What can smugglers tell us about the state? Few observers are more keenly attuned than smugglers to the subtleties of how borders and regulations are enforced in actual practice. However, few actors are more tight-lipped with this kind of knowledge. This article examines a rare instance where a smuggler details exactly how – and more importantly why – laws, borders and bureaucracies can be subverted. We follow the tortuous journey of several tons of charas, a potent form of cannabis, as it is transported legally from the Himalayas across the Indian Ocean and is eventually smuggled into Egypt. In the process, the article demonstrates how colonial bureaucracies are both sustained and undermined by an internal racial hierarchy in which ‘natives’ are the face of the state in relation to the colonized public and Europeans are the face of the state in relation to the metropolitan public. Drawing on the insights of smugglers, I term this the janus-faced nature of colonial governance, which simultaneously condoned corruption and shielded colonial officials from its consequences.