Confessions Of A Drug Smuggler: 'High' Brian O'Dea tried marijuana and saw dollar signs. By the early 1980s, he had built a $100 million a year smuggling operation, and a cocaine addiction. High is his memoir of dealing drugs, doing time, and seeking redemption.

Confessions Of A Drug Smuggler: 'High'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Brian O'Dea grew up in Newfoundland in Canada and like so many college students in the late 1960s, he tried marijuana. Like more than a few, it changed his life. Soon enough, he was getting high everyday. He needed money to support that habit, so he started dealing. One thing led to another, pot led to LSD, methamphetamines and cocaine. He operated in Columbia, Jamaica, and Southeast Asia, imported sometimes huge quantities of marijuana and cocaine. He also got addicted, messed up his family and did ten years in prison. He emerged sober and changed, and wrote a book about his life.

If you have lived in this world as a user or seller of illegal drugs, what did you learn? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, one of the magazines most closely associated with the United States Navy asks why we need such a big expensive naval force when we hardly ever use it. But first, Brian O'Dea joins us from the Canadian Broadcasting Center in Toronto. His book is called "High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler" and nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. BRIAN O'DEA (Author, "High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler"): Thanks Neal. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And Brian, you seemed to have made a very conscious decision to make sure we don't come away with the idea that using and dealing and smuggling is glamorous.

Mr. O'DEA: Well, it's - it was a way of life and I don't know that I made a conscious decision to make sure that you don't say it's glamorous and that I don't think it's glamorous. It - I enjoyed my time at it, I can't tell a lie. I enjoyed what I did when I did it. And then it wore itself out and I decided through a coke overdose to turn my life around. And so, that's in fact what I did.

CONAN: And yet, you also alternate chapters, one describing your life in the business as it were and the other describing, well, your time in prison.

Mr. O'DEA: Right.

CONAN: So we…

Mr. O'DEA: That would - sorry.

CONAN: Yeah. And that was a conscious decision to make sure that we understood the consequences.

Mr. O'DEA: Right. Actually I do a thing in high schools these days called the Consequences of Choice where I go to schools and I tell kids my story. And I tell them what happened as a result of the things that I did in a hope that they understand that if they make choices like I made, there's a great chance that they'll experience the consequences that I experienced. Look, I used drugs and I sold drugs and my father did the same. His drug was alcohol. He used alcohol. He sold alcohol. He owned a brewery. I - the only difference was mine was illegal and his was legal at the time.

And it was - the trades I made for my abuse, I'm here today to say that they were not worth it. And I traded my family, I traded all that loved me and all that I loved for my substance and it was a lousy, lousy trade. And I want people to understand that. The prisons are filled with people by the way who, I think, do not belong there. And I believe all drugs should be legalized. It's drug issues - medical drug - is a medical issue. It's not a corrections issue. It will never be fixed by the hammer of corrections and it will only be fixed, as Portugal is working on today, through taking a completely different approach to it than we are today.

CONAN: Well, we're…

Mr. O'DEA: We need to be brave and change the way we look at this.

CONAN: A long way between here and there indeed if we ever get there, but I was interested…

Mr. O'DEA: I agree.

CONAN: …in your story. You had a warning. You were busted in Canada and did, I think, 18 months in a jail there, a very primitive one too…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And yet when you got out, just about the first thing you did was take a flight to Columbia to try to arrange a coke deal.

Mr. O'DEA: That's right. I, you know, I'd made an unfortunate error in judgment - and many of them actually. But prior to going to prison, just a couple of months before getting there I got married. And while I was in prison my wife wised up and left me. As a result they turned my parole down. So I had to serve my time without parole. And once that happened I decided then: forget about it. When I get out of here, I'm going to do this the right way. And so I started making plans in my mind to take off the moment I got out of prison and go down to South America, Jamaica and see what I could organize.

And so that's in fact what I did. A friend picked me up at the prison gates, took me home. There was nobody at home. My folks had left for Ireland. And I offloaded the books and what little belongings I had in prison there, packed a bag and went to the airport. And the next stop was Bogota, Columbia.

CONAN: And this was a Columbia, it almost seems, well, idyllic compared to what it's become since.

