George Jung is arguably the most famous drug smuggler in American history, thanks to the the movie Blow (in which Jung was immortalized by Hollywood idol Johnny Depp), and the book by journalist Bruce Porter upon which it was based. High Times caught up with him recently while he was on parole from federal prison after serving nearly two decades for smuggling marijuana.
George Jacob Jung was born on August 6, 1942, in Boston, Massachusetts. In the late ’60s Jung began smuggling marijuana from Mexico into the US. Busted in Chicago in 1974, he was sentenced to four years in the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Ct. At Danbury, he met Medellin Cartel associate Carlos Lehder, and the two conspired to rain a white-powder blizzard down upon America that would inhibit the serotonin reuptake of millions of party people at the end of the ’70s, making them both incredibly rich men. Through Lehder, Jung began working for Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord who murdered witnesses, judges, politicians and citizens alike in his ruthless rise to the top of a $30 billion cocaine empire.
With Escobar, Lehder bought property on an island in the Bahamas called Norman’s Cay, which would become the cartel’s main shipping point for planes flying cocaine into the United States. After learning that Lehder was offering to snitch out the cartel, Jung testified against him and walked away clean from a long life of crime. But, as he explains in this interview, the straight life didn’t appeal to him.
Jung’s most recent book, co-written with T. Rafael Cimino, is entitled Heavy. He also sponsors a line of jeans at cbdjeans.com.
HT: You started your smuggling career in Southern California in the late 1960s, buying weed cheap and then driving it to Massachusetts to sell at a considerable markup. Today, the medical pot industry in California has driven marijuana prices down so low that people are doing the same thing: driving it east and selling it at a higher price in states where it’s not legal. It seems symbolic of the ineffectiveness of prohibition.
George Jung: In this country, we have a police force that’s addicted to drug money. I’ve watched law enforcement since the 1950s—when it was virtually nonexistent—grow to be a monster that’s intent on arresting our children for a consensual nonviolent crime and putting them in penitentiaries. There’s something wrong with that—I mean, that’s insane. And we have two or three states that legalized, and the rest of you can walk into another state and get 10 years in prison.
You just did 20 years for marijuana. You got caught with a couple hundred pounds, and right now there’s probably a dispensary not far from here that sells a couple hundred pounds a month legally and pays taxes on it to the government.
George Jung: Realistically, I didn’t do 20 years for the 200 pounds—I did 20 years for my whole life of being a radical, okay? I had an extensive conversation with the judge before I was sentenced. I says, “You’re going to send me away for the rest of my life. I wanna talk to you.” I go into his chambers, all right? And he looked at me and said, “You had $100 million, and nobody knew who you were. It was perfect. Why didn’t you just go away? And I never would have had to do this today. If everybody lived their life like you do, we’d have complete unrule and we’d have no structured society.” And he said, “I understand your free will and your existentialism, but unfortunately you chose a path against the law. You broke the law every day of your life as an adult, and I have no choice.”
There’s a part in the book Blow where you say that rather than incarcerating smugglers, people should pick apart their brains. Tell me about that “thrill junkie” thing.
George Jung: People don’t grow up to become thrill junkies—they’re born like that, right? I was the kid who would take the car out at night when he was 16 and see if he can redline it. And then there’s the kid who will be careful of it because it’s his dad’s car, or whatever, and drive it safely home and go to bed.
And that’s how my whole life was. When we started dealing, the guys I worked with, they didn’t want to go to Mexico and start smuggling, because they weren’t in it for the thrill. In fact, the majority of them went on to graduate college; a couple of them took the marijuana money and invested it, buying properties and this and that. But that wasn’t what it was about to me. It was the thrill.
And then, later on down the line, a strange thing happens to you, and the thrill is from the fear. And then you want to get it done and get back to Manhattan Beach and the volleyball and the girls and the whole thing. And then, one day, you just don’t want to go home, because nobody lives there anymore and you’re not afraid. And that’s when it’s over for you. Your whole being knows it’s over, and you’re self-destructing. And a lot of people in this business will tell you that.
That’s a terrible price to pay because you loved life so much, with the intensity of a thousand suns, and the women and all of it—and then it’s all taken away from you. You end up walking the hallways of always to a place called tedium and apathy, day after day after day. Years go by. Anyway, on a brighter note…
You hung out with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton when you were moving loads from Puerto Vallarta in the ’60s, right?
George Jung: I lived up in a place called Gold Gringo Gulch. Liz and Dick bought a house there, and I lived next door to them. I used to drink with Richard Burton at the Oceano Bar in the afternoons. I remember one time Liz was out shopping, which she always was, and we were sitting at the bar. I mean, the bar was right out of Casablanca—it was beautiful. And Liz had a little entourage carrying all her packages and everything, and Dick looked at me and he took a drink, and he says, “There she is, the most beautiful bitch on the planet—and she’s mine.”
Did you ever think people would be filming movies and documentaries regarding your life?
George Jung: I sat down and I wrote a book called Grazing in the Grass Before the Snow Came [the precursor to Blow]. It took me a year to write it in a little prison cell, and this is the God’s honest truth: When I was doing it, I thought, “This is going to be a book and a movie.”
How did Johnny Depp come into the picture?
George Jung: The producer, Denis Leary, called and he said, “I found the right person—Johnny Depp.” And I said, “Who the hell is that?” And he said, “Edward Scissorhands.” And I said, “What the hell is that?” And he said, “Meet him.”
And Johnny got the special visit, and he came in and he looked like he had slept in a dumpster—skinny, his hair hanging down and greasy, ripped leather jacket, holes in the sleeves, Vietnam army boots—and I said, “Jesus Christ, what happened to you?” He said, “I was up all night thinking of what to bring you. It drove me crazy.” And he handed me On the Road, by Kerouac. He said, “This is my Bible. I carry it with me everywhere I go. I want you to have it.” I had read it when I was in high school, and that Kerouac pumped me up to be crazier than I was going to be, all right? And that’s when we bonded.
