For internationally-renowned former drug smuggler Richard Stratton, getting caught by the federal government turned out to be a blessing.
“I remember the day that I got arrested,” he recalls, 36 years later. “I thought, ‘Well, thank God, it’s finally over. Now I can go to prison for however long that takes and go back to what I always wanted to do in the first place.'”
The career that Stratton had always wanted was that of a writer. Now, Stratton –whose post-prison careers have included novelist, TV producer, and documentarian– has a forthcoming memoir, Smuggler’s Blues, that charts his years as a drug smuggler from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Beneath the story of drug smuggling and risk, however, Stratton offers a blistering indictment of the Drug War and a call for Americans to be actively engaged in the political process.
Stratton was born in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and had issues with authority almost from the outset. Yet according to Stratton, his anti-authoritarian streak only really came into focus after he smoked cannabis for the first time: He remembers hearing LBJ on the radio discussing further U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Stratton noticed then that his grievances were steeped in political elements.
“Before that, I wanted to be a Green Beret and go over and kill Vietnamese,” Statton recalls to The Stoner’s Cookbook. “When I started smoking pot, it changed. I started getting more political and focused. It wasn’t just about being anti-authoritarian anymore. I was more controlled.”
In the years that followed, Stratton’s blend of anti-authoritarianism and political activism manifested itself in the illicit smuggling of cannabis and hashish. (He refused to deal with harder drugs, such as heroin or cocaine, calling them “destructive.”) He ultimately found his smuggling to be both political and rebellious in nature. It was an arena in which he could challenge the political and societal obstructions that had been erected around a lifestyle he had come to embrace.
“It’s about questioning authority,” he says about the past and present fights around cannabis. “Realizing that the government, on some level, is full of shit and that there are a lot of things that they try to get over on the American public…The idea that, as Americans, we have a right to alter our consciousness however we see fit, as long as we’re not hurting other people.”
Stratton’s multimillion-dollar operation frequently took him all over the world, including one particularly memorable incident in which he and his underlings concealed 15,000 pounds of hashish from Baghdad in cartons of dates. He was subsequently nabbed by the DEA in 1982.
Following his arrest –which took place in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel by multiple agents disguised as hotel staff– he was a producer on the popular TV show Oz and created his own Showtime series, Street Time— as well as side careers as a novelist and journalist.
Smuggler’s Blues is the first in a planned trilogy of Stratton memoirs, with the next in the series documenting his time in prison and the third about his readjustment to society following his release.
Stratton laments those whom he hurt through his smuggling, whom he sees as having been caught up in the “collateral damage.” He also has few things that he misses about the lifestyle, which he describes as akin to fleeting rushes of adrenaline without any real purpose or meaning. There is, however, one aspect that he wouldn’t mind bringing back.
“I miss the suitcases full of money. It’d be nice to have a little of that.”
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