Saturday, July 19, 2014
37 Tons of David Victorson: A Tale of Ballsy Redemption
How a brash and colorful big time outlaw drug dealer addict who smuggled record-breaking amounts of marijuana became a brash outspoken popular healer of addicts and defender of AA.
“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 ten-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.