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 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, age 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 to 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's 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 gray-hairs. 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.

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9 comments
Sara Conrad
Sara Conrad

Come visit some seniors here in Colorado who have their red cards, get them on tape. It's just a matter of time before us born in the '50 era move some place warm. Watch what is going on in my state of Colorado.

Robert C
Robert C

Doesn't Ron Paul just want to legalize the sh..? Man it's about time.

MeMet
MeMet

I truly do believe you; With any luck ,, medical authorities will before long open their eyes and comprehend the true capability of health aspects of the weed--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Semi di Cannabis

Slagitor
Slagitor

The " Gipper" didn't take office until Jan., 1981. How could he affect a 1979 trial? Reporters are incredibly lazy. However, the demonizing of marijuana is a crime against humanity, thank you for the interesting story.

Goldleaf Grandma
Goldleaf Grandma

Studies show medical 'weed" has fewer side effects/dangers than some prescribed medication. Im not for or against legalization, but....if a 60, 70, 80 yr old wants to smoke weed in the privacy of his or her home, not driving, and not pimping it out to kids......ive not a problem with it!

seep
seep

I want to buy my weed at Publix, not Walgreens.

Ean
Ean

Keep up the good work, Bobby. We're lucky to have someone like you speaking to your peers and seniors. Florida, Colorado is behind you!

al
al

Bobby,the whole of North America is with you. We need it to be legal on the whole continent. Heck,come to think about it the whole WORLD.

 
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