When John Belushi approached Steven Spielberg in 1981 to make a film about the Gentlemen Smugglers, the director replied, “You’re asking me to turn smugglers into heroes. America’s not ready for that.” Fast-forward four decades, and the story of South Carolina’s most legendary cannabis importers, who became the primary target of the first presidential sting in the War on Drugs, is now a tale about overcoming impossible odds to enter and inspire the legal market. Or as the brand’s co-founder/Creative Director Kevin Harrison likes to say, “We feel America is ready now.”
Watch the Gentlemen Smugglers sizzle reel:
Who Are The Gentlemen Smugglers?
To understand the journey, we must start with understanding Gentlemen Smugglers as both an organization and a brand. The cannabis brand, created by Barry “Flash” Foy, Thomas Cutler, and Kevin Harrison, was officially launched in September 2022, bringing their products to market with the help of Massachusetts-based company Root and Bloom.
But there would be no business without Foy’s colorful history – in 1971, he led a group of young men who began operating an international cannabis trafficking ring that would eventually bring over 250 tons of the plant into the United States. Foy and his colleagues would sail boats across the world, often from Jamaica, Colombia, and Lebanon, through the marshes of the Eastern Seaboard and use their home base in South Carolina as the main U.S. entry point. Known for their college educations and aversion to violence, they were called “the Gentlemen Smugglers.” In time, their numbers would swell to more than 30, but later records would indicate that far more were connected to the business.
“Even though they coined me as the criminal kingpin,” Foy says today, “I knew in my heart and soul that what was going on was the right thing to be doing.” Full of Southern hospitality and charm, Foy recalls that what initially drew him to cannabis was his love of music and the changing sense of justice that pervaded youth culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His roommate at the University of South Carolina introduced him to weed, and as the two grew disillusioned with college, they went to nightclubs where they met infantry soldiers about to depart for Vietnam, who were anxious for the relief the plant provided.
“That had a profound effect on me,” Foy remembers. “A lot of these guys probably wouldn’t come back from the war alive, and they were in their last bits of hoorah. I was in school at the time, which probably kept me from going through hell in Vietnam… But it’s ironic that most of my earliest customers were in the U.S. military. [What] caught on in my mind was, it made people happy. We didn’t know about cannabis then as we do today, but we knew it was helpful. It made you feel good, it took away some of your pain. I felt good about [becoming] a dealer.”
Gentlemen Smugglers Versus Operation Jackpot: Defying The War On Drugs
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Foy, Les Riley, and Bob Byers established their successful smuggling operation, moving cannabis around the globe with unlikely allies such as an all-female boating crew. Truth be told, “female pirates” like Capt. Judy and Miami Tammy were instrumental to the success of the smugglers. They also unavoidably ended up on the government’s radar. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a federal task force dubbed “Operation Jackpot” was convened to track down major cannabis traffickers, with specific targets on the Gentlemen Smugglers. For the first time in history, the FBI, IRS and DEA worked together to bring down an illegal enterprise. And if it wasn’t enough for our Robin Hood-like heroes to evade those bureaucratic powers, they also had to fight a childhood friend. Henry McMaster (now governor of South Carolina) was Reagan’s chosen federal agent to run Operation Jackpot, and he had gone to high school with Foy.
Ultimately over 100 men and women were arrested and convicted on cannabis-related charges under Operation Jackpot, including all the major Gentlemen Smugglers. Foy, convicted in 1985, was sentenced to 18 years in prison but was released in 1996 for good behavior. Riley spent 17 years incarcerated and now lives on Seabrook Island, considering himself retired from cannabis. Bob Byers passed away in 2004 behind bars. The historic game of cat-and-mouse that preceded their fates is detailed in Jason Ryan’s bestselling book Jackpot, published in 2011. But Ryan himself seemed to focus more on the triumph of McMaster and federal investigators than the injustice of the government’s War on Drugs; even press coverage on the book would often refer to the Gentlemen Smugglers as “villains.”
Today, Foy is telling his own truth to a world that’s more apt to agree that no one should be imprisoned for cannabis. In October 2022, only weeks after the Gentlemen Smugglers cannabis brand launched, President Joe Biden announced that he would pardon people who had been federally convicted of simple cannabis possession. While the practical effects of this announcement have fallen short for several communities in the cannabis space, it’s undeniably a far cry from Reagan and McMaster’s draconian Operation Jackpot.
Creating The Gentlemen Smugglers Cannabis Brand
“It’s rare that you have the opportunity to build a brand on such an authentic and deeply layered story,” notes Thomas Cutler. An Emmy-winning media executive whose work over the last 25 years has pioneered the true crime genre, Cutler partnered with Harrison to help narrativize Foy’s sensational life through a feature documentary. “[Gentlemen Smugglers] is all about the definition of legacy, honoring Barry and the others, really leaning into their epic adventure and journey, but also looking at how it relates to everything that’s going on today.”
“This did not start off as us trying to make a cannabis company,” Harrison emphasizes. “But in working on the documentary, a lightbulb went off. We realized we needed to get ahead of this brand and the obvious was staring us in the face: Why don’t we start a legal cannabis business?”
