Drug Smugglers' Party Days A Prelude To War

Jun 4, 2011

Forty years ago this month, President Richard Nixon officially introduced something he called the "War on Drugs." A decade later, Ronald Reagan launched it as a national crusade, with the memorable slogan "Just Say No."

Since then, though, the Obama administration has jettisoned the term "war on drugs," and this past week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report calling the crusade a failure.

But back in the 1970s, the U.S. fight against drugs — especially marijuana — wasn't a war at all. In fact, for the "gentlemen smugglers" bringing bales of pot and bricks of hash into Florida and South Carolina, it was a nonstop party. Mostly college-educated and averse to violence, they were in it for fun more than money — though the money didn't hurt.

"Beautiful sailboats, beautiful women, plenty of recreational drugs, it couldn't get much better from their perspective," journalist Jason Ryan tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin. Ryan has written a new book about the glory days of the gentleman smugglers, Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs.

South Carolina's may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of international drug smuggling, but Ryan says the state is uniquely suited to illicit activity. Everyone from Blackbeard the pirate to Prohibition-era rum runners haunted the secluded marshes and inlets along the coast.

"Customs and DEA didn't have boats until the mid-70s to patrol it, so they were doing it by car, which was very inefficient," Ryan says.

The smugglers were adept at dodging the law, and they operated by their own peculiar code of honor.

"Nowadays we take for granted that violence accompanies all types of drug trafficking," Ryan says. "But back in the '70s, these smugglers ... reasoned that if there was plenty of money to go around, and it was as much about the fun as it was the money, so there's no reason to carry a gun."

The party finally ended in the early 1980s, once Reagan began to step up his anti-drug campaign. But, Ryan says, despite lengthy prison sentences, the gentleman smugglers had few regrets.

"There's no changing what happened," he says. "And I think that they don't believe they were wrong. They were simply out to have a good time, and they weren't bothering anyone, in their eyes."

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