Paul McCartney followed the long and winding road to jail when he was busted for pot 21 years ago

By Eileen Clarke
Updated January 19, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

On his first trip to Japan since a smash 1966 Beatles tour, Paul McCartney had no reason to expect a hard day’s night. But Jan. 16, 1980, was the beginning of nine of them for the star, who, soon after arriving at Narita International Airport, was led away in handcuffs when customs officials found 7.7 ounces of marijuana in his suitcase.

McCartney was about to begin an 11-concert tour with his wife, Linda, and their band, Wings. But the sold-out shows were canceled as Japanese narcotics control weighed charges against the 37-year-old singer-songwriter. Their stiff drug laws meant that he could face up to seven years in prison for smuggling. Radio stations even announced they would not broadcast any songs composed or arranged by McCartney ”for the time being.”

It wasn’t the singer’s first brush with the law on account of weed. In 1972, he and Linda were arrested in Gothenburg, Sweden, for smuggling six ounces of pot, and were released after paying a fine of roughly $2,000. The following year, McCartney was fined approximately $250 for cultivating cannabis on his farm in the Highlands of Scotland.

Some thought Japanese officials should have just let it be — that McCartney got a raw deal because of his celebrity status. ”If Paul were just some nobody,” said John Lennon in the 1983 biography Dakota Days, ”the customs agent would have pulled the grass out of his bag and said, ‘Don’t be stupid, son, just throw this away over there,’ and that would have been the end of it.”

Even though he wasn’t just ”some nobody,” McCartney received no special treatment in the Tokyo Narcotics Detention Center. He was awakened at six every morning for exercise. Linda was allowed to bring him books but not a guitar. Permitted only two cigarettes a day (he usually smoked a pack), McCartney spent most of his time meditating.

Still, jail wasn’t the hell he had imagined. ”The first thing I expected was rape,” he told Playboy in 1984. ”That was my big fear … So I slept with my back to the wall.” Not that there wasn’t any fraternizing with the inmates. ”They asked me after a week if I wanted a bath, and would I like it privately or with the others,” he told the New York Post. ”All the guards stood at the door grinning and we had a McCartney singsong along with the prisoners and the fans outside.”

On Jan. 25, the prosecutor’s office announced that since the singer had ”shown signs of repentance,” he would be deported. On the flight home to the U.K., McCartney reportedly declared, ”What a dumb thing to do. I’m never going to touch that stuff again.” Never, in this case, would amount to four years, when he was arrested for possession of the same stuff while vacationing in Barbados. Another New Year’s resolution up in smoke.


Time Capsule/Jan. 16, 1980

At the movies, Bob Fosse’s autobiographical All That Jazz, starring Roy Scheider (right), enjoys a long run. In music, Michael Jackson’s ”Rock With You” continues its rise to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. In bookstores, the Supreme Court exposé The Brethren, by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, is a nonfiction best-seller. And in the news, the Carter administration expresses hopes for an alternative ”Free World Olympics” as long as the Soviet Union occupies Afghanistan. The U.S. would ultimately boycott 1980’s Moscow Summer Games.