Thai Stick and the Surfing Life


Film rights to Thai Stick, a scholarly work on the illicit marijuana trade between Southeast Asia and the West coast of the United States in the 1960s and 70s, have been recently acquired by perhaps the greatest ever competitive surfer, American Kelly Slater.

Media stereotyping has often linked surfing with the smoking of weed and while Slater does not smoke marijuana he certainly supports the de-criminalization of the product in the U.S. and doubts whether it should even classified as a drug.

“It’s a plant and it’s beyond ridiculous that people have somehow decided making it illegal was the right thing. The end result is generally users going to jail who cause society no harm,” he recently told surfing publication Swellnet.

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“I don’t really see marijuana as a drug. Nobody has ever died from using marijuana and more people today die of prescription drugs than drugs on the street,” Slater, renowned for his clean living, said.

His sympathies lie with the authors of Thai Stick – Mike Ritter, a former smuggler, and Peter Maguire, an academic and a big wave surfer in his own right. Slater intends to turn the book about the lives of young Western smugglers into a television series.

He says the recent change of mindset around marijuana – from a legal perspective – meant  the timing was right to create the interest with the right people.

“This can be as much an educational and travel piece as anything.”

Indeed, Thai Stick won its accolades because it took a scholarly approach to a subject often trivialized as “something a little bit naughty.” The industry was worth billions of dollars and became a focal point for America’s War on Drugs by the 1980s.

Some of the smugglers were horribly killed by the dreaded Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to early 1979 – after their vessels strayed into waters controlled by Pol Pot. Others were caught and served long terms in Thai and American prisons.

Maguire said American law enforcement is basically in the same place as the U.S. military was in Vietnam during the early 1970s, in that Washington has conceded defeat in the war on pot and they are now looking for a face-saving way out.

“However, there is none as it was a massive waste of time and resources. Today pot is basically legal in California and the marijuana industry is growing more quickly than even the tech sector.”

Pot is not a hard drug nor in the same league as cocaine or heroin but methods used by smugglers back then are still used today, with tragic consequences.

On death row now in Indonesia is Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Gularte – who has been diagnosed as mentally ill – for smuggling 6 kg of cocaine into Indonesia hidden inside surfboards. He is scheduled to be shot alongside Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Their sentences have caused a public outrage in their respective countries, where Indonesian authorities and their laws have been branded as excessively mean and unfair to foreigners. They have also cast a shadow over recently elected president, Jokowi Widodo, a great hope for moderates.

In Thai Stick, no one kept their booty and retired gracefully, a point not lost on Maguire, who has also written for The Diplomat.

Maguire said shooting would start soon with the series to cover the years 1968 to 1983, but the priority was securing a large enough budget “to do this right once.” Talks have begun with Hollywood documentary makers Jeff Miller and Kevin Klauber who made King Corn and 20 Feet from Stardom.

“This story is personal, very important to both Mike, myself, and our sources. Given that we began interviewing people more than 15 years ago many people who helped us greatly are now dead,” he said.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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