Mr. O'DEA: Ah, indeed. You know, Columbia has become - in those days there, at least not to my knowledge - and I'd never experienced the war that's happening in Columbia's day between the FARC and who knows which side of the fence they're on, whether they're ultra-right or ultra-left or just ultra-crazy. Personally, I think they're ultra-crazy. Nothing has ever been settled looking down the barrel of a gun as far as I can tell, at least not satisfactorily. It was a lovely country, it was beautiful. Columbia is filled with beautiful, wonderful people. And it was a whole lot easier to do what I did then, than I would imagine it is today. Since then of course, cartels have taken over.

And that's because drugs are illegal. And we've given currency to criminal gangs to control whole cities in Columbia - neighborhoods in our country and in the United States. And until we legalize it, I think we're going to expect more of the same. But yes, it was an interesting and easier or softer time.

CONAN: And - softer time. Yet there are many passages in the book where at one point you say well, you know, jeez, cocaine had stopped being fun but then you couldn't stop it.

Mr. O'DEA: Yeah.

CONAN: And you keep trying to get off the drug and go into rehab for example for a while and think you've made some progress and then well, just one line, and then you're back in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'DEA: There's no such thing as one line, and anybody who does coke will tell you that. It's one line after another maybe. Coke is a horrible substance. There was a time, Neal, in the '70s, it seemed like it was fun. Everybody was doing it. We were at the clubs, we were in L.A., we were in Hollywood, it was -everybody was having a great time. And then it was as though overnight the vibration of that substance changed. And it turned on simply everybody who did it. And it was the second drug that I had encountered in my life that I couldn't put down when the time came to do it - the first one being tobacco. And I just couldn't stop doing it.

And I needed help. And in 1984, I went into a recovery hospital in Santa Barbara for a month, pulled out of there on my motorcycle, got hit by a truck, lost my memory, went back in, did the program again. So I'd spent 60 days in a recovery program, drove home, rolled a joint, popped a beer and said I think this is going to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'DEA: Imagine the audacity. I absolutely heard nothing in that recovery hospital because I had an agenda. I went in, as I say in the program - my best plans, my best ideas found me in that hospital. And yet I kept them. And so when I left, I thought that I knew how to do this. They didn't know what they were talking about. I didn't have a pot problem or a booze problem. I had a coke problem. And I kicked it. But, you know, six months later I was back in the bag again and it was four more years before I could crawl back out of it.

CONAN: We're talking with Brian O'Dea about his new book, "High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler." 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. Is this your story too? Give us a call. Let's go to Jared(ph). Jared is calling us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JARED (Caller): Hey there.

CONAN: Hey Jared.

JARED: Long time listener, first-time caller. I just completely agree with every word your author was saying. But in my experience and my friends', there's normally two ways out of it, either hit rock bottom and somehow drag yourself to absolute sobriety, or you kind of end up dying, you know, either slowly in the long run, or quick.

CONAN: I hope you took that first path, Jared.

JARED: I did, and, but I…

Mr. O'DEA: Attaboy.

JARED: Agree completely with your author.

CONAN: Hitting rock bottom, well Brian O'Dea, you did, too. You mention that overdose of cocaine. It was a heart attack.

Mr. O'DEA: Yeah, you know, the last deal that I did was a pretty substantial deal that I did with a bunch of friends of mine, and we brought in 75 tons of pot from Southeast Asia. And it just goes to show you the strength of that drug, that coke drug.

We had an agreement in our group that nobody did coke, and so - while we were doing that deal - and somehow I was able to put it down for that time. But once the deal was done, and the pot was sold or being sold, and money was in a hole in my closet, I was hiding in someone else's closet snorting vast quantities of coke.

And on the eighth day of a run, it was like my chest exploded, and my friend found me doing the fish on his floor in his guest house. I spent a month in hospital then, back in the recovery hospital in Santa Barbara. But something different happened this time, Neal, and I knew in my heart that I wanted to get sober.

You know, I don't know if there is a God or if there isn't a God. I don't have an answer to that question, but I do know that when I went out, I heard something ask me: did I want to live? My answer was yes, and it - the voice that I heard responded well, if you want to live, you've got to do it all differently. And obviously I chose to do it differently, and I came to.

