Reviewed by Jennifer Jenkins
Richard Stratton started the 1980s as an entrepreneur. He sold drugs, mostly marijuana, but eventually branched out to hashish and others, with the noble credo of plant liberation for the hippie mafia. Then things went terribly wrong.
In his memoir, Smuggler’s Blues: A True Story of the Hippie Mafia, (Arcade Publishing, April 2016), Stratton brings us into the action with a bang. Not only does he help a DC6 filled with marijuana fly in from Colombia to land in what turns out to be a small private airstrip, he’s also tasked with emptying a Panamanian freighter stranded off the coast of Maine that needs to move 30 tons of product in the States. When there’s movement, it is fast and tense and present. He’s a good storyteller, as well.
Stratton is also well-connected. His business, and the financial demands made upon him, takes him to Lebanon where he is to coordinate a load of $15 million worth of hash back to the U.S. and sell it. Upon arrival in Lebanon, however, he finds he’s been betrayed by a fellow dealer and is expected to make good on cash the other dealer skipped out on. Stratton is held hostage, and although it is in comfortable surroundings, he wonders if he’ll ever make it home. It is due to his strength and quick wit that he makes it stateside again.
He takes risks that seem at times foolish, like parking a truck full of drugs in his parent’s driveway when he knows there is a DEA agent after him, or leaving a briefcase with all of his personal contacts in his truck when he visits a shady counterfeiter. When he finds himself caught between the government and the mob, he delves in even further and gets involved with Whitey Bulger, who tells him that, at some point, he might need a favor. This makes Stratton feel that he has attained a level of importance in this world.
Also, you should know that Stratton is friends with Norman Mailer, about whom he waxes with an eloquence that is a bit imperious. Stratton does have an issue with name dropping: David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Hunter S. Thompson – though none of them figure in his story, it’s important for him to relay the top circles in which he moves. This likely stems from his childhood. He grew up a rich, soft boy in Wellesley who wanted to be a tough kid from Southie.
Stratton blames his choice of occupation on too much television as a child, where he always wanted to be the outlaw, never the hero. He also speaks to wanting to put one over on “the Man.” He takes this quite seriously. “I try to assure myself that what I do is in defense of the American notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As an American, I tell myself, I have a moral obligation to defy tyrannical authority and break the laws that are wrong. After all, it is a plant we are talking about, created by God, and what should be an inalienable right in a free society: to alter our consciousness as we please so long as we do not harm others.” You have to admire an individual who uses God and America in defense of his drug smuggling career.
Stratton shows loyalty to his friends in the drug trade, whom he refers to by a host of colorful nicknames such the pilot Yogi Bear and the coke dealer Fearless Fred Barnswallow. Unfortunately, not all of his brothers-in-arms are as steadfast and he is betrayed. Facing jail time, he admits to feeling self-centered, but never evil. He swears that whatever comes, he will not rat out his friends. In the world where he is facing serious jail time, that is a noble promise from the prince of the hippie mafia, indeed.
The Sequel to Smuggler’s Blues is his memoir, Kingpin: Prisoner of the War on Drugs (See review, Hippocampus, May 2017).