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37 Tons of David Victorson: A Tale of Ballsy Redemption

07/23/2014 03:34 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2014

"In a time of universal deceit," George Orwell once said, "telling the truth is a revolutionary act." That maxim certainly applies to David Victorson's book, 37 Tons. Its title is the record-breaking amount of marijuana he smuggled on a freighter from Colombia to Seattle.

"I heard the door of my hotel room being smashed open," his memoir begins. "As I jumped out of bed I was ordered to get to my knees. Six heavily armed Bolivian security police nervously stood over me. They handcuffed me, put a black cloth bag over my head, and shoved me down the hall to the elevator."

Victorson stayed handcuffed to a bed in a prison cell for three months, waiting to be extradited to the U.S. where he would be sentenced to four concurrent five-year sentences. Over the 10-year period before his arrest, he earned around 30 million dollars. Victorson started selling pot at age 16 in Boston, and later smuggled hash and hash oil from Amsterdam, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. He also smuggled pot, cocaine, emeralds, and gold from Bolivia and Colombia. An outlaw who enjoyed taking on anything resembling the establishment, he once boasted to a friend of how he, as the friend put it, "brought to their knees" some Texas bankers who had been used in a money-laundering scheme involving a front "investment company" he ran in San Francisco.    

His prison sentences included 30 days at La Modello in Bogota, Colombia, three months at a military prison in La Paz, Bolivia, and four years at Lompoc Federal Prison in the U.S.

After being released from living behind bars, Victorson was assigned to a parole officer who warned him that he would not be allowed to drink any alcohol or consume any drugs, and although he intended to follow that rule, he soon surrendered to the temptation of booze and coke. 

On a Friday, his parole officer said, "You have given me six dirty drug tests." Victorson responded, "I knew they were dirty. I have been high every day since I got out." The parole officer gave him an ultimatum: either get into a drug treatment program by Monday or go back to prison for eight more years. He chose rehab, and it completely changed the life he had been so busy self-destructing.

Ultimately, he became a skillful drug counselor and for some years a rehab center owner himself, specializing in treating young addicts. For years he had sold drugs without thinking about any harm the drugs might cause to his customers, but now his career evolved into getting addicts off  drugs. Over time he developed a considerable following as a rehab leader and then as a blunt and colorful speaker popular among some AA groups. A charismatic man, he drew some buzz about leading a cult. 

Victorson grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His life between those locations has been unique, and I was curious to know more.

How did you get your rehab career launched from nothing?

I started as a counselor and worked my way up to VP marketing. I was the most successful marketing guy out of 54 hospitals and had developed a loyal following who referred patients to the hospital I represented, making me a rainmaker of sorts, thus motivating the hospital board to want to keep me close. So they offered me the opportunity to run my own programs. After a few years I brought in a venture capital group that funded the acquisition of our own facilities. The company was sold in 2007 for $96 million. I of course had a visible criminal past and, being a recovering person, [was] never accepted in the inner circle. I was looked at as kind of a well-paid second-class citizen.

And yet, didn't you also have a kind of cult following?

I don't care for the image of a following. It reminds me of an elf in puffy green shorts playing a flute while skipping on goat-like legs. Who the fuck follows that character? I was written about quite extensively -- from the Seattle Times to Playboy - with a slant toward being an outlaw and then again for being a businessman with a criminal past. I speak at a lot at AA meetings but I don't consider my fellow addicts to be followers. I promote the smoking of pot quite openly even though I am an addict and don't smoke any more. But I do love that bud.

Victorson, his dog Ainge and a custom smuggling boat with a Carey design hull and two 350LT1 twin stern engines. Top speed: 65 knots.

In what way were you a businessman?

From 1984 to 2006 I developed, owned, and operated a treatment program, Focus Healthcare, which treated over 25,000 chronic drug addicts and alcoholics. The admissions office served as a call center -- located in San Juan Capistrano, connected with hospitals in Delaware, Florida, California, Georgia, and Ohio -- staffed by recovering counselors, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Over the years, we averaged more than 50,000 calls per month. Of the people calling in looking to get help, only half of one percent had the financial ability to get into any treatment program. This became a puzzle that was unsolvable. Focus Healthcare gave away a lot of free treatment but was in no way capable of handling the volume of addicts calling in who had no ability to pay for any treatment.

