The ocean and its waves have lifelong devotees. In this case, they are the surfing drug smugglers of California, who once sailed the world's oceans for enjoyment — and tremendous profit.
They lived the ultimate freedom, surfing at amazing point breaks worldwide and transporting "Thai sticks" from northeast Thailand farms to America. It's an era now long past, but up until the mid-1970s, weed was almost exclusively imported.
And theirs was the best. Their adrenaline-fueled adventures are detailed in an autobiographical account of this once-notorious trade, Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, by Mike Ritter and Peter Maguire.
It all began with Ritter dropping out of UC Santa Cruz in 1967 and visiting Afghanistan and India. He started smuggling hash and marijuana in 1968 and did so for some 18 years.
The pair's exotic marijuana was sought after by the Crips and Bloods, the book explains, but eventually the law caught up to them: "As a teen juvenile delinquent, Los Angeles native Peter Maguire brokered pot deals between surfers, Crips and Bloods. His career in the marijuana trade ended in 1985, when he was busted in Tucumcari, New Mexico."
Pro surfer Kelly Slater, intrigued by Ritter and Maguire, a duo he considers "real-life pirates," has optioned their book for a documentary and television series — a timely effort, Slater believes, due to efforts to legalize weed in California and other states.
"This is a history they certainly don't teach you in school but an important and significant cultural phenomenon that occurred mostly undocumented," Slater posted on Instagram. "It took the professional historian and former smuggler 15 years to complete, and it is based on thousands of hours of interviews. They document everything you didn't know about pot smuggling from the late '60s thru early '80s, diving into every aspect of the game from personal to political."
As one chapter in Thai Stick explains, "The seedless cannabis sativa buds were tied neatly and uniformly to a small hemp tick with a thread of hemp fiber on fishing line. Fresh Thai sticks had a spicy, thick, pungent aroma. ... One smuggler remembered taking a couple of big hits and waking up with a barely smoked joint still in his hand. ... It was the most exotic thing anyone had ever seen. Everyone had to have it."
Ritter, who recently earned an undergraduate degree in astronomy and physics from the University of Hawaii, sat down with Rolling Paper to look back at his global adventures.
ROLLING PAPER: When did you first hear of pot?
MIKE RITTER: As a youngster I heard vague rumors of the horrors of drugs from my mother and naively lumped marijuana into the same category as heroin. This terrible image of marijuana became confirmed for me during ninth grade, when I prepared a report on the dangers of drugs and visited our local police station, where I was given printed handouts that I later recognized as straight from [ federal commissioner Harry] Ainslinger's Prohibition-era propaganda machine.
When did you first smoke pot?
I smoked my first pot the summer after I graduated from high school. It was very low quality, and looking back I'm not even sure it got us high.
When was the first time you were arrested for pot?
I was arrested for pot during my first year at University of Santa Cruz in 1966. We had just completed a tough run of midterm exams and a few of us went to the beach to cut it loose. A policeman observing us claims he spotted marijuana seeds on the floor of our car. A search uncovered my pipe and no more than a pinch of pot. To this day I believe the policeman planted the seeds there.
When did you began smuggling?
Working my way home to America as a seaman aboard a merchant ship in 1967, I stuffed a kilo inside a jar of peanut butter, which I stored in my locker. ... I went on to smuggle hash oil and didn't began to smuggle pot until about 1972 from Thailand.
What's the best pot you ever smoked?
I developed a preference for Maui Wowie. Today I firmly believe the best marijuana in the world is produced by growers in California.
What's a Thai stick?
A Thai stick was really a very clever and artful way of packaging marijuana. The Thais already knew how to cull the male plants, allowing the female plants to produce large, flowering buds, which were carefully harvested and trimmed of unwanted leaves. The remaining pure nuggets were then tied to a short length of bamboo, much like a satay skewer, about 5½ to 6 inches long. Twenty such sticks were bundled together in a neat little package. At its best, 100 bundles of Thai sticks weighed about 3½ kilos and when bagged in plastic became the standard unit for smugglers.
Why did Thai sticks die out?
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What had been a cottage industry suddenly exploded to a major industry. ... Quality deteriorated, and unscrupulous Thai brokers began delivering smaller and smaller sticks, often tied with junk weed. We would no longer accept them.
How does pot differ today?
Homegrown marijuana in America 30 years ago was already pretty good. ... Today the finest marijuana in the world is grown here in California, thanks to decades of excellent work by devoted people.
The book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade is available through Columbia University Press.