Writer and filmmaker Richard Stratton has released the first two chapters of his new book Smuggler’s Blues. The book will be e-released through Quiet Lunch bi-weekly for the next 11 chapters. Richard Stratton served eight years in prison for drug smuggling. His new book gives the reader an in-depth look at what his life was like during that time. During the interview, TheReadingRoom was able to get more detail on Stratton as a person and a writer.
When did you first try cannabis, and what made you want to support it so passionately?
In 1964, my senior year in high school, I smoked pot for the first time. It was an eye-opener, it opened the third eye of the mind. After the attempted brainwashing of the “reefer madness” era, I found that marijuana was nothing like the “weed with roots in hell” as depicted by the rabid anti-pot prohibitionists. This gave me the courage to question everything my government was telling me—about the war in Vietnam, who killed the Kennedys, Civil Rights, American consumerism—and to rethink who I wanted to be. That consciousness-changing event—getting high for the first time—is described in “One Toke Over the Line,” the prologue of Smuggler’s Blues.
You have done so much in your lifetime, what led you to wanting to write and publish a book now?
I believe everything in life is about timing. I have been working on the book off and on for more than twenty years, actually since I was locked up in the ‘80s. Smuggler’s Blues is the first in a trilogy I call “Remembrance of the War On Plants,” with a nod to Marcel Proust. The second volume, Gulag America: The Prison Years is also complete. Volume Three, In the World, about my release from prison and my struggle to reinvent myself as a writer and filmmaker, is a work in progress. Now, with changing laws and perceptions concerning cannabis, it seemed to me the time was right for the release of Smuggler’s Blues.
Are there any stories you wanted to put in the book, but decided to leave out? If so, what were they and why did you leave them out?
No, I put it all in, including the regrets, the shame I feel for the way I sometimes acted—so full of hubris. And for the people my actions hurt—some deep regrets. But I wanted this to be as emotionally honest a book as I could write given that it is about an illegal activity that very often resulted in someone going to prison or even dying in the government’s harsh war on plants. To quote Bob Dylan, “To live outside the law you must be honest.”
When were you Editor-in-Chief of High Times? What was it like being head of a counter-culture magazine during that time?
It was at times frustrating. I have always argued against the stupid stoner stereotype so often portrayed in the media, and I found that it was difficult to overcome the perception of who marijuana consumers are. Many are industrious, creative and conscientious citizens. I see marijuana as a metaphor for a deeper truth about who we should aspire to be as free Americans in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. High Times was not taken as seriously as I would have liked. Now, however, with the magazine in its 40th continuous year of publication, I think we have shown that the loser pothead stereotype is bogus.
How has “weed-culture” changed in the last thirty years?
The changes have been dramatic. In the first place, marijuana is now nearly all grown domestically. The era of the so-called “hippie mafia” smugglers importing cannabis from abroad has changed to the widespread cultivation of American homegrown. And of course, the recognition of the medicinal value of cannabis, with over 20 states now recognizing that marijuana is beneficial for a whole host of physical ailments and with marijuana available over the counter in those states, the change has been welcome at long last. My regret is that there are still way too many people locked up for pot with serving sentences as extreme as life without parole for trafficking in this mysterious plant.
What was the most difficult part about writing your book?
Writers struggle to find time and peace of mind to do their work. Making a living, supporting one’s family: it is hard for writers and artists to pursue their craft in this extraordinarily materialistic society. I faced all those challenges. I found that only by getting up very early in the morning and writing before the regular workday began was I able to finish the book.
If you wouldn’t have been imprisoned, what would you have liked to have done instead during that time?
I would have wanted to go to law school, to become a lawyer, and litigate against the war on plants.
Do you think people should accept weed as the “friend of mankind”? If so, why?
I do believe that cannabis is a friend of mankind. But I also believe that as with any friendship, it is a relationship, and relationships require respect. Cannabis is a mysterious plant and the effect on the mind is profound. It is not to be abused. As in any healthy relationship one should pay attention to the give and take.
What do you have to say about the progress that legalization of marijuana is making across the United States?
The change in America’s attitudes and laws concerning cannabis is long over-due. The war on drugs is an insult to the intelligence of the American people and it undermines the concept of a free society our founding fathers envisioned. The war on plants has created much more harm than the plants/drugs themselves. Education, not incarceration, is the solution to drug-abuse. Solve the abuse problem and you end the need for a war. Unfortunately, the vast majority of office-holders in this country chose war over intelligent, compassionate care.
What impact do you hope your book makes?
Smuggler’s Blues is to some degree a cautionary tale. I hope the book moves people—that they come to see the absurdity of our government trying to legislate morality, particularly when it comes to outlawing a plant anyone can grow in their backyard or their attic. I hope that my book can contribute in some way toward a final peace in the harmful war on plants. But I also hope that young readers will take away the lesson that there are consequences to the choices we make. I spent eight years in prison to pay for my experience in the marijuana underground.
Why should people read your book over another book?
Smuggler’s Blues is also an adventure story. It will take readers on a wild ride to places they might never go—the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Beirut during the civil war, the Sierra Madre del Sur in Mexico—and there to experience the adrenaline rush of life-threatening and harrowing experiences without having to leave their living room. It is also quite funny in parts. People should read Smuggler’s Blues over other books because it is about a timely, important issue told in a thoroughly entertaining way.
What is the coolest thing you have ever done?
I don’t know if I would call it the coolest thing I have ever done, but I will say it was the most challenging and ultimately the most rewarding thing I have ever done. After I was arrested, huge pressure was put on me by the government to “cooperate” and become a snitch, an informer, a government witness, a rat, and to implicate others and testify against them. The world-renowned novelist Norman Mailer was at the top of the government’s list of targets they wanted me to help them convict and send to prison. Mailer was a dear friend and mentor. He was not involved in my pot trafficking enterprise. But we were very close, we owned property together, he had what the government has termed “guilty knowledge” of how I made my living. Had I wanted to make a deal and implicate Mailer, I could have walked free or done very little time in prison. I chose not to cooperate against Mailer or anyone else. As a result, I was given a lengthy prison sentence: 25 years and six months with no possibility of parole. However, I was ultimately able to have that sentence vacated and was resentenced to ten years because I proved to an appellate court that the sentence was enhanced based of my refusal to cooperate, which is illegal. Courts can impose less time for cooperating with the government, but they cannot by law enhance a sentence for refusing to implicate others. God bless the law. All this government shenanigans and my two federal trials is the subject of my second book, Gulag America.
Who are your role models?
Well, Mailer, of course. He was a great writer and a great, passionate and courageous man who was not afraid to speak out against government oppression. Abraham Lincoln certainly, perhaps the greatest American who ever lived. Fyodor Dostoyevsky who, in my opinion, was the greatest novelist who ever lived and a man who went to prison for his beliefs. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his courage, eloquence and devotion to civil rights. Muhammad Ali for his grace, his style and his wit—to say nothing of the courage of his convictions and the power of his punch. Ali came to the prison I was in and spoke to the prisoners, a scene I describe in Gulag America.