So, in fact, what happens to these people is that they get referred to AA, NA or other free 12-step organizations. I also spoke around the country to union memberships, including the Teamsters, CWA, UFCW, public school teachers, human resource directors, representatives for the Screen Actors Guild, professional and parent groups. I also worked as a consultant with Michael Keaton on the movie, Clean and Sober. Currently, I speak at various 12-step meetings in Washington D.C., halfway houses, and homeless shelters about my own recovery and the war on addiction that is not being fought.

What drug do you think is the most destructive?

To this day and for the last 31 years of my sobriety, alcohol continues to be the number one abused drug in our country. It will kill you during detox or through liver damage. No other abused substance has such a destructive history. 

What do you think about this recent Alternet blog criticizing Alcoholics Anonymous? "Peer-reviewed studies peg the success rate of AA somewhere between 5 percent and 10 percent. That is, about one of every 15 people who enter these programs is able to become and stay sober. In 2006, one of the most prestigious scientific research organizations in the world, the Cochrane Collaboration, conducted a review of the many studies conducted between 1966 and 2005 and reached a stunning conclusion: 'No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA' in treating alcoholism. This group reached the same conclusion about professional AA-oriented treatment (12-step facilitation therapy), which is the core of virtually every alcoholism-rehabilitation program in the country."

Can you imagine doing a study of a program that is anonymous? No one tracks how many people go into AA meetings. No one follows the members to study their rate of sobriety. There is no possibility of any study that could do anything but guess for whatever agenda they are supporting whether AA works or not.

AA states there are over 24 million people attending 12-step meetings in almost every country in the world. These meetings are free; each meeting is autonomous. AA does not endorse or oppose any causes.  AA does not promote itself - if someone wants to go to a meeting it is because they are attracted to the people who are sober in meetings. When someone gets sober, their hormones wake up. It might be a more stunning conclusion that members of AA masturbate with more satisfaction than the pretend statisticians trying to study them.

Aside from any AA members masturbating, do you recall any particular surprise at any of the meetings you attended?

When I was in my first year of sobriety I went to a lot of AA meetings in Burbank, Ca. As a newcomer to AA, I was quite impressed with people who had years without drinking or drugging. Two such men went to a meeting I was a regular at, one guy with 18 years sober and the other with 19. I listened to those men when they spoke at meetings. I was 33 and they were in their sixties so I never talked to them socially. One day the FBI came into that meeting and arrested them. It turned out they were sober bank robbers. After fucking up a robbery while drunk, they had made a conscious business decision to be sober bank robbers. Were this an Aesop fable, the moral of the story would be: It is possible to stop drinking and drugging and stay the same character you were during your inebriated days, or being free to choose you could learn a different way to live.

So, then, what does AA mean to you? What about those 12 steps?

Meetings are a place where souls connect. It doesn't matter what color, how much money, or what gender. Under the cover of self-interest is the caring for the collective. There is one common interest -- a desire to recognize and change self-destructive behavior. Each person makes that decision for themselves without rules or judgment. The truth is, if I am not in recovery, I am in addiction. I carried my addiction to an extreme with heroin, cocaine, freebase, and alcohol. It led me to prisons in Costa Rica, Bolivia, Colombia, and finally here in the U.S. 

Than it led me to a psychiatric hospital for three months called a treatment program. I built a sober life, became successful as a father, husband, and businessman, only to relapse in my behavior and gamble away millions of dollars to a new addiction. So I wonder, am I an expert on addiction? I wish the pain I have suffered was mine alone to bear, but the truth is, my extreme expertise in addiction destroyed the innocent. My wife once told me, "You break people when you're in addiction." 

What makes you different from other folks in AA?

I started out in life disconnected from my family. I did not like them and they did not like me. I had a need to belong but could not find a safe place to belong to. I knew this at six years of age long before drugs and alcohol became part of my life. As I grew older I never had a job or a career with a company, I did not have a family, I only had me. So when I got sober I started at zero. I had no life to rebuild. I was a career criminal without a career. Everyone I knew was in the black market, so I could no longer know them.