He would come on visiting days, and I would just walk around in circles and keep talking and he would watch me, and one day I told him, “I’m not walking any more circles—it’s over.” And he said, “Don’t worry, I got it.”
And the parts that I did see of Blow, he got it. He became me.
Was Pablo Escobar already at war with the Colombian government when you started working with him?
George Jung: That didn’t happen till later. He wanted to become a part of Colombia’s ruling class, and he thought that money would get him in there. But that is reserved for a select group of people: the 10 percent that owned 90 percent of the arable land down there. And they run the government, and they run everything; they own the coffee and this and that. And Pablo was never born into that class structure, and it didn’t matter how many people he bought off—he was never gonna get into that sacred gilded hall, okay?
And then he began to get pissed off about it, and that’s when he turned. He figured if he couldn’t join the club, he’d destroy the club. I told him, “You need to get out of here—they’re going to kill you. You need to take all this money and get out of here with your son and your wife and go.” And he said, “I will die here.” There was nothing left to say.
Had you not met Carlos Lehder in Danbury, do you think you would have gotten into the cocaine business?
George Jung: Never. Never would have happened.
You visited Norman’s Cay, right? What was that like?
George Jung: Well, in the beginning, it was just a remote island; people had found it and settled there, built houses there. What we saw was a place where you could land, refuel and fly. At first, we were landing in the Bahamas and keeping the plane there overnight and then coming in on Sunday with the “mom-and-pop traffic,” as they called it. It was hundreds of planes coming back from the islands on Sunday night to the mainland. And the radar screen was full of little blips everywhere, and you were just another blip. And we’d get up to the Carolinas, and we had a place up there where we landed our load.
But I never wanted Norman’s Cay. I thought, “A man on the move does not get busted.” I had a huge difference of opinion with my partner Carlos, and that’s when we went our separate ways.
When you visited, was Carlos acting irrational? Did you think he was crazy?
George Jung: He wasn’t crazy… he had delusions, though. He loved John Lennon and Adolf Hitler at the same time. That should have been a sign for me.
I mean, Walter Cronkite showed up there, and these thugs came with machine guns and told him, “You better leave.” It just turned into a freak show, and Carlos actually thought at one time he wanted to take over the country of Belize. I told him, “You wanna become a dictator? Or you wanna become rich and go live in Monte Carlo for the rest of your life?”
And his thing was that he wanted to hire cheaper pilots because the greed got to him. I wanted to keep using pilots I could trust. And in the end, it was a pilot that he hired for chump change out of Jacksonville—an appliance salesman at Sears and Roebuck who bought a half-million dollar home and couldn’t explain it—who gave up everybody.
It was easy to get pilots. One thing that I never, ever forgot was opening up a briefcase with a million dollars in it and showing it to this guy who flew for commercial airlines. I said, “There’s one stipulation: You have to show me where your kids go to school—and where you live.” And they would look at me, and look at the money, and they would say, “Okay.” And I thought to myself, “Oh my God, just how sick is this?”
You were asked to testify against Carlos Lehder, but you sought permission from Pablo Escobar to do it. Can you tell me how that went down?
George Jung: Well, at first, I… I mean, that was a dirty word to me. And, actually, it was still under the one-third-parole situation—I was going to do no more than five years. I wasn’t afraid of the time in prison; five years was not much.
I was approached to testify, and I told them no way, I would never do that. Then, several weeks later, it was in the Miami Herald that Carlos had written a letter to George Bush saying that he was going to give up all the information that he could about the cartel for his freedom. I was being held at the North Dade Correctional Center, and they showed me the paper, and then the top of my head blew off. That’s when I agreed to do that—but I asked permission and was told to go ahead.
And so, after you testified against Carlos Lehder, you were free.
George Jung: Right.
Why did you make that decision to start smuggling again?
George Jung: I was just bored, to be honest with you. A friend of mine had made like $25 million, and I went over to his house. He had flown loads out of Colombia—he was a fighter pilot in Vietnam—and his wife said, “I’ve lost him.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “He’s just drinking scotch from 6 o’clock in the morning until he passes out at night.”
So I went out there and I said, “Dave, what’s happening to you?” And he said, “I can’t stand this.” I said, “Stand what? You have a beautiful home, you have a beautiful wife, you have all the money in the world.” He said, “It doesn’t mean a fucking thing. I want to fly another load.” And I said, “Is that all that’s wrong with you? Come on!”
How long you were flying loads before you got caught?
George Jung: We did a half a dozen, or whatever. And I didn’t care so much about the money—I just cared about the action. It’s like a gambler: He needs money as a tool, to be able to gamble. And the drugs were a tool to me, to be able to get my high. But by then I had lost it. I was like Brett Favre, you know? He was old, and he lost his step, but he loved the game so much that he went out there even though he knew they were going to laugh and throw beer cans at him.
People that don’t have the love of that high, they’ll never understand it. It’s like screaming into the wind. What Brett Favre did, you don’t go to jail; you just go to your farm in Mississippi and sell jeans, okay? But what I did, you go to jail.
They used to make westerns with the old gunfighter who is called out into the street by the kid—and he went out there and knew he was never coming back, but he went because it was over. And in a way, it’s terribly sad—but in another way, it’s Shakespearean. We live as we die—alone—and even though I spent 20 years in prison, a few other years [incarcerated] here and there, I’ve had so many great experiences in my life, of living total free will, that I wouldn’t change it for all the gold in the earth. And I hope there’s a life after life—and maybe I can even come back again and get on another train, and ride and gain some more wisdom, and be able to sit here and give it back to High Times.