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High: Confessions of a Pot Smuggler

by Brian O’Dea

Prologues are often melodramatic, affected, and to be skipped. Not this one. The prologue to Brian O’Dea’s memoir of life as a pot smuggler is heartbreaking, introducing the tale of how a nice kid from St. John’s ends up deep in the late-1980s drug business. O’Dea’s involvement comes complete with trips to Colombia – where he smuggles ample amounts of cocaine in false-bottomed luggage – encounters with thugs, large supplies of money and product samples, AA meetings, finding Jesus, and a long trip to jail.

The chapters rotate between O’Dea’s prison diary, which captures the minutiae of life in Los Angeles Harbor’s Terminal Island jail, and the increasingly out-of-control life of a big-time drug smuggler that led him there. Prison life is rendered in
exacting, all-too-plausible prose. “My neighbours are Spanish. Drug offence, drug offence, drug offence. Twenty-, thirty-,
forty-year sentences. Twelve hundred men stacked like rats in a rat catcher’s sack in a place built for four hundred and two. One toilet for thirty. One shower for sixty.”

O’Dea’s pre-prison life is upper middle class all the way – his father was a businessman and later a Member of Parliament in Newfoundland; his uncle was its Lieutenant Governor – until he tries his first joint as a sophomore university student in Halifax in 1967. “I went out on the street. Everything was moving slowly past me. I could tell that everybody was looking at me, knew I was screwed up, knew I liked it.”

Among the prison’s blaring voices, TVs, muscles, and tattoos, O’Dea and his cellmates make some astute observations about the so-called War on Drugs. There is also a candour about O’Dea’s life, a willingness to admit his weaknesses that may make some readers want to hug him. Odd, but true. Whether it’s puffing joints, snorting lines, getting fall-on-your-face drunk, or hooking up with women who want to rescue him, O’Dea’s story is about a search for love in mostly the wrong places. He is remorseful and comes to understand that his drug life was killing him – inside and out. High is a redeeming story of salvation for a boy whose life went off the rails before it really started.