I had nothing to go back to or reconnect with. Almost everyone I have met in 12-step meetings had something -- a family, a career, and often times both. So my life became understanding addiction and solving the puzzle of how to help an addict at that point in time, that moment of clarity when they are willing to surrender and open to change.

What would you say is the answer to the war on drugs?

I look at it as a war on addiction. As a society we have to agree it makes more sense to get rid of the market for drugs as opposed to imprisoning the consumer. Treatment has to be free and available to anyone who needs it. A medical evaluation done by an MD, a safe detox, and then 60 days in a low-cost housing environment with a program that includes treatment for the mind, body, and soul. And evening trips to 12-step meetings where the addict is accepted and can connect to other human beings. This sounds simple but it's a lot of work. If the programs were there, the addict would come.

Drugs and alcohol are not the problem. It is the addict who is the problem, and that is what needs to be addressed. Addiction is a global problem. I have met and worked with a group from Uganda trying to get treatment facilities organized in Africa, where alcoholism runs rampart. I have a good friend, director of the New Paradigm Fund, who is helping to support a 12-step recovery program in Indonesia where heroin addiction is a huge problem. There are hundreds of millions of dollars spent on drug interdiction and more spent on the writing of policy to govern policing the drug trade. How about we just do the work and get 30,000 to 50,000 people a month off of drugs and back into society.

Is that why you wrote 37 Tons?

I wrote that book so I would be able to talk about the subject matter in a public forum. (Information at 37tons.com.) I believe with no ego attached but in the purest sense my life is my professional expertise. I am an addict but believe in the legalization of marijuana. I was a smuggler and pirate but believed civil law was created for people in power, and that was not me so therefore it should not apply to those of us it did not benefit. I believe all people are born equally free yet there are "have-mores" and a 1% who seem to want to fuck with that birthright.

From all your experience, on the journey from addiction to sobriety, what's the main thing that you've learned?

A 35-year-old man is an avid Boston Red Sox fan. He has saved his money to purchase tickets to a Red Sox versus New York Yankees game at Fenway Park, the game of the year. As he approaches his seat he is filled with the anticipation of a great game. He sits down and hears a voice yell out, "Hey, Dave." He looks around but sees no one he knows. As the game progresses he hears the voice again, "Hey, Dave," only this time it sounds closer, so he stands up and looks around.

Once again he can't identify where the voice is coming from. Now he's frustrated and getting angry. Someone is disrupting his perfect afternoon. The seventh inning approaches and he decides to get himself a large popcorn and a beer. On his return just before sitting down, he hears the voice again, this time louder, "Hey, Dave!"  Now infuriated, he throws his arms up in frustration, spilling the popcorn and beer on the woman sitting in front of him. He puts his hand in front of his mouth, making a temporary loudspeaker, and yells back, "My name is not Dave."

That story epitomizes my attitude from early on. I thought everything in life was about me. I tried to make life's circumstances work out in my favor, often overlooking the consequences to other people. As I traveled to remote parts of the world, I was looking for opportunity to get more for myself. I took more money than I needed. I bought more houses, cars, and clothes than I could ever use in three lifetimes. I took extreme risks with my freedom and life to have more. I never had an idea of what was enough so I could never reach the goal and be content.

During that period of my life, I was generous with what I had, but I had a lot to be generous with. If I had had less, would I have been so generous, or was I just serving my own interest by giving a little when I had a lot? Who the fuck knows? What I do know is, if you are born in an environment where there is little to no food, clothing or shelter, and a constant threat to your safety, and the opportunity to quickly improve all of this [appears], that most children will take it.

There are kids growing up like that every day in our country and around the world. I was one of them, and I know that in order to survive you will take what you can while you can, because there is no hope that tomorrow will be a better day. These are the addicts in waiting.

Paul Krassner's latest book is Pot Stories for the Soul: An Updated Edition for a Stoned America, available at paulkrassner.com.