By David Bienenstock
Robert Platshorn’s story initially made the cover of HIGH TIMES in 1981, after his infamous Black Tuna Gang got caught up in the first-ever joint FBI/DEA investigation into marijuana smuggling in South Florida. As our seminal coverage of that case showed, the government’s campaign to net the Black Tuna relied as much on propaganda as police work, but Platshorn would nonetheless spend nearly 30 years in federal lockup as a first-time nonviolent offender, earning the dubious distinction of being America’s longest-serving marijuana prisoner.
Those interested in learning more about Platshorn’s days of crime and punishment should pick up a copy of Black Tuna Diaries, a comprehensive memoir that he started behind bars and published shortly after his release in 2008, or else check out the feature-length documentary Square Grouper (Rakontur), which chronicles the Black Tuna Gang’s story along with two other smuggling syndicates from the 1970s.
We caught up with Platshorn, however, to discuss his most recent incarnation as a medical-marijuana activist – particularly his Silver Tour, which brings the true facts about medical marijuana directly to senior citizens. A celebrated pitchman on top of his other talents, the former pot smuggler now believes that personal outreach to retirement-age citizens represents an amazing – and largely untapped – opportunity for those who want to legalize medical marijuana and make inroads with a vital demographic.
More importantly, however, Platshorn understands exactly how many seniors would benefit from a safe, effective herbal medicine without serious side effects. As director of Florida NORML, he’s been working tirelessly with local activists and even lawmakers to make that kind of safe access a reality in the Sunshine State.
When did the idea for the Silver Tour first occur to you?
I was at the Seattle Hempfest, up onstage; there were probably 2,000 people in front of me sending up love. I was telling pot-smuggling stories, having a good time, but then it just hit me: I was preaching to the choir. I actually stopped and looked at the whole audience and said, “This is great, but I’m wasting my time. You people are already on my side! And we all need to go out and talk to somebody who’s not on our side if we’re ever going to repeal prohibition.”
Then, when I came home from Seattle, I had someone come up to me on the tennis court in the senior community where I live – a guy in his seventies – and he told me, “You know, my wife has MS. She’s bedridden, they got her on Oxy and other opiates, and she just lays there in a fugue state most of the time, incoherent. But when I can find something for her to smoke, she has good days; we can do a few things together. Except that I’m scared to death to go out on the street and find something for my wife – because if I get arrested, what’s gonna happen to her?”
A couple of days later, another neighbor told me her doctor recommended marijuana as the best thing for her glaucoma, to relieve the pressure and to help arrest the disease. But she didn’t even know where to go look for it.
Both of them asked me for help, but one wrong word to anybody and I go away for another 10 years. It broke my heart to turn both of them down, and that’s really what made me decide to focus on seniors. Also, when the exit polls from Proposition 19 in California showed that seniors had voted 65 percent against legalization – I mean, that’s my generation. We brought pot into the mainstream! And it occurred to me that these seniors voted against legalization because they’re easy to frighten, and nobody from our side was reaching out to them directly.
And how do you begin to allay their fears?
There are thousands upon thousands of senior communities in this country, and it can be an automatic audience if you give them a free buffet. So you don’t have to spend a lot on advertising. Meanwhile, I’ve got the Silver Tour show very carefully structured. You know, I was a pitchman for a long time, for Vitamix more than anything else, which is a health pitch. So I know how to construct a story.
I start with the history of marijuana and how it was outlawed – hemp and Hearst and DuPont and things that are standard stuff to you and me and all the activists, but it’s not standard stuff to the people in my audience. They’re amazed to discover the true origins of prohibition and all the lies that were told, like that marijuana causes violence and has to be kept from the “inferior races.” I even repeat some quotes from – what’s his name? The original head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics?
Yeah, I lay on a couple of direct quotes from Anslinger, which gets their attention. That’s when I hand it over to a doctor or a nurse – always someone who’s had years of experience in treating people with cannabis. This really answers almost all of their questions before they’re asked. Seniors want to know that there’s a way to use this medicine without smoking, that there’s no such thing as an overdose, that it won’t interfere or interact with the medications they’re already taking. Once they hear those facts directly from a doctor or nurse, they go from skepticism to creating a demand.
And that’s when I make sure they hear personal stories from patients who have actually used medical marijuana. I’ve been so fortunate to have Irv Rosenfeld – one of four people who still receive medical marijuana directly from the federal government – with me almost every place I go. Just as important is having someone local who’s got a story to tell. At the show that CNN covered, Karen Goldstein, who’s president of my NORML chapter, spoke about her daughter, an epileptic who had to move out to California just so that she could legally access cannabis medicine. Karen’s daughter used to have very serious episodes, but for the last 11 years she’s eliminated them entirely by using cannabis along with prescription drugs.
