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Born in Newfoundland, he first worked as a minor drug dealer in the province. Moving up he became an importer of marijuana to Canada from the United Kingdom. After being arrested on a minor charge in Canada he served a brief sentence before moving to Jamaica, where he coordinated marijuana and cocaine smuggling operations going from Colombia to the United States and Canada.
Moving to California, he became one of the leaders in exporting marijuana from Southeast Asia in the years after the Vietnam War. Using fishing vessels as cover he brought boatloads of drugs into the pacific northwest United States. Controlling a trucking company, two hundred-foot fishing vessels, and a workforce of 120, O'Dea and crew imported hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of marijuana to ports in Washington at the business' peak in the early 1980s. He and his partners would then sell the drugs throughout the U.S.
Under increasing threat from the Drug Enforcement Administration, he quit the business in 1986, but his life declined and he became addicted to drugs. After suffering an overdose in 1988 he rejected drugs, becoming a drug and alcohol addiction counselor. Three years later, however, the DEA finally had assembled a case against him and arrested him. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years in jail, being transferred to the Springhill Penitentiary in Canada in 1992.
In 1993 he was paroled and became a venture capitalist in Toronto. He attracted much media attention when, in 2001, he published a long advertisement in the National Post, advertising his executive management skills and being blatantly upfront about his past, arguing it was the greatest proof of his abilities. He went on to become a television and film producer, producing a number one show, Creepy Canada, on two Canadian networks.
He wrote the book HIGH: Confessions of a Pot Smuggler, released 11 April 2006 (published by Random House), in July (by Virgin Books in the UK and Australia), and in May 2009 by Other Press for the USA market. His book won the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award for Best True Crime Book.
In 2012, O'Dea appeared as Kevin O'Leary's advisor on the CBC Television Reality TV Show Redemption Inc., a show where ex-convicts compete for a chance to have Kevin O'Leary invest in their legitimate start-up business, and earn redemption. O'Dea's role was to serve as a sort of liaison between the ex-convicts and the rest of the show. For O'Leary, he explains the ex-convict's world (including arranging for O'Leary to spend a night in prison), giving him an idea of where they need to be accommodated and where not. For the ex-convicts, he serves as a mentor during the game challenges, helping them work through their personal challenges as someone who knows what they have been through, how they think, and what their issues might be in a way that would not be as trusted as someone who had not been there, and gotten through it.
- Charlie Gillis (19 February 2001). "'I can do anything an MBA can' Reformed criminal's moment of truth". National Post (Canada). Archived from the original on 20 February 2001. Retrieved 20 February 2001.
- Brian O'Dea (2009). High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler. Other Press. ISBN 159051310X.
- "About The Show". CBC. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
- "Redemption, Inc. Season One, Episode One". CBC. Jan 9, 2012. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
- "Bait and Switch/Trust Me/Snap Judgment". Retrieved 26 February 2014.