Brian O’ Dea is a remarkable man. One of North America’s biggest traffickers, he turned his back on the narcotic underworld to become a drug counsellor—only to find himself in prison a few years later. 

Upon release, struggling for a job, O’Dea posted an advert in the national press—‘Employment Wanted: Former Marijuana Smuggler’—and received offers from across the globe. Now working in the media, we caught up with the notorious man to talk about life on the wrong side of the law, and addiction.

Oh and shout out to Lionsgate for setting up this interview, and another running shortly with a former DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent who put the handcuffs on one of the men behind 9/11. It’s to celebrate the release of Sabotage (out on DVD on the 15th), a film about one DEA agent (Arnie Schwarzenegger) who will do anything to get his guy…

Where are you?

I’m in Toronto right now. I go between Toronto and Santa Barbara in California.

You’re talking to us today in promo for Sabotage – what did you think of it? Was it a realistic portrayal of life in the cartel?

Well it had a bad DEA agent. That’s realistic. It’s kind of an oxymoron to say a ‘good DEA agent’. Quite frankly, they’re one of the greatest problems on the planet, the DEA.

Is that from your own personal experience?

The agents that dealt with me weren’t necessarily bad people but what they do is horrible. Building more prisons, locking more people up—if what they did worked they’d be building less prisons and we’d be turning the prisons we have into schools or homes for the homeless—but no, they talk about it as if its some kind of success to continue to lock up more of your population. It’s so wrong on so many levels.

They’re only interested in continuing what they do and every time they’re presented with an opportunity to do it differently they jump on their podiums and say ‘the children! the children!’ they pull out that old dog line, ‘the children!’ as if they’re daddy. They’re not my daddy and they’re not the daddy to my children either. I have four children and God help should they ever encounter the DEA.

There’s been a lot of legislation in the states that looks at medical marijuana and the legalization in Colorado, do you feel that things are moving in the right direction?

I totally do but at the same time we can talk about friends of mine who are serving 15 years for pot and they’re in their institutions looking out from between the bars at these new young guys in suits on stock exchanges making millions of dollars from medical marijuana companies soon to be—as in Colorado and Washington—completely legal recreational marijuana companies. I think it’s horrible and I think that everybody that’s in prison for pot should be released, their records should be expunged and they should be offered a tremendous apology.

And what about other drugs?

All drugs should be legalized and I’ll tell you why—you have the option right now of having drugs distributed in one of two ways. We’ve chosen the wrong way. Look, drugs are here, they have been here as long as we’ve had recorded history, they’re going to be here forever so the choice is this: do you want to distribute it to people who deal mainly by criminal gangs who shoot each other, control neighbourhoods and make family life horrible in those neighbourhoods—or do you want them distributed by medical experts who can at the same time offer education and change? That’s the choice.

The choice we’ve made is to have them distributed by criminal gangs, because it supports an entire industry—a horrible industry—called the corrections industry. In the United States we have people in prisons that are privately operated—“for profit prisons”.

You struggled with addiction yourself. Is there not an argument, given that so many people fall to addiction that the government has to take a stance against it by banning it?

I think that’s nonsense, banning it does nothing. Listen, everyone who wants to do drugs is doing them, they’re illegal and they’re doing them. All we’re doing is calling the weakest among us criminals instead of helping them.

If I’m standing here with a great big hammer and if you are a drug guy, are you going to come to me to try and break your cycle of destruction, and self-destruction, and destruction of those around you? You’re not. But if I provide a safe place for you to get the drugs that you feel you need, then I have an opportunity to have a conversation with you.

I’ve never met a drug addict who wants to be one by the time he or she gets there. It’s a moral stance our governments are taking. It’s completely and thoroughly immoral; we punish the weakest among us for their weaknesses. Look, most of the drug addicts I know are children who were broken as children and they have been punished for their brokenness ever since. Because you cannot see the dysfunction in an addict, because it’s internal we judge it as something moral or immoral—how horrible is that? How horrible are we for doing that?

You got out of the business before the DEA got to you—is that correct?

