Pot Smuggler Schools Seniors on Medical Marijuana

They heard about it at their bridge games, or from the corkboard at the senior center, or through their grandkids who use the internet. Then they carpooled to Temple Shaarei Shalom in Boynton Beach on this recent Sunday afternoon — trios of little old ladies with short white hair and thin sweaters and wizened men reading the Sun-Sentinel while wearing clunky black shades indoors. Now the 200-plus attendees — most of them seniors — are snacking on mushroom quiche and iced tea while discussing the myriad health benefits of getting high. "I've had a cookie," confesses Natalie, a gregarious, bird-boned 84-year-old woman with a Bronx accent. She means a marijuana cookie. "It took away my nausea and my back pain. I grew a plant once. I had to throw it out because the gardener was looking at it."

Billy Johnson, a 75-year-old fellow in a slick fedora and therapeutic sneakers, would like to take a Jack LaLanne approach to marijuana. "I'm wondering if I can find a few leaves and squeeze some juice out of them," he ruminates, "to help my joints."

The man who organized this gathering is a strange sort of rabbi. Stubby and charismatic with a crown of white hair, Robert Platshorn is stopped by a cane-toting elderly guy. "You're a hero," says the 84-year-old, who's wearing a ball cap commemorating his Vietnam service. "I was in [the military for] three wars, but you're the hero."

Platshorn, 69, is choked up by the praise. He's a convicted pot smuggler who spent three decades in federal prison as the leader of the Black Tuna Gang, as detailed in the recent documentary Square Grouper and before that in the pages of this publication. But these days, he's among Florida's most prominent activists in the growing push to legalize medical marijuana. Joint resolutions have been filed in the state House and Senate to put the issue up for a public vote.

And in the most elderly state in the nation, seniors are front-and-center in the debate over legalized pot. The senator who sponsored the bill is Miami's Larcenia Bullard, a 64-year-old Democrat with heart problems. The purported benefits of medical marijuana — including alleviating pain, quelling nausea, promoting sleep, easing the side effects of chemotherapy, and reducing inflammation — seem tailor-made for older folks. And it's a weed that can be grown in a garden. The main reason Platshorn is traveling the state on his "Silver Tour," teaching seniors at synagogues and nursing homes about medical benefits and legislation concerning marijuana: "Old people vote," Platshorn says matter-of-factly, as a lady wearing two pairs of glasses on her forehead tugs his blazer sleeve, trying to book him at her social club. "Nothing scares a politician like an elderly constituent."

Platshorn never expected to become an activist. He spent the '70s smuggling about 500 tons of Colombian skunk into Miami harbors. The Black Tuna Gang — as his stoner crew was dubbed on DEA radio chatter — used cigarette boats with modified hulls and wore gold medallions etched with impressions of fish. Platshorn is a former Atlantic City pitchman who claims that with Jimmy Carter as president, he was simply planting his flag in an emerging industry. "I thought legalization was around the corner."

But then came Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs. The Black Tuna Gang was the Gipper's first significant casualty. An informant was the key to a massive federal sting. During a 1979 trial, prosecutors claimed Platshorn plotted the assassination of a judge and bribed jurors. He was cleared of those accusations, which he calls "completely false." He was sentenced to 64 years in prison and served 29 in Illinois' Marion supermax. That's the most time ever done in the States for a marijuana offense.

Less than four years ago, Platshorn was stranded in a halfway house in West Palm Beach, unable to hold a 9-to-5 job. His first wife and 12-year-old daughter had died of lupus and an asthmatic condition, respectively, while he was in the can. When he married his second wife, Lynne, he told her not to take his last name. "I didn't want the world to see her as an ex-con's wife," he explains. "I would have never thought then that I'd be called a hero."

Platshorn says the issue of medical marijuana found him. After he self-published his memoir, The Black Tuna Diaries, folks would come up to him at Golden Lakes Village, the senior community in West Palm Beach where he lives. "My wife has MS," Platshorn says one elderly man told him. "The only good day she has is when we can find her something to smoke. Can you help me?"

A return to prison loomed if he named a dealer, so Platshorn denied the ganja-seeking grayhairs. But he became active in his local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), where he is now a director. And about a year ago, he spoke at Miami Beach City Hall and collected signatures as part of the effort to decriminalize marijuana. Finally, Bobby Tuna and friends succeeded in getting an initiative on the ballot, though no date has been set for the vote.

Since 1996, 16 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical pot. Colorado paid a portion of its budget shortfall in 2010 with taxes from cannabis dispensaries. But confusion still reigns around the country, with feds raiding farms and dispensaries in states that have legalized medical marijuana.

After watching seniors help defeat the pot-decriminalizing Proposition 19 in California, Platshorn realized that Florida needed to get the elderly onboard. With High Times and a local bong company among its sponsors, his Silver Tour has held five events since October, including the one at the Boynton Beach temple. He has brought the old-folks weed show to a women's club at Century Village in Pembroke Pines and the recreation center of his own senior community in West Palm Beach. The crowds have been earnest and increasing in size, always topping a hundred. Platshorn says that he now pays some of his expenses but that the tour — which accepts donations — is still in the red.

The Temple Shaarei event is a barnburner. Platshorn's speakers include Rep. Jeff Clemens, the Lake Worth Democrat who sponsored the House medical cannabis bill last March and who urges the seniors in attendance to spread the word during their card games. Also present is Irv Rosenfeld, one of a handful of Americans who receive federal medical marijuana, which helps him cope with a tumorous disease. Standing on the bimah under a Star of David, he waves his baggie of government green while lamenting the absurdity of law-abiding grandparents feeling paranoid about exploring their medical options. "There are people who aren't here today because they're worried about the DEA taking down license plates in the parking lot."

When he takes the pulpit, Platshorn says he plans to stage the same show on the floor of the Legislature in Tallahassee. "For the first time, we stand a good chance of getting something done in this state," he booms into a microphone, sparking hearty applause from the elderly audience. "You know, they told me it would never happen!"

In the meantime, old folks will still have to resort to skullduggery for their weed. One 84-year-old audience member and war veteran, who asked that he be referred to only as Shane, tells this reporter that he likes to take three puffs from a marijuana pipe after dinner to help ease the pain from his high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. When he recently moved from California, he brought a "considerable amount" of medical marijuana with him in his car. He was pulled over, but luckily the cop didn't search the vehicle. "I was shitting, to tell you the truth," he says. "I've never been arrested. That still sticks with me, how close I came to becoming a criminal."

His California stash is running low, which is why he scans the crowd conspiratorially. "I came here partly in the hopes that I might make a connection."

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Gus Garcia-Roberts