Gail Williams (gail) Mon 14 Sep 09 12:19
For this edition of our Inkwell guest author project, we're delighted to welcome Brian O'Dea, award-winning author of HIGH, Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler. This book is an acclaimed chronicle of high-stakes drug dealing, the prison cycle, personal change and the need for changes in the drug laws. Leading the conversation will be one of the mainstays of the Inkwell project, Lisa Harris. Brian is currently working with the Culture Division of the City of Toronto developing "Shouting Out," a television and film project for at-risk youth in troubled neighborhoods in the city of Toronto. Brian's Consequences of Choice presentations have benefited thousands of people in prisons and in schools across Canada and the United States. You may also know him as the Producer and host of "Creepy Canada" which airs on networks around the world currently as "Creepy". Lisa Harris is a business owner AND stay at home mom. She runs her Shade Sails and Landscaping businesses out her home so that she can be there to care for her two school-aged children. Lisa is a co-host in Inkwell.vue, an avid Scrabble player, a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a baker and a supporter of the legalization of marijuana (not necessarily in that order). Great to have you here.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 14 Sep 09 12:54
Thanks for the introduction, Gail. Hi Brian. So, let's start with the basics. What brought you to writing this memoir?
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Tue 15 Sep 09 11:49
When I walked into Terminal Island, everything I was afraid about prison seethed before me. I was led into a movement-stopped yard, alone, cuffed, confronted by a line of guards stretching diagonally across the yard preventing any inmate from passing. This always happens when a chain of prisoners arrive from various lockups. It is to prevent someone who is already in prison from attacking an enemy who may be about to check in. In the check-in process they establish if you need to be in protective custody, in the event there is some one or group on the yard who may have a problem with you. As I was a self-surrender, I showed up on my own, being driven there by friends; but no less precautions happen for a single, newly-arriving prisoner. As I looked over, beyond the line of guards, I saw every type of curious prisoner, muscles, tattoos, hostile looks, laughs and pointing, taunts, cries of Hey fish. My enemy mind was going a mile a minute, all trajectories leading toward my personal demise, or destruction. So, I had to get out of it, my head that is. On the way to my bunk, I saw a broken pencil and a sheet of paper on a book-free tumble-down book case. It occurred to me that if I was to write down everything I heard and felt, then I would give shape to these ghosts that I was projecting (for that is what fear is, ghosts), and with some shape, they become manageable. I wasnt planning on writing anything but words to save my life/mind. As I wrote down what I heard happening around me, I thought it might be an interesting process to write the stories of the major, delineating, course-committing events in my life, in a chronological manner, so that I could sniff the tracks which led me to such an address. It can be a useful exercise, I have determined to smell/see/know from whence I come, and if I dont like where I am, I can realign the pieces going forward. You know what they say, if I want different results in my life, then I need to do things differently. It helps to have a renewed and fresh comprehension of the path travelled, so that I can self-correct. The trouble with a lot of guys in prison, their perfectionism has made them inert. If they could truly inhabit the understanding that a plane which travels from here to L.A. is off course almost all the time, but in a constant state of self-correction, because it examines the track where it really is, and the track where it wishes to be, and makes the desired changes. It is almost always on one side of the desired line or another, but constantly seeking the line. Only when we examine our movement in a similar fashion can we stay closer to our true course, allowing for a reasonable deviation from the path. Writing is a life-saving device for me. Nothing is more informative of me to me than that. Perhaps that is why I sometimes avoid it like the plague sometimes I just dont want to know.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Tue 15 Sep 09 13:07
<scribbled by lrph Tue 15 Sep 09 13:08>
Lisa Harris (lrph) Tue 15 Sep 09 13:14
your introduction begins with your indoctrination, so to speak, into the church. How did that experience lead you to the path of drug addict and smuggler?
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Tue 15 Sep 09 15:22
That is a very big question. My youth was fraught with Irish Catholicism, and if you have been there, you know it comes with a frighteningly all-punishing God. Sexual abuse at the hands of one of the teaching clergy thrust me into a continuous negotiation with this entity, "please, not today" became my mantra as I knew for certain that eternity in a burning hell beyond my imagination awaited me. I begged to the virgin entity of the Catholic deity to intercede on my behalf, seemingly trusting that gender more than the other, for the moment. You can imagine that once discovered, substances that can take one from the moment, the mind that needs changing thinks it has found an invaluable ally. Once I blew through my college tuition, rent money, and food allowance on dope for me and my friends, my first thought was not "what will I do about tuition, rent, food?" No. "How am I going to get some dope?" became the burning question. As the Fabulous Freak Brothers of comic book fame said, "times of dope with no money are better than times of money with no dope" or something like that. It occurred to me that if I got a larger quantity fronted to me from the guy whose best customer I had become, I could cut it into smaller quantities, sell them to my friends at a slight markup, and get mine for free. There is quite a journey from that beginning to a 75 ton ending in that trade. And yet another from there to here.
