Catching the long end of the stick
Surfing legend Kelly Slater is behind a push that will soon bring the history of Thailand's marijuana industry to television screens.
published : 31 Jan 2016 at 01:21
newspaper section: Spectrum
writer: Alan Parkhouse
In the 1970s one of Thailand’s most famous exports was the super-strong strain of marijuana known as Thai sticks, and now a five-part documentary and a television series are to be made on the illegal trade and the people who smuggled it to the Western world.
They’re based on a book, Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, by historian Peter Maguire and former smuggler Mike Ritter, which is not for sale in Thai bookshops but is available on Amazon.
Eleven-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater read the book after it was released in 2013 and liked it so much he bought the film rights and has been heavily involved in the documentary and television series deal with Sony, along with Maguire and Ritter.
“This book is unbelievable,” Slater said. “The history lessons they don’t teach you in school. Book one of two. The stories are too good not to be turned into a TV series or film.”
The book focuses mostly on the 1970s, when the vast majority of marijuana being consumed in the United States, Australia, South Africa and Europe was imported because there was very little domestic production in those days. The highest quality marijuana came from Thailand and was commonly known as Thai or Buddha sticks because of the way it was marketed and sold — the potent, sticky buds of the plant were wrapped around a small stick and tied on with cotton or bamboo fibre. The small sticks were similar to the ones now used at satay stalls to barbeque pork or chicken on.
“The Thais already knew how to cull the male plants, allowing the female plants to produce large, flowering buds, which were carefully harvested and trimmed of unwanted leaves,” said Rittter. “The remaining pure nuggets were then tied to a short length of bamboo, much like a satay skewer, about 5½-6 inches long. Twenty such sticks were bundled together in a neat little package.
“At its best, 100 bundles of Thai sticks weighed about 3½ kilos and when bagged in plastic became the standard unit for smugglers.”
STIRRING THE POT
Maguire and Ritter are the first writers to properly document this underground industry, the only other record of it being in the fading memories of those involved and old newspaper clippings from the Bangkok Post and Bangkok World. And both authors have the credentials to get the story right.
Lead role: Kelly Slater, the legendary pro surfer, bought the film rights to ‘Thai Stick’.
Maguire is an historian, former war crimes investigator, defence contractor and author of Law and War (2001) and Facing Death in Cambodia (2005). Law and War remains one of the standard texts on war crimes and has been cited in many famous court cases, including Donald Rumsfeld v Jose Padilla.
Facing Death in Cambodia chronicles the author’s 10-year quest for war crimes accountability in Cambodia, where he worked uncovering information that could be used in the international court now known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Maguire has also had stories published in The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Independent, New York Newsday, The Boston Globe and others.
He has taught law and war theory at Columbia University and Bard College.
Ritter dropped out of the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1967 and set off on the Hippie Trail to the hash Meccas of Afghanistan and India. He started smuggling hash and marijuana in 1968 and continued international smuggling for 18 years, until he retired in 1986.
Busted for customs and currency violations in 2003, Ritter served 16 months at the Federal Corrections Institute in Florence, Colorado. After being released, he decided that after his youthful adventures, he had reached the appropriate age to complete his university education. He earned his undergraduate degree in astronomy and physics in 2013, aged 66.
The two writers have more than 1,000 hours of taped interviews with international smugglers, the DEA, CIA, Thai police, Thai smugglers, former Khmer Rouge cadres and many others. A second book on the same subject is also in the works — after the first book was released the authors were contacted by many more former Thai stick smugglers who were happy to tell their stories.
“When Thai Stick authors Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter held a book-signing at Chaucer’s Books, the crowd in attendance included quite a few men in their fifties and sixties, many of them wearing baseball caps and sporting Hawaiian-style shirts,” wrote Charles Donelan of the The Santa Barbara Independent. “The scammers were in the house.”
