Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler

Publication Date: May 05, 2009

368 pp

Trade Paperback

List Price US $14.95
ISBN: 9781590513101


List Price US $12.99
ISBN: 9781590513316

In the early 1980s, Brian O’Dea was operating a $100 million a year, 120-man drug smuggling business, and had developed a terrifying cocaine addiction. Under increasing threat from the DEA in 1986 for importing seventy-five tons of marijuana into the United States, he quit the trade—and the drugs—and began working with recovering addicts in Santa Barbara. Despite his life change, the authorities caught up with him years later and O’Dea was arrested, tried, and sentenced to ten years at Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary in Los Angeles Harbor. A born storyteller, O’Dea candidly recounts his incredible experiences from the streets of Bogotá with a false-bottomed suitcase lined with cocaine, to the engine compartment of an old DC-6 whose engines were failing over the Caribbean, to the cell blocks overcrowded with small-time dealers who had fallen victim to the justice system’s perverse bureaucracy of drug sentencing. Weaving together extracts from his prison diary with the vivid recounting of his outlaw years and the dawning recognition of those things in his life that were worth living for, High tells the remarkable story of a remarkable man in the late-1980s drug business and why he walked away.

Excerpt from High

Santa Barbara, California. Eight o’clock in the morning, 1990. I lay in bed, thinking about the hospital. A heroin addict named Danny had come in the night before. I could still feel the pressure of his head on my shoulder as he sobbed his wretched heart out. I’d started to work with him, then left about midnight. I wanted to go back that morning, see how he was doing. Poor bastard.

A hard knock on the door. Just from the knock, I knew this day was my day.
I got up, put on the bathrobe my friend Molly had made for me–a black and white
thing–and went to open the door. There were Venetian blinds on the windows. They were partially closed, but through the slats I could just see the hands and the handguns. I felt this strong desire to disappear. I opened the door. One guy held up a badge with one hand–a Drug Enforcement Agency star.

“My name is Gary Annunziata, and I’m with the Drug Enforcement Agency,” he said. “Your name Brian O’Dea?”
“I wish it wasn’t, but it is.” He nodded almost imperceptibly. “May we come in?”
“You’ve got the gun.”

“Brian O’Dea tried marijuana in college and saw dollar signs. A born salesman, he began dealing to fellow college students in the early 1970s. By the early 1980s, he had built a $100 million a year smuggling operation, and a cocaine addiction. His narcotics racket took him around the world to places such as Bogota, Columbia and Montego Bay, Jamaica. O’Dea had some successful multimillion dollar deals, but more often than not, rip-offs, double-crosses, getting wasted and waiting characterized the operations. High is Brian O’Dea’s memoir of dealing drugs, doing time, and seeking redemption.” —NPR’s Talk of the Nation

“Brian O’Dea tells all: The book includes excerpts from his prison diary, scenes from him work as a drug counselor, and a clear-eyed reckoning of his intoxicated multinational adventures.” —Bookforum

“Blistering memoir by a once-notorious drug smuggler and addict…an unusually revealing account of a criminal’s rise and fall.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Nowadays Brian O’Dea is on the up-and-up, gainfully employed as a film and TV producer in Toronto, but back in the ’80s he operated a $100 million-a-year, 120-man trafficking business (the largest marijuana haul in U.S. history), and picked up a nasty cocaine habit along the way.” —Philadelphia City Paper

“In this wistful but honest look at a life subsumed by drugs, now-reformed smuggler O’Dea (a Canadian film producer) pulls back the curtain on the machinations and motivations of a hugely successful, outrageously addicted 1980s drug trafficker whose redemption came too late to save him from prison…Throughout his life’s many ups and downs, however, O’Dea remains a charming, relatable narrator you can’t help but root for.” —Publishers Weekly

“[High] is refreshingly unapologetic, about as far away from inspirational autobiography as you can get. It’s the story of a man who made it big and paid the consequences, told in a straightforward style that contrasts O’Dea’s regimented life as a prison inmate with his exciting, risk-driven years as an international criminal. He’s a good, writer, too, nicely capturing the atmosphere of his two worlds and their inhabitants. The book is hardly an endorsement of the lifestyle of a drug smuggler, but, as with movies like Scarface, the intoxicating allure of money and power is made perfectly clear.” —Booklist




1. In the prologue O’Dea tells the story of his first day at a Catholic boy’s school. How do you think this event affects this little boy? Does keeping this secret set the tone for his later life? What effect did growing up in the Catholic Church have on O’Dea? As O’Dea describes the DEA coming to his house and ultimately his surroundings at Terminal Island, how did you feel about that eleven-year-old boy?

2. O’Dea describes his recreational, experimental drug use as a teenager in Newfoundland. Is this experimentation typical? Does he take bigger risks than others? Is this different from teenagers experimenting with alcohol and cigarettes, or the same?

3. As Brian realizes he can pay for his own drugs by selling them to his friends, we see his entrepreneurial spirit develop. Is he similar or different from his father, who owns a brewery, or the same? Is he similar or different from the Kennedy family during prohibition in the U.S., or the same?

4. Brian is in prison in Newfoundland and his first marriage fails. When he is released from prison he instinctively jumps on a plane for Colombia. What does this say about his character? What does it say about the risks he is willing to take? At what cost for O’Dea? What character traits help him survive the risks he takes?

5. When Brian focuses his entrepreneurial skills on doing legal business — the concert in Jamaica, the hair products, dinosaur bones — things don’t work out. Is it self-sabotage? Why is he not successful?

6. What motivated Brian to get out of the business? What motivated him to get clean and stay that way? If Brian were your son, brother, husband, or father, how would you have related to him over the years?

7. Brian has been married three times and divorced twice. Can you relate to his first and second wives and their reasons for getting out of the marriage? Would you have stayed or left? His current wife has been with him since he was nine months sober. She stayed through the indictment, the sentencing, prison, parole, and the years of reinventing a life. Why did she stay? Would you have stayed?

8. What kind of person is Brian O’Dea?

9. What do you think of the title of the book? What title would you give the book?

10. Currently in the U.S. murder is punishable by a sentence of three to six years in prison, but drug offenses are punishable by thirty to fifty years in prison. Do you agree with this? How do you feel as a taxpayer supporting the people serving these sentences?

11. Brian was able to survive prison and avoid any serious conflicts or confrontations. How?