Peter Maguire and Mike RitterDec 23, 2020
Surfers, Scammers and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade
Columbia University Press 2013
In the 1970s surfing and smoking pot went hand in hand. As surfers traveled the world in search of perfect waves in places like Bali, Indonesia, some of them encountered high quality Afghan hashish and a potent but cheap strain of marijuana from the Isaan region of Thailand and Laos. Tied to a stick and notable for their sticky and potent buds, these “Thai Sticks” became the most sought-after strain of marijuana in the United States of America. Eager to fund their counter-culture lifestyle, these surfers, known as “scammers”, turned to various schemes to traffic this coveted Southeast Asian export.
Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter’s Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade (Columbia University Press, 2014) focuses on this sub-culture of surfers who started moving drugs in hollowed out surfboards and suitcases with false bottoms but soon used large cargo ships to move tons of marijuana worth millions of dollars. As the scammers linked up with American veterans of the war in Vietnam and with the Thai, Chinese, and Japanese criminal underworld, the operations became large international conspiracies, making fortunes for some and ruining the lives of others. The story takes some surprising twists and turns, with scruffy surfers and hippies making their way from the Hippy Trail in Afghanistan and the beaches of Bali to massive mansions in Montecito and Tahiti, but also with some of its subjects winding up in a Thai, Vietnamese, and American jails. In the most tragic chapter, Maguire and Ritter’s research reveals how a surfer from Seal Beach, California, was tortured in the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S-21 prison before Comrade Duch ordered his brutally murder, just weeks ahead of the Vietnamese invasion which ended the genocidal regime. Using oral history techniques and Mike Ritter’s numerous connections from his previous career as a “scammer”, Thai Stick is an engaging tale of tropical adventure, easy riches, and devastating loss, but also an insightful economic history that links Southeast Asia to the United States.
Peter Maguire earned his doctorate in American History at Columbia University. His dissertation focused on the Nuremberg trials and American legal history in the context of the Cold War, becoming his first book, Law and War: An American Story (Columbia University Press, 2001). In the 1990s he went to Cambodia where he reported on the tail end of the civil war and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, even helping to track down and interview some of the guards from the Tuol Sleng or S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. In 2005 he published Facing Death in Cambodia, also with Columbia University Press. He has published widely on a range of subjects. His work has appeared in periodicals ranging from The New York Review of Books and The Diplomat to The Surfers Journal. He has taught at a variety of institutions including Columbia, Bard, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington on topics ranging from human rights law and the war on drugs to the history of surfing. Mike Ritter spent years in the smuggling world, only to face federal charges long after his retirement as a scammer.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2018). When he’s not reading or talking about new books with smart people, Mike can be found surfing in Santa Cruz, California.