BLAZE OF GLORY
Maguire, who surfed the California coast where he grew up and later spent time riding waves in Australia, Bali and Hawaii, was exposed to the counter-culture in the surfing scene when long-haired young rebels travelled the world in search of the perfect wave and found that smuggling hash and marijuana provided an income that allowed them to live life as they wanted. Documenting the lifestyle of those people became a passion.
“Given that we began interviewing people more than 15 years ago, many people who helped us greatly are now dead,” Maguire told Spectrum. “We have also been touched by the many ageing surfer/smugglers who have come out of the woodwork to embrace our book. One major smuggler showed up at a book signing in California.
“He spent 14 years in both Thai and American prisons, and although he did not want to be interviewed, he came to shake our hands and tell us that he thought the book was fair and accurate. Although we respectfully disagree on the dangers of marijuana, the retired DEA agents we interviewed also thought the book was fair and concede that compared to meth and cocaine, the Thai marijuana trade looks positively innocent.”
Thai Stick follows the marijuana trade that blossomed in Thailand in the late ’60s all the way through the ’70s and into the early ’80s. The smuggling to the United States started with the GIs who fought in Vietnam and were either stationed at one of the many US bases in Thailand or who came here on R&R.
As the reputation and popularity of Thai marijuana grew, others moved in, and Thai sticks were smuggled to Australia and Europe on an industrial scale. In the heady days of the late ’60s and early ’70s, smoking pot was illegal but became one of the most popular pastimes for young people all over the world.
And the best grass in the world at that time came from Thailand. “It was the most exotic thing anyone had ever seen,” said former smuggler Ritter. “Everyone had to have it.
“A rough test used in Thailand to determine quality was to press a Thai stick against a wall; if it stuck and didn’t fall to the floor, it passed.”
Even High Times magazine, the journal of record for pot connoisseurs, later wrote: “Years before sophisticated sinsemilla techniques were incorporated into the crop management of US growers, the Thais were, without effort, turning out a superior product.”
The bulk of the ganja, or marijuana, that was exported as Thai sticks came from a wide area around Nakhon Pathom in Isan. “In this area, everyone has water, but the climate and the soil somehow make this area very good. The sun is good, very nice, and the night time very cold. If you grow the same plant, from the same seed, at another place, it has a different taste,” one former Thai grower told the authors of Thai Stick.
After the United States built five major military bases in Thailand and stationed tens of thousands of US soldiers here during the Vietnam war, the marijuana industry exploded and cheap, powerful pot was as readily available as beer. “With an 80-cent bottle of gin purchased at the PX,” one Vietnam veteran recalled, “you could trade for a pack of 20 Thai sticks.”
THAI STICK: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade.
The GIs involved in the war in Vietnam took to the Thai grass in a big way and soon started exporting it back to the US. It didn’t take long before the surfer/smugglers heard about the high quality grass coming out of Thailand, and the profits to be made, and the first shipments were sent down to Bali, where it sold like hotcakes to the mostly Australian surf crowd. Many of the Bali-based surfers smuggled it on to Australia.
Soon Thai sticks were being smuggled in large quantities to Australia, the US, South Africa and Europe. Some smugglers ended up in Thai prisons and some got rich, and some Thai military, police and businessmen made enough money to become real estate tycoons, hotel owners and even politicians.
While authors Maguire and Ritter and Kelly Slater’s people were doing the Hollywood rounds trying to get studios interested in making a movie based on the book, they were approached by two young documentary film-makers, Jeff Miller and Kevin Klauber. Miller and Klauber made King Corn and 20 Feet From Stardom, two documentaries that impressed the Thai Stick authors, and they signed them on to make the five-part documentary based on the first and soon-to-be-released second book. The documentaries will start in the 1960s on the “Hippie Hash Trail” and end with the rise and fall of the Thai marijuana trade.
The documentaries and series will make for interesting viewing for a lot of people in Thailand who made their start in the smuggling trade and also for the many law enforcement people who tried to stop it.
One of the key characters who provided a lot of information for the first book is former DEA agent Jim Conklin, who spent a long time based in Thailand and arrested some of the biggest smugglers in the business, including the former owners of the Superstar bar in Patpong.
