We are (hopefully) up to speed on the happenings of the 1960s – the Vietnam War, Woodstock, the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene. But what we don’t collectively have a clear picture of is exactly how all of the primo cannabis was being funneled into the Bay Area. To shed light on the topic, Rick Bibbero authored “90° to Zamboanga,” a nonfiction book detailing his years of smuggling cannabis from all over the world. From sailing across the stormy seas to caravanning up from Mexico, Bibbero’s spirit of adventure and altruistic need to give people access to cannabis culminates in an epic saga. We had the opportunity to sit down with Rick and ask him more about the nuances of being a smuggler in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
DOPE Magazine: In the book, we follow your tales as a smuggler with a heart of gold (i.e., “I only smuggle cannabis. It’s mellow. Heroin is bad karma, and cocaine kills people.”) How did you come to adopt this mindset and remain so steadfast in only smuggling cannabis when there were more lucrative smuggles to be had?
Rick Bibbero: To me, it was never really about the money. It was always more about the adventure. The bottom line to me was that pot, weed, cannabis, it was a natural, organic product. You could tell what it was by looking at it. Heroin or cocaine or any of the other drugs that are powders that have to be chemically created, you can’t tell [what they’re made of] by looking at it. It could be anything. So you have to test it, you have to chemically test it, and that was a turn-off to me too.
“To me, it was never really about the money. It was always more about the adventure.” – Rick Bibbero
In Chapter 17, Nepal or Thailand, you assess all of the various risks of your voyage – pirates, the lingering Vietnam war, death by firing squad – etc. How do you think those risks of smuggling across international waters have changed today with both the insurgence of technology and other countries’ adoption of more lenient cannabis laws? Would you still make the trip?
Times have changed – we have the internet, GPS, satellite surveillance, naval terrorists. Smuggling is much more dangerous now, and not only due to the technology, but also due to the laws that have changed since then. Back in the ’70s, if you got in trouble, even large amounts, it could be probation, it could be just maybe some time performing community service. But after they passed the minimum mandatories, it took the discretion away from the judges. Now there were mandated 10 years for first offense, 20 years for second, and for third you could get life in prison. So no, I would not make the trip today. Everything changed after Regan.
I loved reading about how, amidst preparations for a dangerous naval voyage, you made sure to install speakers into the boat and prepare a large supply of cassette tapes featuring all the goodies – Grateful Dead, Zeppelin, the Who, Rolling Stones. How did the combination of music and cannabis help you remain calm while in the vast unforgiving ocean?
Music was a part of what was going on, it was alive in the energy in the Bay Area. I was going to shows at Hippie Hill every week, and I saw some great performances. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, you name it. It kept us grounded when we had been floating in an abyss for months.
While on your journey, you give the captain, Killian, an ultimatum: “Either the booze goes overboard, or you go overboard.” Killian ultimately tosses the rum and gin in the ocean, but I want our readers to know: was it a bluff? Would you have gone through with kicking the most experienced sailor off the boat if he refused to lay off the sauce? How would this have impacted your journey?
What we were threatening was a bit more than simply kicking Killian off the boat. We were out in the middle of the ocean, a thousand miles from shore. We were threatening to set him adrift. This was a serious confrontation to get him off the sauce, and thankfully it worked, because we were completely bluffing. We wouldn’t have sacrificed Killian to the elements, but his drinking was jeopardizing all of our lives so we had to do something. He was the expert sailor, so I am not sure if we would have made it without him.
It must have been humbling to be at the “mercy of mother nature’s wild fury,” can you talk about how this played into the title “90° to Zamboanga”?
I wanted something really unique. Something that would peak somebody’s interest. To me the most exciting part of the book was about the actual survival against the elements, mother nature’s wild fury. And my point was to illustrate, just what lengths we were willing to go, putting our lives on the line in order to bring that product to market.
The most pressing question filling my mind while reading this novel, is how are you able to write about breaking many international laws with impunity? Did you have to market it as a work of fiction? Are there any legal actions that could be taken against you based upon the content of this book?
Well, as you’ll discover in the book, I did get caught, so everything is on public record now. I also wanted to create a parallel narrative to what was going on inside the DEA and the IRS, and I was able to interview the agents who worked my case. I called up one of the DEA agents, Jim Conklin, told him I had to get the story out and he was excited about it. He told me nobody was going to come after me, that it was way past the statute of limitations. I got the green light to share history.
How jarring is it, after all of the hard work and life-risking involved in smuggling good cannabis back then, to be able to walk in a store and pick amongst hundreds of strains/brands?
Every time I step foot into a shop, it blows my freaking mind. The oils, the concentrates, the edibles that don’t look like they came out the wrong end of an animal. Staring at an entire wall of different flower that’s been tested for pesticides, mold, etc. All of us who were around back then don’t know what to make of it. It is very exciting, but we also can’t help but think about all the people who are still rotting in prison for the gram of weed they had in 1991. It really is a trip.
You can purchase 90° to Zamboanga on Amazon.