That’s precisely what they did. Through Cutler and Harrison’s work with Foy on the branding, Gentlemen Smugglers (www.gentlemensmugglers.com) as a company has grown into a force in a very short amount of time. The strength of the history has empowered them to go viral, with their content shared by thousands of fans on social media worldwide, even winning ADCAN’s Best American Social Media Award. Meanwhile, the brand’s merchandise line has been joined by an increasing number of flower strains, including Apple Jack (Cutler’s favorite), Platinum Kush Breath, Mimosa, Garlic Z, and Cookies & Cream. No word yet on whether future cultivars will feature Foy’s favorites, Blue Dream and Landrace, but cannabis enthusiasts can wish it into the ether.
This summer, principal photography will be starting on the Gentlemen Smugglers documentary, and companion podcast. “The story behind the smugglers is so robust and powerful… for the big screen,” Foy comments. “The guy who put me away in South Carolina, [McMaster], said, ‘If it happened anywhere else, like New York or California, Hollywood would have come along and made a movie. It’s that good and it’s all true.’”
Cutler states that one of his favorite moments in pre-production on the documentary happened when he and Harrison had just wrapped up interviewing E. Bart Daniel, one of the U.S. prosecutors who had been integral to the case. “We finished interviewing Bart, and right then Barry was walking into the very same room, and we went, ‘Is this going to be okay?’ But sure enough, they sat down and Kevin and I were flies on the wall. Listening to these two guys on either side of it from 30 years ago – they hadn’t seen each other in awhile – they just started talking. Because there was no murder and no violence, because it was years of an epic chase and so hard for law enforcement to get Barry and these guys… there was an element of mutual respect. There was one moment where Bart said, ‘Barry, I’ve always been curious about this one time you guys got away from the customs house.’ Barry said, ‘I remember that. And I’ll tell you, Bart. You guys were watching us, but you have to remember we were watching you too.’ They were laughing, and it was just amazing. It was a moment from a movie.”
What's Next For Gentlemen Smugglers?
Indeed, Foy may be carrying his Catch Me If You Can-style exploits into the cannabis space at the perfect time. This go-round, not only will he find the warm reception he deserves, but he, Cutler, Harrison and the team are using their storytelling powers to support those still suffering under incarceration. The Gentlemen Smugglers brand has partnered with the restorative justice nonprofit Last Prisoner Project (LPP) on a number of campaigns. Notably, the Pardons to Progress campaign builds on President Biden’s call to state governors to grant clemency to the thousands of people imprisoned on nonviolent cannabis charges. LPP also recently announced the launch of The Pen to Right History, the organization’s newest initiative that uses handwritten letters and the compelling words of prisoners’ families to highlight the injustice of prohibition and demand their loved ones’ freedom. Supported by brand giant McCann New York, The Pen to Right History is an advocacy campaign like none other, and one the Gentlemen Smugglers team is honored to be a part of.
Check out the first video from The Pen to Right History campaign:
“Wherever we go, we’re going to do work with local nonprofits and community organizations,” Foy predicts as Gentlemen Smugglers continues to grow. “We’re looking at options now of how to share some of our profit with different communities and programs. But that’s definitely one of our mission points.”
“We’re also helping to change the collective mindset,” Harrison adds. “My dad’s 82, and he’s saying to me, ‘Oh, I hear that [cannabis] is good for you now.’ Little by little it’s breaking down those walls of preconceived fear-based rhetoric that’s been drilled into everybody since the 1930s.”
As the trio of Foy, Cutler and Harrison know well, it takes a combination of culture and advocacy to penetrate those barriers. Such clever maneuvering is what Foy has done his entire career. He’s been inside the cultural consciousness, from inspiring Jimmy Buffett’s song “A Pirate Looks at 40” to (legend has it) creating a template for Morgan Freeman’s Red in The Shawshank Redemption, since Foy was known during his incarceration as the man who could get anything for anybody. Now, he’s able to provide that ingenuity openly to the communities that need it most and return to the plant that first helped him find his genius.
“It was a comedy of errors,” Foy admits of his smuggling days. “There was a lot of improv because nothing you plan goes exactly right… But truly, back in the day and all the way to now, cannabis brings a good feeling. It prevails today. We march to that beat, and hopefully we can share that with the world.”
We can’t wait to see what kind of music the Gentlemen Smugglers will make next in the non-linear jazz of the cannabis industry. But whatever the next notes may be, we bet they’ll catch the world by surprise.
For more information about the Gentlemen Smugglers brand and upcoming projects, visit gentlemensmugglers.com. Also check out the official Gentlemen Smugglers Spotify Playlist!
To learn more about Last Prisoner Project, visit lastprisonerproject.org. For more on how to support The Pen to Right History, click here. To support the Pardons to Progress campaign, click here.
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Featured image: The Gentlemen Smugglers in the 1970s; leader Barry "Flash" Foy is on the far left. Courtesy of Barry Foy.