It’s a beautiful night in Santa Barbara sometime in the 1970s, and a group of men meet up at San Marcos Lanes. They bowl, drink beer, and finally, when everyone has arrived, get into their cars, pickup trucks, and VW campers and caravan to Summerland, where a blacked-out ship awaits a few hundred yards offshore. The vessel carries 15,000 pounds of Thai stick, the most potent (and the most expensive) marijuana in the world; it has arrived in California after a long journey across the Pacific from the Gulf of Thailand, where another enterprising group of young Americans loaded the shipment several weeks before. As a crew of experienced fishermen ferry the weed to the beach in Zodiacs — inflatable boats then favored by both Navy SEALs and outlaw off-loaders — the San Marcos bowlers pick up their shares of the cargo and vanish into the night. Within hours, the ship is gone, and so is the weed, dispersed in 20 or more vehicles and headed for thousands of customers who will happily pay a premium for the best pot that money can buy.
For their book, Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade (Columbia University Press), authors Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter did assiduous archival research and thousands of hours of oral-history interviews. The result is a wide-ranging, compulsively readable account of how Thai stick, once an unremarkable staple of peasant life in rural Southeast Asia, became an international sensation; how it invaded and fundamentally altered American culture; and how daring young men — many of them Southern California surfers and watermen — brought the weed in increasingly large shipments to the West Coast, where it was offloaded on beaches from Mexico to Canada. Maguire and Ritter have given voice to an entire generation of people — including several Santa Barbarans — who have stayed hidden for fear of prosecution. Now that their stories are being told, these former prisoners of the “cannabis closet” are coming together to acknowledge their shared experience of living outside the law — or inside actual prisons — for decades.
Although the publication of Thai Stick happens to coincide with several unprecedented changes in the legal status of marijuana in America, this is not a tale of patients and their caregivers, nor is it the record of an emerging alternative source of state tax revenue. Instead, Thai Stick tells many stories, some sensational and even heroic, others just stupid and sad, of what it was like when pot was still totally illegal and how the original generation of surfer-scammers who began importing the drug from Southeast Asia gradually ran afoul not only of the law but also of their own and their collaborators’ personal limitations.
The following excerpts from Thai Stick center on Santa Barbara, where a few of the book’s colorful characters resided. The passages highlight the tensions and conflicts that led to the eventual downfall and dissolution of the surfer-scammer network under DEA pressure in the 1980s. It’s one of the great crime stories of the late 20th century, a Goodfellas for the Pacific Rim.