My wife left me. She said don't come home. We don't want you to come back. We don't believe you're going to get sober, and I do not blame her one little bit. I wouldn't have believed me either, but something inside of me had changed that only I could know, and I did want to get sober. So I stayed very close to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, where I went to work then as a volunteer, ultimately becoming the head of volunteers there. And I just went to three and four meetings every single day to try and burn the message inside of me that I did not need to go back there.

I had - that was the threshold to my awakening, as Nietzsche said of such evil and powerful things as the great emancipation made, and so through that threshold I emerged as a becoming-whole human being, and I loved it. And I've got to tell you, I wouldn't trade that for anything. The best years of my life came after that.

CONAN: And Brian O'Dea mentioned we did not want you to come home, his wife and his two children, small at the time, and he lost that family. He writes about it in "High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler."

If you've lived in this world as a user or seller of illegal drugs, what did you learn? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest is Brian O'Dea. He tells his story of taking and smuggling drugs and getting busted for it in his book "High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler."

We've posted a portion of the book at our Web site. You can read more about the day he was busted by the DEA at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've lived in this world as a user or seller of illegal drugs, what did you learn? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we got this email from Laurie(ph) in Sacramento. My brother is a drug addict and at one point grew pot and was a dealer. Although this was on a small scale, it had a large impact on our family through his being an absentee father to his children, my parents' inability to accept that their child could do such actions and all of us who were exposed to this lifestyle. I applaud your speaker on his honesty but wonder the price his family had to pay.

Mr. O'DEA: It was a big price. And fortunately, I turned my life around and renewed my relationship with my family, with every part of my family. I have a relationship today that I did not have. And - absolutely right. Look, there's no denying the fact that any abuse of any product, the product becomes the essential part of the life and nothing else, and everybody else's pain became a price I was willing to pay because I couldn't see over the hill that I had created for myself.

And so I was - my behavior outside of me looked terrible. I didn't see it as it was. I could not see myself as I was seen. I could not experience myself as I was experienced. The substance was everything, and it became everything. And so ultimately when one is abusing any substance, that's the ultimate price, and yeah, it's a lousy trade, and I apologize to my family. I do in my behavior today, I live in apology to them, and I live my life in a way that I hope they experience as a gift to them, and they tell me it is.

CONAN: Let's go to James(ph), James calling us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

JAMES (Caller): Yeah, well my comment is I used to use and sell drugs. I started with pot, escalated to LSD and ecstasy. I never sold cocaine, but there was a period in my life when I used it regularly. And luckily I've been able to get myself together.

I actually, I went through some counseling and came to realize I was - in a way, I was medicating myself for some pretty severe depression, and I've gotten on an antidepressant. I've been able to clean up, graduated from college just recently. But I have some friends who weren't so lucky.

I have one friend who is in jail for two years. She did a home invasion to support her dope addiction. She's overdosed more than once, she's been to rehab more than once, and the one thing that she hasn't tried to do is undergo mental health care. And I guess that's my comment is the importance of mental health care in relation to drug addiction because you don't just become a drug addict out of the blue. You become a drug addict because there are other underlying problems in your mind and in your life, and I guess I just would like your guest to comment on the important of mental health care.

CONAN: I will in just a moment, James, but I wanted to ask you: Were some of the people who you described who got into some serious trouble, were they some of the people that you sold to?

JAMES: Yeah, they were. And you know, since I did not sell the actual, the harder drugs, I would say, like heroin and cocaine, but I did - and you know with them, too, it started with pot and alcohol and tobacco, and I used to sell them pot, and I can't help but think that I bear some of the responsibility for that, honestly.

CONAN: Brian O'Dea?

Mr. O'DEA: I'm wondering if our society as a whole holds the Bronfmans or the Kennedy family responsible for alcoholism, and I don't think they do.

You know, I've never heard anybody say, ask a question of the Kennedys or the Bronfmans, that was once asked of me: Beside the moral issue of selling drugs, Brian - well you know what? It's not a moral issue. I'm sorry. It has nothing to do with morals.

Would we say to Sam Bronfman: Besides the moral issue of selling whiskey, Sam? Well, we wouldn't, and they're pillars of society. The fact of the matter is this drug is illegal, but there are much worse drugs that are legal. Ninety-five percent of the violent offenses committed by people in prison were committed under the influence of alcohol, not coke and not heroin.

You give a cocaine addict or a heroin addict heroin, you'll never hear from them again. It's when it's taken from them that you hear from them. So it is, the caller is absolutely right. It is a mental health issue of which drug use is a symptom. It's a symptom of an underlying disease.

