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Coachella Founder Once Ran Pot Smuggling Operation

Thirty years ago, Gary Tovar smuggled marijuana into the U.S. while helping to spur the homegrown industry.

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By Shawn Dwyer

04/17/14

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Gary Tovar, founder of Goldenvoice Productions, which puts on the popular Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, has claimed in a wide-ranging interview with The Guardian that he was once California’s biggest marijuana smuggler.

"When I was doing both my things – smuggling and concerts – I considered them crusades," Tovar said. "Now I think we won on both ends. Our music won - you can hear a Ramones song in an elevator - and we won on the marijuana front."

Tovar began smuggling illicit goods when he was 14 years old, transporting fireworks from Tijuana, Mexico into California. He graduated to pot sometime in the late 1960s by distributing seeds he obtained from LaRue, a guru in Timothy Leary’s Brotherhood of Eternal Love, who himself smuggled hashish from East Asia.

Throughout the 1980s, Tovar used the money he made from smuggling to finance an array of punk bands, including GBH, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Damned. But eventually, the feds caught up with Tovar in March 1991 when agents arrested him in Los Angeles.

"It was Ronald Reagan's 'Just Say No' era. There was hysteria,” he said. “They were telling schoolchildren to tell on their parents. It was a total waste of time and money, and a waste of people's lives." Tovar successfully fought off conspiracy charges, but wound up imprisoned for seven years in October 1992 on four counts of drug trafficking in Arizona.

Now legit, Tovar saw his Goldenvoice business partner, Paul Tollett, launch Coachella in 1999 and has claimed something of a victory with the recent push for marijuana legalization across the country.

“You could say I feel gratified," he said.

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