Conklin’s insights into the Thai drug smuggling trade offer a unique perspective on the sometimes controversial war on drugs waged in the United States. Conklin found the Thai marijuana smugglers were mostly laid-back surfers and not the hardened criminals associated with the heroin trade.
“In the DEA it was referred to as kiddy dope,” Conklin says in the first book. “For a long time we weren’t allowed to work on it; you couldn’t work on marijuana.”
That soon changed and Conklin ended up in Bangkok on the trail of some of the biggest marijuana smugglers in the world.
Let’s make a deal: Clubs like this one in Patpong were popular hangouts for marijuana smugglers during the 1970s.
The day the superstars of smuggling went down
The biggest haul of Southeast Asian marijuana that American law enforcement intercepted is also the biggest single marijuana bust in US history, and involved the owners and management of a once famous bar on Patpong Road called Superstar.
Robert Lietzman and his eccentric British partner Michael “The Fox” Forwell had bought the Superstar with the proceeds of previous successful smuggling runs and enlisted the help of identical twin brothers and former special forces troops Bob and Sam Colflesh to run the bar.
In league with veteran smuggler Brian Daniels, the Superstar boys set about organising their biggest escapade yet — sending 72 tonnes of high quality Lao/Thai marijuana by ship to the US.
Details of the operation make fascinating reading in the first book on Thai sticks and the second book, which is still being written: “Towards the end of 1987, Brian Daniels went to Superstar and approached Bob Colflesh about moving his giant load of Laotian marijuana to America. The Encounter Bay, the pride of the Forwell fleet, was perfect for the job. The 187-foot Norwegian-built oil rig supply vessel had a high bow, vast open aft deck, twin diesels, state of the art communications and electronics, not to mention a range of 30,000 miles — it was the ultimate mothership.”
Little did the Superstar team know, but their small group of smugglers included an informant for the DEA and authorities were waiting when the Encounter Bay neared the west coast of the United States.
On June 28, 1988, the US Coast Guard’s 378-foot cutter Boutwell was lying in wait for the Encounter Bay and closed in after being directed to its location by a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules spotter plane.
Sam Colflesh was piloting the Encounter Bay and immediately made a run for it after spotting the Boutwell closing in. Colflesh refused to respond to the Coast Guard’s radio or public address system orders to stop and prepare to be boarded.
The encounter is well documented in the second book on the Thai smuggling trade soon to be released by Maguire and Ritter: “[Coast Guard] Captain Allison received permission to fire warning shots and at 5pm, the chief gunner’s mate shot a .50 calibre machine gun across their bow. Just before 6pm, an inert five-inch cannon round sailed across it, but still the smuggler refused to slow. When Captain Allison received permission to commence disabling fire, he told the Encounter Bay to move their crew to the bridge and prepare for disabling fire.”
Eventually, after being peppered with .50 calibre machine gun rounds and five-inch cannon fire, the Encounter Bay was disabled, came to a stop and was boarded.
The Coast Guard discovered a total of 65,317 kilos of high grade marijuana on board the vessel, which at the time was estimated to be worth US$200 million on the wholesale market and $400 million on the street. The Coast Guard needed nine large trucks to carry the Encounter Bay’s illegal load away and it took five days to burn it.
It was to be one of last large shipments of high-quality Southeast Asian marijuana to the United States.
Brian Daniels was sentenced to 25 years in jail while the Colflesh twins received sentences of 10 years each.
LOST AT SEA: The ‘Encounter Bay’ was chased, fired at, disabled and finally boarded off the US coast when the biggest grass bust in US history took place.
STICKING AROUND: The authors of ‘Thai Stick’, Mike Ritter, left, and Peter Maguire, far right, swap stories with people who came to book signings in California.
PACKED AND READY: One of the many 1 kilo packages of Thai sticks US Customs discovered on board the ‘Encounter Bay’. The packages had been vacuum-sealed and waterproofed.