Now I'm saying that as unease, and some people quantify it as a disease like cancer, for example. I don't know about that, but I know that it is a mental disease, and so it's a psychological disease. It needs to be addressed. The actual root causes need to be addressed.

Jails, they treat symptoms, and they don't do anything about the problem whatsoever, particularly when it comes to drug addiction, and other issues, as well, but we're talking about drug addiction today. And so they're not the way to handle it.

CONAN: Well James, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JAMES: Thank you.

Mr. O'DEA: Thank you, James.

CONAN: Let's go to this email from Francisca(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, and I'm sure you get this question a lot, too. Why does Mr. O'Dea believe drugs should be legalized when they are so harmful? And I don't think you're advocating that people use them.

Mr. O'DEA: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, I advocate just the opposite. Look, the only gift we ever get in our lives is this moment - this here, this now. It's not called the present for nothing. And if I take anything in my body to alter my consciousness, I'm refusing that single gift that life gives me, this moment. So no, I do not advocate the use of anything that alters my perception of the moment. I might miss the gift.

However, people who have drug and alcohol problems - and I must include alcohol, and actually it is a drug, it's kind of redundant to say drug and alcohol - they have an issue that corrections does not repair. And we need to legalize drugs, to control their distribution.

I've never met a person in my life, Neal, who didn't do drugs because they were illegal. So everybody who wants to do drugs is doing them, and we call them criminals. They are not criminals. And so if we legalize, as they did in Portugal, they - in 2001, the greatest single issue in Portugal, single social and medical issue, was drug addiction, and they took a very brave step.

One hardly ever sees politicians take a step like this. They legalized all drugs. Now as far as I'm concerned, that is simply a half-measure, and normally half-measures avail us nothing. In this instance, it did avail us something. What happened in Portugal? Drug addiction in the past eight years in Portugal has diminished by 40 percent. The number of drug addicts seeking help has increased by 100 percent. The problems that they had associated with drug use are disappearing.

Why is that? Because you see, when a drug addict has a problem, and they want to address it, they're afraid to come near someone who has a hammer poised over their head. That's what the corrections industry is. It's a hammer poised over the head of the sick. Whereas in Portugal, a drug addict sees a hand reaching out, palm upwards, saying what can we do to help you?

Well, they're much more prone to approach the hand that's reaching out to help them as opposed to the hammer that's poised over their head. It makes so much more sense.

Look, why do we need to continue to treat the weakest people in our society with a hammer and not with help? It's an absurd way to treat these people, and you know, I include myself in that, as well.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Steve(ph), Steve calling us from I-69 in Indiana.

STEVE (Caller): Hey, you are you doing? I've been listening to you. You're speaking to the choir here. I definitely agree with that, what you just said. But my question is, is there anything out there besides 12 step? I've been doing drugs probably since I was 13. I'm - let's see, 38 now, a truck driver.

I have been smuggling out of Brownsville every once in a while, but my question is there's got to be something other than the 12 step program because I just don't believe in that higher power, and I don't believe I'm powerless.

Mr. O'DEA: Would you like me to respond to that, Steve?

STEVE: Sure, sure.

Mr. O'DEA: Okay. As long as you take something into your body that alters your perception, then you've agreed that there is a power greater than you because that - if you actually are the higher power, then you should be able to alter that perception without taking anything in.

Okay. So there are no one-sided coins. The flipside of that is this: If I can take something in my body that alters my perception and that is a - and I consider it to be a, quote, "negative," then surely there is something from within that I can emerge and bring out that can change me in a positive way.

And the higher power thing - I don't know that there is a God or that there isn't a God. I have no idea. I don't know any one who can answer that appropriately for me either, by the way. There are plenty of opinions and plenty of people who say that they know there is. But I - you know, to date it hasn't been shown to me. And so I know that there is something greater than I am, however, that I cannot define.

And you don't have to pick up Jesus or pick up Buddha or Muhammad or any of those things. Just know that there are a group of people who are in various 12-step programs trying to do what you - I'm getting that you think you would like to do yourself.

STEVE: Yeah.

Mr. O'DEA: And they're trying to do it as well. And…

STEVE: So basically, you're telling me there is just 12-step - the 12-step program, and that's it.