As the audience well knows, however, her daughter can’t come to Florida without risking either arrest or a serious epileptic episode – and that’s a story that hits home very hard in these communities. It brings tears to their eyes. At which point, I have a lawyer explain what the local legal conditions are for medical marijuana, and what can be done to improve them. At the last show, I also had Jeff Clemens, a Democratic representative in the Florida State Legislature from West Palm Beach, who’s been backing a bill that would not only bring medical marijuana to our huge senior population, but also save the state a ton of money in arrests and create tax revenue and jobs in a really poor economy.
After all that, almost 100 percent of the audience is willing to call their elected officials and send letters. At the last Silver Tour show, we generated over 400 calls to two Republican legislators in Tallahassee.
So instead of standing in the way of legalization, seniors help lead the way. And what message does it send to politicians when they hear directly from the senior community?
It gets them over the fear that the old folks are going to vote them out office for supporting medical marijuana, which makes them a lot less hesitant to do so.
Back in your smuggling days, were you aware that marijuana is such a safe, powerful medicine?
When I went to prison, I knew two things about medical marijuana. One, it really was critical that anyone on chemotherapy have access to it. I knew that because my sister and some other people very close to me died of cancer – and when they were in chemo, their doctors whispered it in their ears. Second, I knew that it could reduce ocular pressure almost instantly, relieving the symptoms of glaucoma and maybe even slowing or stopping its progress. That was the extent of my knowledge, and it really didn’t go beyond that the whole 30 years I was incarcerated.
The light bulb really lit in 2008, when you invited me to come out to the national NORML convention in San Francisco and sign books at the HIGH TIMES table. That’s where I first met patients with a host of different ailments and began to see the progress they made. I met people with MS and Parkinson’s, and when they told me their stories, I was really impressed.
Aside from fighting injustice and helping to make the world a better place, what do you personally get out of working with the marijuana activist community?
It’s given me focus. When I first got out of prison, I set out to publish my memoirs, sell the movie rights, buy a house in the Keys and be Jimmy Buffett. When I first went out on a book-signing tour, being an activist was not on my agenda.
But then I woke up one morning and just felt like there was something that had to be done – and maybe I had a unique talent to help make it happen. You know, a pitchman at the end of his pitch measures success by the amount of money that comes in over the table: How many Vitamixes did I sell? How many Ginsu knives? I still love the feeling that I’ve actually done something measurable. That’s been my life no matter what I was doing: I want to see results. And with the Silver Tour, I can see results at the end of the show. I can see how many people sign the letter, make a phone call, or drop a couple of bucks in the kitty to say “Good work” and “Keep going.”
Back in the day, did you conceive of your smuggling as a political act, an act of civil disobedience or ….
Absolutely. My generation thought that we could debunk all the government’s lies and legalize pot. We were all great believers – and this is in terms of full legalization, because medical wasn’t really on the horizon back then.
We thought we were part of what was making legalization happen, because we were creating a steady supply of first-class product for the first time in the history of this country. You have to keep in mind that there was very little homegrown at the time – so we were the ones that opened the door to high-quality marijuana being readily available in most of the country. It was going up to supply Wall Street and the auto industry in Michigan, but mostly it was distributed in the college towns. Our customers were graduate students, and then it would filter through them into the business community and the general public. So, yeah, it was definitely a political statement – which I really enjoyed – as well as the adventure and making money.
Last question: How do you avoid getting frustrated, when it’s so obvious that pot should be legal and readily available to any adult? We face all this propaganda and government interference for trying to do something good, and I’m wondering how you stay inspired and keep moving forward.
Okay, but it’s a shocker, David: The truth is, I don’t feel frustrated.
Working with great allies in Florida, we’ve decriminalized three townships, we’ve gotten two medical-marijuana bills introduced in the legislature, and I know I can help out in California, Colorado and every other state ready to move forward. I can see the difference we’re making with the national media coverage of the Silver Tour, not one word of which has been bad.
The only thing that frustrates me is: There’s only one of me, and I can’t teach other people how to be pitchmen. I mean, you gotta be a Billy Mays, a Ron Popeil, a guy from the boardwalk to really know how.
For more information, including video of a complete Silver Tour event, check out thesilvertour.org.
By David Bienenstock