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 15 Sep 09 18:10
75 tons. That's astonishing!
Lisa Harris (lrph) Tue 15 Sep 09 18:17
So now we get to the journey. It seems to me, as I've read it, that there was never really a long-term plan to be a drug smuggler. More like you went from deal to deal as the wind blew. Am I reading that correctly? Or was there a career path, of sorts?
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Wed 16 Sep 09 04:48
You are right there. I simply found myself squeezing out a meager living most of the time, following the opportunity as it arose. From time to time, luck brought good fortune (economically), it could not help it, I guess. As Branch Rickey, creator of baseball's farm system among many other accomplishments, said "Luck is the residue of design". To the casual observer, I looked as though I had it made, travelling the world, planes, boats, cars, etc. But to me, not much stuck. It turned out that I was a great conduit for putting people together, but often times they forgot to pay me, or treat me as one of them. I found that the holder of the money, once he or she climbs over the connecting person to the contact will find a way to justify stiffing the connector for the "little effort". Those who come to a person like me for contacts in that old game would often make great assurances and promises to get to have a conversation with the connection, but all that was soon forgotten when they could do it without me, or one like me. But it takes a lifetime of living like a people pleaser to accumulate the connections I once had, that was my forte.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Wed 16 Sep 09 10:07
For our off-WELL readers, you can email your questions or comments to <email@example.com>.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 16 Sep 09 10:44
Hi Brian I haven't read the book yet, but you got me with your first few posts. I did read a memoir of a cocaine smuggler in Columbia though. I believe the title was "Fruit Palace." It was a combination of high jinks and a sort of ethnography. The context of the question I will ask you comes from 2 television series. "The Untouchables" was a late 50's depiction of Prohibition during the 20's and 30's. It did biographies of the good guys and bad guys and depicted life in America during that time. "The Wire" is a recent series which is a metaphor for the decay of American cities. The agent that animates everything is drugs--the cops and drug dealers, the politicians, the unions, the schools, and the media. One group is the the focus of each of the series' seasons, but they are always all in play. Here is the question: From your vantage point how is the drug world today similar and different from these 2 cultural products? If you are not familiar with them, the question then is to compare today to Prohibition.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 16 Sep 09 12:15
Prohibition had better music.
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Wed 16 Sep 09 13:37
David I once wrote a piece in which I took stories from headlines in 1920's newspapers, and changed one word in the articles quoted - I substituted the word alcohol (or booze) with the word drugs and they read like today's paper. Plus ca change, non?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 16 Sep 09 13:59
What is the reference to the article. Brian, you are talking about a phenomenon that I'd call a "constant" in American life. You could do the same thing if you took newspaper stories about immigration from various historical periods. If you looked at the "Know Nothing" party and substituted Irish with Mexican, I'm sure you'd get your Irish up! Mais j'oublie que vous etes Canadien alors!
Gary Greenberg (gberg) Wed 16 Sep 09 14:02
>As the Fabulous Freak Brothers of comic >book fame said, "times of dope with no money are better than times >of money with no dope" I believe this would be, "Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope."
bill braasch (bbraasch) Wed 16 Sep 09 15:59
seems like you could use up a whole lot of dope fighting the boredom of standing in line at the banks converting cash to CDs. what a load of work that adds to your former profession. the banks must have known there was a reason for all those just under the reporting limit CDs.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 16 Sep 09 17:58
Bill, what is the CD reporting limit? Not something I've paid attention to. That also makes me wonder, Brian, whether in the thick of things it became hard to remember to be careful about a money trail?
bill braasch (bbraasch) Wed 16 Sep 09 18:43
I think it was $10k, so they bought a lot of $9k paper. It's always the paperwork that slows things down. I can't imagine that the Feds wouldn't have a way to see transactions that were just under the limit. I heard some years ago that the reason they changed the $100 bills after they did the rest of the bills was to give the people who were holding stacks of the old hundreds a chance to swap them without causing a huge run on the new $100s. The cash economy is where these transactions happen, even if we're talking about tons of whatever was crossing some border. Maybe this is why all the $100 bills have cocaine on them. Odds are they've been put through a laundry somewhere.
