Pubdate: Thu, 09 Feb 2012
Source: Miami New Times (FL)
Copyright: 2012 New Times, Inc.
Author: Gus Garcia-Roberts


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.

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 on board. 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 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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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom