Tuesday, April 29, 2014

High times: The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son and the Golden Age of Marijuana

Doubleday, 2014
249 pp


In many ways, the era of piracy and the era of pot are an uncanny match. Both the pirates and the marijuana smugglers cursed and cussed, sang bawdy songs, gambled, whored, profaned the holy days, gave in to lust, reveled in uncleanliness, and were greedy for life, liberty and merriment, which they gulped down to the last.

The Last Pirate is a wonderful book, very entertaining but at the same time very serious. It charts both the rise and fall of a man whose career generated millions but whose addictions ultimately left him living under a bridge in Miami.  It also examines how the author's life was affected by The Old Man's highs and lows, leaving him without a dad throughout his childhood.

When the author, "Little Tony" Doukoupil  was six,  "The Old Man" walked out on his family.  In the author's first  six years, Big Tony may not have qualified as father of the year (leaving his kid alone in a Disney hotel, doing heroin while his son had a bout of serious croup), but all the same, Little Tony adored his dad. Before Big Tony left, the family lived off the proceeds of Big Tony's wide-ranging, and very profitable dope-smuggling enterprise, which lasted more or less over a 20-year span of time. His crew consisted of a very small group of trusted friends, but their cleverness & caution fed the big machine of sellers and users in the U.S. After Big Tony's departure, the money started to dwindle, and when needed most, Big Tony was in such a cocaine and heroin-addled state that he couldn't remember where he'd buried the coolers of cash he'd stashed from New England to New Mexico.  It was a big step down in the author's life -- going from one of the top private schools in Miami to becoming the poor kid was only part of how his father's absence affected his childhood.   The author grew up from age six on without his dad, who in his mind's eye would become an  outlaw and a pirate, engaging in the same sorts of renegade activities as pirates and smugglers of earlier times. Just recently, though,  Tony Dokoupil the younger became a dad, and haunted by his absent father,  set out to find out what he could about him. According to the author, it was his first Father's Day card that made him "terrified of the genes I carry and the man I may become." It also prompted him to discover his father's story so as to find some loophole in the account of his "father's rise and fall,"  something that would tell him that genetics aren't everything.

From various sources, the author has recreated as much of his father's history as possible, trying to form a better picture of who this man was and what he did.  All he knew about his dad before starting to research this book had come to him only in "scraps."  He goes into his father's  family and childhood, then looks at the early days of his dad's dope experiences and how from there he became the head of one of the biggest pot-smuggling operations in American history.  It's often funny, and at times eye opening, revealing for example,  just how close America came in 1970s to totally decriminalizing marijuana, or a drug-related scandal in DC starring Peter Bourne, Jimmy Carter's chief drug policy adviser, or  how DEA agents in South America would  turn a blind eye for their own cut of the business.  But on a more personal level, the story is much more on the troubling side, as Big Tony's family gets caught up in his decline primarily because of Big Tony's addictions, his "passion."  The book also reveals, among other things,  a brief history of  the early days of marijuana legislation, and how the golden years of pot smuggling started to decline later on due to a) Reagan's policies and the War on Drugs,  and b) the rise of less-risky homegrown, better-quality marijuana. 

There's so much more to this book, and I've only briefly touched on it here.   It's very honest, so much so that at times it's downright painful to read, but at the same time, some parts of this book are actually funny.  When it comes right down to it, he says, it's all about the choices people  make in life -- and he's absolutely correct.  What a good book! Definitely recommended.

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