and then fly back to Boston. There were no dogs at the airport — America was a free country in those days. I would sell the pot back in Boston and make a thousand, fifteen-hundred dollars, which in those days, for a 19-year-old kid, was a lot of money.
What were the penalties back then?
It was crazy. In those days if you were caught with a few joints in a state like Texas they would lock you up for the rest of your life. But the feds — if you were caught smuggling pot — the most time you could get up until 1980 was five years, no matter how much pot was involved.
You began in Mexico. Where else did you work?
I did some loads from Colombia. I did a lot of things in Jamaica — a lot of things. And Lebanon. The thing about Lebanon was that if you were with the right people you were protected.
And you got to know the other smuggling groups? Like The Brotherhood of Eternal Love?
Yeah, Laguna Beach Cool. They used to import black Afghani hash in surfboards. My girlfriend was part of that. We were the North-East family within the so-called Hippie Mafia. The Canadian group was very big. There were groups in Florida, too. All of these loosely affiliated groups were basically white, middle-class, college-educated kids who started smuggling small amounts of pot and hash, but which grew into this mammoth organization that was all interconnected. Everybody knew everybody!
That was the culture that cocaine killed, yes? Suddenly it wasn’t just cowboys anymore.
Yeah, there were villains. And the people who were using cocaine were completely unreliable. Flaky. I had this rule: Never deal with people who were involved in the cocaine business. And then I started dealing with a guy who I knew was strung out on coke. But I liked this guy. I needed him because I was stuck with a situation where I had a freighter off the coast with 60,000 pounds of Columbian pot on it. I needed — in very quick time — to set up a bunch of stash houses and get this load off the boat, and he was able to do all that. He helped me a lot. But, sure enough, I went to pick him up one day and the DEA had him under surveillance. That’s how they got wind of what we were up to. It all started to collapse because of my going against my own principles.
How did things change in 1980?
The government made it a federal offense to smuggle marijuana and hashish, punishable by up to fifteen years. The Rockefeller laws were tough, too, but they were strictly New York State.
Did your family have an inkling what you were up to?
My father was a professional golfer for a while. Unfortunately, this was before the tour became so profitable. He became an insurance salesman. He would sell insurance on the golf course. He dealt with old coins and stuff like that, too. Interesting guy, but very distant. Typical New England Yankee Wasp. He used to sell me gold coins. He knew what I was doing.
Didn’t you realize it would catch up with you one day?
The myth we lived with was that one day marijuana was going to be legalized. We thought the laws were more ridiculous and harmful than the drug itself. And, yeah, I always feared that I was going to get caught. But I felt, well, it’s worth the risk.
What was the first bust?
I was arrested in Maine. Mailer put up the farm that he and I owned together. I jumped bail and became a fugitive.
How did you and Mailer get together in the first place?
I was a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. We got pretty close. When the fellowship ended he offered me the use of a farm he had bought with Dick Goodwin, so I moved up there. It was 60 miles from the Canadian US border, and I immediately started smuggling pot in and out of Canada.
Fishing with Mailer
Wasn’t Mailer pissed off when you flew the coop?
I met with him and told him what I was going to do. And he said, “Well, look, that place is really yours anyway,” because I had already paid him off. He was an owner in name only at that point. He said, “Do what you’re going to do. I trust you.”
When was the second bust?
I was rearrested in California. They locked me up first in the LA City jail, then they took me to the federal prison, the San Pedro jail. Kept me there during extradition proceedings. I was convicted in Maine and sentenced to fifteen years. I was on my way to the penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. They took me off the bus, then brought me over to MCC — The Manhattan Correctional Center. And after months of sitting in MCC, they sat me down and they said, “Listen! We’ve got another case. We’re going to charge you again.”
I said, “How can you do that? I’ve already been prosecuted.” They said, “We’re going to try you for this separate hashish importation that took place in New Jersey.” I’d brought in 15,000 pounds of hashish from Lebanon.
But they made it very clear to me that if I was willing to cooperate — and, in particular, implicate Norman — they would make the case in Maine go away. They offered me a carte blanche.
I said, “Give you Mailer? What are you talking about?”
“Oh, yeah,” they said, “We know he was involved. You own property, you were seen together, you paid him cash. He knew where the money was coming from.” And it wasn’t just Mailer. Hunter Thompson was a name that came up because I had been seen with him, too. So there were these other targets that they wanted. But Mailer was the primary target. They said, “Give us Mailer and we’ll work something out.”
I represented myself in a moment of insane hubris. I said, “This whole prosecution is just designed to get me to cooperate with the government to implicate Norman Mailer and other people.” The judge, Constance Baker Motley, said, Okay. You can proceed with that defense. And on my list of witnesses was Norman Mailer. So Mailer starts showing up with Jose Torres to watch the trial. There was a lot of media there. It was a full house. And the judge got all nervous and kicked Mailer and Torres out. She said they were coming in there to scare the jury. She banned them from the courtroom, which was unbelievable.
Then she said, “I’m not going to allow you to proceed with this defense. I think it’s a red herring. I think you’re trying to confuse the jury!”
With Mailer at his retreat in Provincetown, MA
Why did the government want Mailer so badly?
Because of his stance against the war in Vietnam. And because of his aggressive attacks on the government and Nixon, in particular. He was on the Enemies List. He was probably the first American writer of any stature to write about using marijuana for his own personal use. He wrote that column for the Village Voice called General Marijuana. So the government was convinced that he was involved in my smuggling activities. It’s kind of star-fucking. They would have loved to have had Mailer. You know how the conspiracy laws are. They are so vague. Did Mailer know what I was doing? Of course he knew what I was doing. Did he have guilty knowledge? Yes. He did. Was he an active participant in the conspiracy? No. Was he the Hippie Godfather that they made him out to be? He wasn’t. But he was fascinated. You know Mailer’s curiosity. He was fascinated by everything.
Did he profit financially?
Only in that I bought him out of the farm with money that I made from smuggling. But all it would have taken would have been for me to say, “Yes, he knew what I was doing and he took money from me.” That was all that I would have needed to say to implicate him. It’s really scary.
But you didn’t. So how much time did you do?
I ended up doing 8 years.
I was sentenced to 25 with no parole, but then I got fortunate. The chief judge, Motley, when she sentenced me, she said, “The reason I’m giving you so much time is that you refused to cooperate with the government.” She put that on the record. And she then went so far as to say that if I changed my mind and decided to co-operate with the government she’d reduce my sentence based on the amount of cooperation. That turned out to be illegal. It was coercive rather than punitive. So, the second sentence was vacated. I’ve always been grateful to Judge Motley for screwing up as she did.
When did you last see Norman Mailer?
Three or four days before he died.