Mr. O'DEA: Yeah. I believe there is a power greater than I in this world. And I have no idea what that is, other than the fact that it mostly likely is. And so I've come to believe that between me and whatever this power greater than I, I can tap into that spirit, whatever that is, and it assists me in knowing that it's not just me.

CONAN: Steve, good luck to you.

STEVE: I understand.

CONAN: Good luck.

STEVE: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Appreciate it.

Mr. O'DEA: All the best, Steve.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about a passage in your book. In fact, at one point, you are asked by a minister to accept Jesus as your savior and…

Mr. O'DEA: Right.

CONAN: …you do, and it's very inspirational. And…

Mr. O'DEA: Yeah.

CONAN: …in fact, you then go to a friend's house and arranged a coke deal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'DEA: Imagine that. You know, I don't know - I needed help desperately and I was willing to buy anything. And at that point I just thought that perhaps Jesus was the answer. And what I realize today is that I simply accepted the fact that there was something besides me in the world. And I got some strength from that understanding. Defining it as Jesus, however, no longer works for me.

CONAN: Brian O'Dea is our guest. He's the author of "High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler," speaking with us today from the Canadian Broadcasting Center in Toronto in Canada.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to San Francisco. Jim is on the line.

JIM (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call. First-time caller. Love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

JIM: Brian, pretty much, I agree with everything you've been saying. I was in the business, started in the pot business back in the '70s and graduated to a couple of different levels and ended up in the coke business and became a cokehead. And it was something that I've struggled with for a long time. I have found that when you talk about a power greater than yourself, it's true. And whereas I have not gone to a 12-step program, I have, through the love of my partner, found out it was causing more problems than it was - than helping anything. And plus the economy has made it such that I've done less and less over the years. And because of that, done less and less, I've been able to fill my life with more important things like work and career. And so it's helping me turn the corner. I probably have never been as clean as I am right now since high school.

But the one point I wanted to make is not everybody is abusing it. There are a number of people that I know who do it, and they do it on occasional basis and don't have to go out and score again and aren't interested in that path because, you know, it's a tool that they use on an occasional basis. It's not something that fits me, because I just have to stay away from it or else I can get sucked back into it. And…

CONAN: Brian O'Dea, do you know such people who can take it or leave it?

Mr. O'DEA: Well, I have met them. Not many. But I have met them. And it's like people have an occasional drink and somehow don't need to drink the bottle. And that's - more power to them, that's what I say. And whatever it is that it takes, it's okay with me. If you can take a line - personally, I can't, and I don't understand anyone who can. And I think it just is a matter of time using those powdered substances before they completely take over one's life.

A friend of mine has a rule. If he does something and he likes it, he tries not to do it again.

JIM: One thing I wanted to also comment on, the subject matter, is the psychological desire or impairment. I didn't realize I was an addict until I found out and realized that I was using cocaine to escape from pain. And it came at a specific point in my life over a love interest. Obviously, though, I had pain from before that that I didn't realize I had.

But you know, I'm finding that I can build myself up better - through other means that take up more of my consciousness and care for myself than escaping all the time. And so, I think there's a lot of people out there that maybe not - are not in this much pain as some of us more flawed people. And that's why…

CONAN: It's interesting, Jim, because Brian O'Dea in his book writes a lot about what he describes as the whys of his problem. And there, I think, am I right, Brian, in saying they may be explanations, they're not excuses?

Mr. O'DEA: Oh, exactly. And as my friend, Dave Ricco(ph), so appropriately puts it, why is a question for children, how is a question for adults. And so, today, why? Why, because it is. And so how do I deal with it is the question. What do I do about it?

And if I'm giving myself over to something that alters my perception, I have to ask myself the question, what am I doing? What am I looking for there that I can't find in my life as it is? And I come back to the fact that the power is within me to see what I need to see to move to the next phase of my life. And I don't need to put anything in my body to alter my perception to get there.

And it's - that's how I do it today. I can appreciate people who like to take a drink, who like to have a line, who like to smoke a joint. And I think - I back your right to do that. I choose not to today myself.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call.

JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And Brian O'Dea, thank you for your time today and good luck to you.

Mr. O'DEA: Oh, thank you, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Brian O'Dea is the author of "High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler." And he joined us today from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto in Canada.

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