More than two decades after making the cover of HIGH TIMES, and seven years after his release date, Robert Platshorn remains America's longest-serving marijuana prisoner.
By David Bienenstock
The federal government has given Robert Platshorn three watermelons, along with a very special assignment. He's to carve the watermelons into replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria for an upcoming Columbus Day celebration at the Maxwell Air Force Base Federal Prison Camp in Alabama, where he is better known as prisoner No. 00603-004-the resident garnish chef.
Platshorn is even better known to longtime HIGH TIMES readers as the leader of the Black Tuna Gang, convicted in 1980 of heading the "biggest and slickest" drug ring in US history. The case against the Tunas represented the first joint effort of the DEA and the FBI to investigate profits from the marijuana trade, a campaign that showcased many tactics the Drug Warriors would hone and expand over the next 25 years: sleazy paid informants, so-called expert witnesses, selective prosecution, inflated statistics (see: amount of drugs, street values, size of profit), overt propaganda, naked self-promotion and, most of all, a policy of heartless ass-covering that would make War on Drugs founder Richard Nixon proud.
Platshorn, for his part, has closely followed the War on Drugs from behind bars-at once a first-time, nonviolent offender, America's longest-serving marijuana prisoner and a man who hasn't taken his son fishing since he was four years old. Matthew Platshorn, now 29, is a social worker in Nevada. He contacted HIGH TIMES to raise awareness about a lawsuit his father has filed against the US Parole Commission, claiming that prisoner No. 00603-004 has been incarcerated seven years past his parole-eligibility date. If the suit can prove that the Bureau of Prisons mistakenly (if not maliciously) miscalculated his release date, he could be a free man by the time you read this. If not, the Tuna stays in the can until 2008.
"I believe they made a mistake, and like any government agency they're not real happy to admit it. They're treating me like anyone else they screwed up with and then tried to bury," Platshorn told HIGH TIMES during a phone interview from his home, a conversation interrupted occasionally by a pre-recorded reminder that the call originated from a federal prison. He softens when asked about the campaign spearheaded by his son. "I've been very lucky with him. He's a terrific kid. We've stayed close. I know he was really torn up for years about me being in jail, but he's always kind of kept that in."
Platshorn's dream for life after prison is to publish and sell a book with photos of his most garish garnishes, along with detailed instructions on how to recreate them. He's had plenty of time to work on it, along with a marketing plan that includes infomercials, the Internet and other outlets not yet invented when he was first locked up. As a career path, it would mark a full circle for the subject of HIGH TIMES' September 1981 cover story, who got his start in vegetable art long before moving on to vegetable sales-working his way through college as a pitchman and demonstrator for newfangled products like the Chop-O-Matic, Dial-O-Matic and the frozen-food knife. Platshorn was hired to draw a crowd with his fancy slicing, and then hawk the products to dazzled consumers. A natural salesman, he thrived here and elsewhere, making money in various legitimate industries after dropping out of the University of Miami in 1963. So then why jump the fence into the black market?
"I think it was the atmosphere of the '70s. I owned a chain of speed-reading schools in Europe, and the attitude there was very casual towards pot. And in the States, it seemed it was almost legal, with a market that was available," Platshorn explains. "At that time someone came to me and said, 'I have 500 pounds. Do you know anybody who wants it?'-that was a very attractive proposition. At that time, the average first offender would get three to five years, and usually that would be a suspended sentence. I never thought anyone was serious about putting people away for a long time for marijuana. I honestly thought pot was going to be legalized. That we were only a few years away."