Editor’s Note: This Classic Chicks article is a combination of two previous articles, originally published March 21st and 24th, 2015, formatted for Twelve High Chicks’ year two layout. Content and intent have not been changed.
I first was introduced to Brian O’Dea, a polite and distinguished gentleman, when I travelled to Ottawa in December 2014 to meet other cannabis freedom activists and to screen Adam Scorgie’s The Culture High. With a polished demeanour and extensive vocabulary, Brian wouldn’t strike you as the type of person who would “move” copious amounts of cannabis around the world. He is educated, experienced, and skilled in his endeavours. He’s known to be one of smartest criminals the DEA has ever managed to catch; it was only after he’d retired as drug lord that the DEA finally managed to gather enough evidence to convict him.
With a staff of 120 employees, Brian orchestrated Canada’s top drug smuggling ring and sat at the top in the game. Brian was the importer and exporter of marijuana in Colombia, Jamaica, and Bogota, among others. There was no drug deal too big. It made good business sense to make large deals; there was a huge demand for it internationally and where there is demand, there will be supply.
He had it completely covered, he had it completely together.
But the feeling of power was slowly being overwhelmed by fear. Brian O’Dea presided over a one hundred million dollar empire and a hardened coke addiction. It was all too convenient to access coke in his line of work, and he adopted it as a method of coping with traumatic childhood abuse. Self-medicating soon became self-abusing and Brian’s life slowly became unmanageable.
When he finally hit bottom he surrendered his coke addiction and gave up his darkest demons. Rehabilitation presented itself and it was then he decided to give back to society by speaking up about his experiences. He found peace in educating society, and realized that it was possible to get your life back. So he did.
He used his life experiences as a man who once was out of control but who regained control as a powerful tool to help others. Paving his own way, with the support of peers, he steered his career towards counselling youths who were at a high risk of stumbling onto their own dark path. His new-found purpose led to his own personal healing. Brian’s new career gave him a new high — one better than coke ever was. Helping others had become his redemption and his constant reminder that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
And then one day reality hit him like a ton of bricks: he was finally charged by the DEA and prosecuted. Brian O’Dea served ten years in federal prison for his crimes and after being released he continued to pursue a clean life. He stayed on track and he wrote a best-seller: in 2007, Brian won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Non-Fiction Crime for his autobiography HIGH — which is now being turned into a feature film.
Brian agreed to be interviewed and we discussed his remarkable careers (smuggling and afterwards) and the life events that lead him to where he is now. His story is the very fabric of conviction, perseverance, redemption and hope.
JR - What was it like as a child growing up on the East Coast, in Newfoundland?
BOD - I grew up in a good family — fine brothers and sisters, great parents — so all in all it was good until I had my first encounter with the Irish Christian Brother who was principal of my school.
JR - How did you cope with the childhood abuse you experienced from the Christian Brother?
BOD - It wasn’t easy. In many ways how I deal with things in my life today has been influenced by that abusive situation I suffered at the hands of that sick man. On the one hand, I was being taught in school that to entertain a sexual thought, to let it linger in my mind, was a mortal sin punishable by eternity in hell, and on the other, the man who was teaching this to me was sexually abusing me. It made me feel as though there was this fearsome God lingering around every next corner ready to strike me down, and flip me off to hell forever. I was 11 years old. This was a horrible torture to inflict on a child. My mind was a toxic place, so, of course, when I discovered things that could take me out of my mind (drugs/alcohol) I was totally in. That run of mind-alterants started at 11 and ended with a heart attack from a cocaine overdose on the eve of my fortieth birthday.
JR - Would you say drugs became a coping device for PTSD as a victim of sexual abuse?
BOD - Absolutely I would say that. I think my previous answer points to that clearly.
JR - As you entered adulthood, at what point did you decide to orchestrate a marijuana exporting business?
BOD - Once I realized that people who had quantities of the drugs I wanted to sell would stiff me on the price, I decided to get closer to the country of origin to diminish my costs.
JR - Follow-up question: what was your main motivation for pursuing a drug smuggling career?
BOD - I loved doing what I was doing, at least I thought I did. In retrospect, I think I kinda trapped myself out there in that world, and I could not find my way back.
JR - How did you scout your employees (120 people employed) to run your operations?
BOD - There was a core group, and through that group came all the others. Each member of the core group had people working with and for them. These were the people we brought in.
JR - Follow-up question: how did you secure/establish the level of trust you had with your staff when you were in full operation?
BOD - History is the only thing that provided a comfortable level of trust.
JR - Looking back, what were some of your scariest experiences as an international pot smuggler?
BOD - I crashed a DC6 one time. That was perhaps the scariest. Held up by crooked cops in Colombia…. Sitting on 75 tons of pot with the cops looking at us….
JR - At what point in your life did you start to use cocaine, and why?
BOD - I started using coke in the 70s as it was easier to smuggle. Smaller packages meant more money and I needed to build a stake to get back in the pot business. In those days, coke was fun.
JR - At what point did you decide to clean up from cocaine?
BOD - I had a heart attack from too much coke on the eve of my 40th birthday, August 31st, 1988. The next day I was to be 40 and I almost didn’t make it. That got my attention.
JR - When you cleaned up, what was the next thing you did with your life?
BOD - I cleaned up, and then went on to work with alcoholics and drug addicts who wanted to get off their drugs of choice.
JR - How did becoming a drug counsellor present itself to you?
BOD - I decided to hang around the hospital where I spent the first 30 days of my sobriety, and I loved being there working with others just like me. I was good at it, it seemed, so I turned it into full time.
JR - Walk me through the day the DEA caught up to you. What were you doing at the time, and what moments do you recall when they arrested you that day?
BOD - I was in bed, getting ready to go to work, when a knock hit the door. Without moving a muscle I knew who was there. The DEA had done their homework after blowing a major opportunity to nab me with 75 tons, so when they finally showed up that morning they had done their work and had enough corroborating evidence and witnesses to charge me with conspiracy to import 75 tons of pot into the US.
JR - How long were you in prison for, and what were all of the charges laid against you?
BOD - I was charged with importation and got 10 years in prison.
JR - Do you think that prohibition played a role in your success as a drug smuggler? If so, explain.
BOD - No prohibition, no smuggling … prohibition is the threshold to smuggling.
JR - What would you have done differently as a professional drug smuggler (if anything) knowing what you know now?
BOD - I would do nothing different.
JR - Obviously prison was a hard lesson, but what other lessons did you take from your overall experience?
BOD - To honour the choices I have made in my life; I have learned to accept, almost always, the chips falling where they fall. A friend of mine says “This being the case, how shall I proceed?”
JR - After your time was served, what was the next goal you set out to pursue?
BOD - I wanted to clean up all the writing I had done in prison and turn it into a book. I did that. HIGH is published all over the world by Random House, Virgin Books, and Other Press.
JR - You had put out a really crazy resume when you were released. Could you share what was put in it, and what were the responses like?
BOD - I put an ad in the Financial Post offering my services as a former marijuana smuggler now looking for legal employment. I received 600 plus offers from all over the world for everything from smuggling to babysitting.
JR -What was your first job after prison?
BOD - I built a company to produce television and hired myself.
JR - What would you say your biggest redemption in life was?
BOD - I have a renewed and amazing relationship with my four children today.
JR - If you could do it all again and not get caught, would you? Why or why not?
BOD - I could only ever do it the way I did it.
JR - What are your plans for your future in television?
BOD - I have a couple of new shows I am working on, and getting very close to turning HIGH into a feature film.
Editor’s note: This interview has been copy-edited for readability. American spelling and personal writing style have been maintained.