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Thu 17 Sep 09 05:03
While often we are prone to assume all the extreme angles of a story are true, cocaine on the bills is hyperbole. And what traces are found, are, most of the time, from coming in contact with a bill which was used for snorting coke. The minutes amounts of residue found point to that fact. As for moving money, there was a time back in the 70's when one could go into the banks and exchange dollars (under 10,000) for checks, and then simply jet off to one's favourite banking haven to deposit those instruments of currency. Of course, one could always fly into St. Maarten/St. Martin in the Caribbean where, while there was always immigration, there was no customs. A vehicle could pull right up to one's chartered plane load of money, and crate it all off to the bank with no one seeing what was inside of those mysterious boxes until it reached the counting room inside the bank. Usually a fee of 1% was charged for counting and issuing a bank check for the full amount. We would then fly into the Cayman Islands and deposit the check.
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Thu 17 Sep 09 05:05
And thanks to Gary Greenberg (appropriate name for talking about The Herb) for getting me the straight goods on the Freak bros. quote.
bill braasch (bbraasch) Thu 17 Sep 09 10:29
I read yesterday that an American is busted for drugs every 18 seconds. <http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0916/p02s01-usgn.html> We're leaving $77 billion/year (projected revenues from taxing drugs) on the table and putting cops in dangerous situations to enforce these laws. We're also jailing non-violent criminals alongside violent criminals. Your writing about the time you spent in prison gave me the sense that this was where you faced the greatest risk. You might still be there if you hadn't found a way home to the Canadian prison system. In sense, your business was on one hand feeding the market demand for recreational drugs, but on the other hand you were a special handling case for the police, the court system, the prison system, the parole system. It's not just the grower who depended on your presence in the market. The whole system lives off your business model. You mention a 1% fee for counting a plane load of money. To get a cost of sales, you'd have to add in raw materials cost (buying weed), transportation, distribution costs, legal costs, etc. and I suppose keep a reserve account in case you get caught. It makes me wonder if, like the housing bubble, we're living in a drug economy bubble. How much of our economy relies on the cat and mouse game you played? How many mice retire before they're caught?
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Thu 17 Sep 09 11:10
There is so much of our economy dependent on the status quo. One need only look at the size of the lobbying effort by special interest groups to see the penetration they have achieved at every level of government. The so called "corrections" lobby being case in point. It is interesting to contemplate the overall impact dis-ease (prison, illness, the death industry) type financial spending contributes to our GDP. From here it looks to be far too much. After 40 years of flaunting the "negative" model, exacerbation on every front is the result. We brag about increased arrests year after year. We have squandered over a trillion dollars in that time period, a fact which one would think would cause all related government agencies to take a drastically different approach. This takes courage, and when it comes to getting elected, courage flies out the window for most of these folks it seems. That old saw should begin to play here, "How can we expect different results without changing the action?"
Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 17 Sep 09 11:28
Coincidentally, I received an email today from LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), which equates The War on Drugs in The US to Prohibition. Along these lines, do you think the current distribution nnetwork of drugs could be easily changed into a legal network? Would your former cohorts be interested in doing the same kind of work, for less money yet no risk of incarceration? Would you?
Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 17 Sep 09 11:31
Infradibulated Gratility (ssol) Thu 17 Sep 09 13:32
Brian, I was most impressed by both the tale you tell, the span of experiences related, and the non-linear style of the narrative. It reminds me of the cut-up and scattered film-strip experience of a long-ago and very fat trip I once had. I can't imagine enduring such a movie for the years that you survived and somehow prospered by. So, my question is, did you come up with the format of your telling of the tale by nature or with the guidance of your editor, or both?
Brian O'Dea (bodea) Thu 17 Sep 09 14:11
LEAP (to which I belong) says "drug prohibition, alcohol prohibition, same problem, same solution." There is more money in the legal distribution of medicinal marijuana today than there ever was in the illicit distribution of it. The US growers who sell to dispensaries sell it at a rate of two and a half times higher than the illicit herb sells for on the black market in Canada.
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