I not only got out of it, I got sober 26 years ago on September 1st and I’ve remained that way ever since. The DEA showed up at my house when I was working as a counselor at a drug and alcohol hospital in Santa Barbara, California, and the first line out of this cops mouth was ‘we know what you do all day, you work with drunks and dopes, this ain’t about change or rehabilitation, this is about crushing your life motherfucker, now do the right thing.’ See, in a nutshell right there.

Why did you choose to get out?

I had a heart attack from a coke overdose and I went out. When I went out I had an experience that I remember only this about: I was given the choice of living or dying. It was entirely up to me, but if I was to choose living I had to change my life and everything about it, and that was the choice that I made. I came to, spent a month in hospital, got sober and realised that this is how I wanted to live my life from now on.

You’ve been very truthful about your life experiences. Have people have held it against you?

Not at all. I’ve stood on the mountain tops saying ‘this is what happened, this is what I did, this is what happened to me from having done that. These are the choices I made, these are the consequences of those choices’ and when I go talk to kids in school, as I have done to more than 50,000 faces, I don’t go there with any advice, I simply go there to tell them my story and say that there are consequences to every choice I’ve made. That has a greater impact than pointing your fingers and saying ‘you know what, don’t do drugs, you shouldn’t do drugs.’ That’s bullshit.

What would you say to anyone that might think that being a trafficker is glamorous?

It’s only glamorous among the people with whom you are associated and that is a false and shallow glamour. It has no longevity. I like to look at it today as what am I giving to whom I am surrounded? How am I serving those around me? That is the greatest glamour.

That last deal we did was worth $250m but really I had nothing. I like to say I had a hole in the ground that was filled with money, yet I’m hiding in a friend’s guesthouse snorting my brains out, getting absolutely insane and ready to have a heart-attack. If money and things fix anything what was I doing hiding in some guy’s closet?

What happened in the end?

I got sentenced to ten years and I went to Terminal Island. I spent just over a year there, then I spent another year in a nasty prison in Canada called Springhill Institution. Then I went and spent two years in a halfway house, six years on parole in Toronto, and four more on probation. When that was over I moved to Toronto with my wife. One day she says to me ‘you gotta get a job’. Get a job?! Who’s gonna hire me? What can I do? She says ‘You had 105 people around the world working in secret, you had 5 tractor trailers, three ships, you pulled off a $250 million deal and you don’t know how to do anything? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard’. So I wrote an ad that I put in the classified section of a national financial newspaper in Canada and the ad was headlined ‘Former Marijuana Smuggler—having recently completed a ten year sentence for importing 75 tonnes of marijuana into the United States I now seek a legal means to support my family and me’. I elaborated a little and at the bottom I put – ‘please send all responses to this ad to post office such and such at the financial post’. I got over 600 responses from all over the world.

Every police department in the United States wanted me to work for them. Pot smugglers offered me jobs. The number of responses I got was insane—the newspaper was telling me on a daily basis to come pick up my mail and eventually I was a guest on a midnight talk show. I met an actor who was in Steven Segal’s movie at the time, and he told me he had a friend in California who was passing through here and that he’d developed a show for TV. He asked me if I knew anybody in the networks here that I could pitch the show to. I happened to have one connection here in the television world and we pitched it and, geez, we got the show so all of a sudden I was a television producer knowing nothing about it.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a number of things, I’ve done a number of shows for networks in Canada and the United States and now I’m working on a couple of new shows for US networks. I’m also developing ‘High’, my book, as a feature film, which we plan to shoot at the end of next year. I’m writing the script right now.

Would you ever work for law enforcement?

Listen, as they say, I’ve been there done that, I have bullet holes in the t-shirt. I’m not interested, the last thing I did, I did it for the money and that turned out to be a big mistake. I was in the drug smuggling business because I loved it and the last deal I did I was trying to step out of the business at the time when I got offered this opportunity to do this giant deal and I couldn’t look the other way, and my gut instinct told me when I was first presented with it, not to do it, but I did it anyway.

Do you regret it? Do you regret living that life?

No, I don’t, I had an awesome time. I had a great time and you know that was the threshold through which I had come to find my real life and so no, the only thing I regret is that I traded so many hours with cocaine for hours with my children that I will never get back. Fortunately, I’ve healed the relationships with my children, I have four of them and all of their mothers, there are three mothers and four kids and they’re all friends and we all love each other today.