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The high life: author on pot smuggling surfers of the ’70s

Author and historian Peter Maguire, whose new book goes on sale next month
Author and historian Peter Maguire, whose new book goes on sale next month. Bennett Murray

The high life: author on pot smuggling surfers of the ’70s

IN the 1970s, Thailand was full of American and Australian surfers. Flying in from the West Coast of the United States or Sydney, they smuggled home high powered “Thai stick” marijuana – named after the wooden sticks which the buds were wrapped around.

Historian Peter Maguire of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington teamed up with ex-pot smuggler Mike Ritter to tell their stories in their book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade.

On Saturday, during a visit to Phnom Penh, Maguire spoke to Bennett Murray about his own life growing up with the smugglers and how Cambodia was a place of ‘no return’.

What made Thai sticks special?
To this day, it’s some of the strongest pot in the world. You could take a Thai stick and press it against a window and it would stick. It was a long, strong high. It wasn’t a peppy, uppy kind of thing. It would knock you on your f---ing ass. You can’t get it anymore, but it was true one-hit pot. Over time, the Thai [drug manufacturers] became greedy and the Thai sticks’ quality started declining, and no one wanted them.

What was your first impression of the smugglers?
They were my idols as a teenager. Being down in Baha [Mexico] and seeing these guys fly in to the most remote desert in a Cessna with a beer in their laps. They would pull out their surfboards and surf the best two hours of the day, hop in their plane, and fly back to Cabo San Lucas for happy hour. They were Robin Hoods to us, and we looked up to them.

What was the biggest risk to smugglers?
It was that pinched little part of the Gulf of Thailand near Vietnam. This stretch of water in the mid ’70s through the early ’80s was one of the most dangerous pieces of water in the history of maritime navigation. Because you had all the Vietnamese boat people fleeing with their valuables after the war, you had piracy the likes of which human history had never seen. The average boat person’s boat was robbed four or five times. They would get to the point where they’d steal the engines. It was just shocking.

Were the Khmer Rouge a threat?
The Khmer Rouge had extremely good Chinese radar. You’re a blip on the radar screen, and next thing you know you have a patrol boat bearing down. That was the ultimate nightmare to my co-author. He compares Cambodia at the time to Tolkien’s Mordor – this black place of no return. Many boats disappeared without a trace.

What happened to the smugglers themselves?
Now they are getting old, it’s pretty depressing. None of them have any money left, most of them had everything taken [by the government after getting caught]. They’re trying to enter the workforce in their mid ’60s, like my co-author. He at least finished college and is an exceptionally smart guy. But some aren’t. A lot moved to Mexico, or moved to countries where their little bit of social security money goes further. It’s not a happy ending. They flew high for a period of time but they all did the Icarus and eventually came crashing down to earth.

Thai Stick is available on Amazon Kindle for $16.57 and will go on sale at Monument Books in February.

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