Billy Hayes: Riding the Midnight Express

An old hash smuggler tells his story in a new world of weed.
Billy Hayes: Riding the Midnight Express
Courtesy of Billy Hayes

Billy Hayes likes to say he’s been in the cannabis industry for the past 50 years, and is amazed at the progress made in the new world order of weed.

“I recently visited every dispensary in Las Vegas,” he shared. “As I walk in each door, I can’t believe that this exists. I was like a kid in a candy shop! It’s absolutely mind-blowing to see all the products out there now from this one amazing plant that’s sustained humankind for thousands of years.”

Recently, he hit the pavement in his hometown of Las Vegas to promote his one-man play, “Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes.”  The play has him reliving his experience, while telling the truth of his time in a Turkish prison for smuggling 2.5 kilos or a little more than four pounds of hash out of Istanbul, Turkey. The show plays one night only in Las Vegas on Saturday, August 17th at 8 p.m. at the Big Springs Theater. 

“The movie, Midnight Express, was loosely based on my book, but had a lot of misnomers – specifically of my speaking out in court against the Turkish people. I love Turkey and its people. At the time I went into court I had been practicing the Zen of yoga – I was into love and light, and there’s no way I would have screamed out my hatred for the Turkish people – that just didn’t happen.”

The riff with Turkey has long since been settled, and he’s been welcomed back since. The other fallacy from the film was that the arrest was the first time he had smuggled hash out of Istanbul.

Billy Hayes at his trial; Courtesy of Billy Hayes

“I had done it three times prior, with no issues,” he explained. “It was a common thing to do back then. I was in my senior year of college in Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to become a journalist, when a friend who had just returned from Istanbul shared some hash with me, and that’s when everything changed. “

His friend conveyed how cheap the hash was in Turkey, that you could buy it on the street, and they didn’t check baggage or frisk you before boarding the plane. But in the late 1960s, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and its army began blowing things up, leading to a crack-down on security, and he was searched. Hayes was one of the hash smuggling victims, if you will, from another country’s war.

The irony of his arrest and subsequent prison sentence (reduced from life to 30 years), is that on his very first night in prison he was handed a hash pipe. This trend would continue, as hash was commonly enjoyed in Turkey and in prison. In fact, of the tourists in prison with him, most of them were there for smuggling hash. Offers continued upon his escape, rowing 17 miles to Greece and freedom, with offers to buy hash at each turn. 

“For me, to be able to walk into a dispensary today and purchase whatever product I want with cannabis, concentrates—hash—is bittersweet. There are still people sitting in prison all over the world for selling weed, and here I am enjoying the bounty in the now legal state of Nevada. It’s surreal, to say the least.”

Hayes, who was just 14 hours shy of receiving a degree in journalism upon his arrest, said he wanted to travel to see the world, to be able to tell stories. But, he never imagined a lifelong gig of being the guy who escaped a Turkish prison for smuggling hash.

His escape in 1975, after five years in prison, was indeed a story. The book, Midnight Express, is named after what they call an escape. It was published in 1977 and quickly optioned for a film of the same title, written by Oliver Stone. By 1978 he was at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film won awards and received accolades. But the real prize was meeting his wife, Wendy. The couple are still together today after 39 years of marriage.

In his backpack during his arrest was a book on yoga, Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar, and he credits his continued practice on helping him get through prison and the aftermath of fame to follow.

“Yoga saved my life in prison and it still does every day,” he said. “I’d get up before dawn every morning, spread a blanket and do my yoga. I was so lucky to discover yoga when I did. Yoga keeps me healthy, but more importantly, it keeps me emotionally balanced. It keeps me reasonably sane and I’ll take reasonably sane any day of the week!”

Hayes doesn’t consider himself a cannabis patient, sticking to smoking flower of sativa from a glass pipe, in lieu of dabs or concentrates.

“I like to be high,” he laughed. “The first time I smoked I was in college – it was 1966 when I was passed my first joint. We were in an attic, sitting in a circle and I took a hit. My friends said not to take in too much, but I took a really big hit, held it in for as long as I could. As the smoke flowed out of me, my whole body tingled. I really, really liked it and knew it was for me.”

He’s proud to say he’s smoked weed just about every day of his life since. Rather than call him a criminal for smuggling hash out of Turkey to the U.S., you could say he was meeting supply and demand. In light of legalization spreading across the world today, that’s not a stretch.

Hayes has performed his one-man show, “Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes,” hundreds of times around the world. He’s happy to share the story in this new age of cannabis and hemp acceptance. 

 “In visiting dispensaries in Vegas to promote my show, I’ve loved the energy of the young people I’ve met,” he shared. “They are healing the world, and I’m happy to be a small part of that healing 50 years later.”

Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes
Saturday, August 17, 2019
8:00 p.m.
Big Springs Theater
333 South Valley View Blvd., Las VegasFor more information visit,

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