|Photo: Robert Platshorn
|Robert Platshorn, the Black Tuna, brought a million pounds of Colombian gold to American shores.
If you were an American pothead in the 1970s, you probably smoked some of Robert Platshorn’s weed. His organization brought in tons of fine Colombian when it was considered some of the best pot in the world. And that’s the reason Platshorn later became the longest serving marijuana prisoner in U.S. history, doing 29 years inside the federal prison system.
Much of the primo Colombian flooding the U.S. marijuana market in the late 70s could be traced back to the Black Tuna Gang, a major smuggling ring which once brought 500 tons of pot into the United States over a 16-month period.
I remember well the sweet, potent buds of Santa Marta Gold that were available in 1977 and 1978. Possessed of a soaring sativa high and mind-blowing expansion in the lungs, this ‘lombo weed became the gold standard of connoisseur pot to a generation of appreciative stoners. To this day, I think of Colombian weed every time I hear Rush or Blue Öyster Cult.
The Black Tuna Gang ran an elaborate operation, complete with electronically equipped trucks used to maintain contact with the freighters and to monitor law enforcement.
But the law of averages inevitably and eventually asserts itself. Caught in the first-ever joint DEA/FBI investigation into pot smuggling, Platshorn became the first major marijuana smuggler to pull down a big federal sentence.
On May 1, 1979, Attorney General Griffin Bell called a press conference in Washington, D.C., to announce the arrest and indictment of the Black Tuna Gang. Bell called the Tunas the “slickest, most sophisticated pot smugglers of the 70s.”
The DEA would later claim the Black Tuna Gang brought in between one million and three million pounds of high-grade grass and made more than $300 million.
Dubbed by the prosecutor as the “Black Tuna” himself, Platshorn was convicted in a highly publicized “marijuana conspiracy” trial. The Tuna was sentenced to an incredible 64 years in prison: consecutive terms of 31 years parolable and 33 years non-parolable.
Despite being a first offender with no history of violence, the government cited “broad publicity” as a good reason to ship Platshorn off to federal prison, where he became the longest-serving pot prisoner in American history, doing a blistering 29 years in the federal pen before finally being released in 2008.
If you’ve ever wanted an inside look at the halcyon pot smuggling scene of the 1970s, Platshorn can definitely hook you up. When you read his riveting book, Black Tuna Diaries: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Marijuana Smuggler
, you’ll feel as if you are right there in the cockpit with Robert as he flies in a load of Colombia’s finest.
Platshorn’s well-written book — started while he was still in prison — tells the fascinating story of his life, from his Philadelphia upbringing to his years as an actor, a well-known pitchman, successful entrepreneur, and big game fisherman, all the way to the nation’s top marijuana smuggler.
The last section of the book deals with his 29 years in the federal prison system.
While the story of the Tunas can still be found on the DEA’s website — with the group’s demise touted as one of the agency’s great victories — many insiders say the Black Tuna Gang is in fact the emblem of the feds’ ultimate defeat in the War On Marijuana.
Since his release, Platshorn has become involved in cannabis activism. He has returned to work as a pitchman, spoken to legalization groups, and has helped petition for medical marijuana in Florida.
Robert is an inspiring example of resolute refusal to give up hope. In 2009, he remarried his high school sweetheart, Lynne.
Toke of the Town
was lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with Platshorn, whose book Black Tuna Diaries
is now available in both hardback ($29.95) and paperback ($19.95) editions.
|Photo: Cannabis Cafe
|Connoisseur cannabis, 1970s style: Santa Marta Gold
Toke of the Town: You were there when Santa Marta Gold took the American weed market by storm. How good was it? How would it compare to today’s strains? Was the genetic legacy of those plants preserved?
Platshorn: I brought in most of the real Santa Marta Gold that hit these shores back in the late 1970s. Santa Marta is a built-up area, so only a limited amount was grown — mostly by friends of mine.
It was as potent and tasty as anything grown today. A very UP high. So sticky that one or two tokes would clog the doobie. Makes you wanna dance.
When I appeared recently as panelist at the Cannabis Cup in San Francisco, a grower and geneticist in California told me that he went to the Colombian coast, but could find no trace of the Gold.
I think I know who may still be growing a small amount for personal use.
Toke of the Town: Is any marijuana being commercially grown in Colombia anymore?
Platshorn: Marijuana is still grown and consumed in Colombia. It’s sold openly in most cities. It’s tolerated for Colombian citizens, but not for foreigners.
Toke of the Town: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about the life of a 1970s marijuana smuggler?
Platshorn: There are two misconceptions.
The first is that we all got rich. A big piece of government misinformation. Like any business, most fail.
The second misconception is that it was easy to smuggle into South Florida back in the day. The reality is that there were thousands of police, DEA, FBI, Coast Guard, military, and CIA agents who were
having a field day catching pot smugglers. The government was using planes, boats, radar and hundreds of informants. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Toke of the Town: What do you consider the highlight of your smuggling career? The low point?
Platshorn: The highlight of my smuggling career was being at the controls of a sweet old DC-3, flying into a clandestine mountain airstrip as the sun was coming up over the Colombian Andes.
The low point was being captured by the Colombian Army. It’s all in the opening chapter of my book, Black Tuna Diaries
Toke of the Town: You served more time for weed — 29 years — than any other American pot prisoner (although some lifers will eventually break your record). That’s a big chunk of life that was stolen from you. How do you avoid bitterness about all those stolen years? How do you maintain a positive mental attitude?
|Photo: The Reputation Doctor
|Platshorn spent 29 years in federal prison cells like this one — for marijuana.
Platshorn: I can’t afford to waste what is left of my life being bitter. I look forward, not back.
I left prison dead broke and, like everyone who served a long sentence, I get very little Social Security. Sales of my book pay for my cannabis activism. I need to earn enough for a small house and a modest retirement fund.
When Square Grouper, the documentary based in part on my book, is released, I’m hoping for a lucrative TV or movie deal. In the meantime, I’m scraping out a living speaking and doing book signings.
Toke of the Town: Some of our readers, unfortunately, may find themselves in the position of having to serve some time. What is the most important advice you can give them?
Platshorn: For your readers headed for the slammer: Trust nobody! Convicts know how to con and exploit new fish.
Keep your mouth shut. Tell NO ONE anything about your business, and especially nothing about your FAMILY.
Toke of the Town: What’s the most important thing you wish people would remember about marijuana? What’s the most important thing you wish people would remember about Robert Platshorn?
|Photo: New Criminologist
|Now once again plying his trade as a pitchman, Platshorn is also active in marijuana reform.
Platshorn: The unstated moral of my story is the waste of a valuable life caused by our irrational marijuana laws.
Long before I was a smuggler, I was a successful businessman, TV pitchman and writer. I founded the largest chain of commercial schools in Europe, was the second largest distributor of Breyers ice cream in America, and owned a wholesale auto auction in Miami.
I paid a fortune in taxes and employed more than a hundred people.
All gone, not to mention the devastation to my family.
Toke of the Town: Are there any more books in the works? Do you still have smuggling stories you’d like to tell?
Platshorn: I had to hold back on many good stories when I finalized the manuscript for Black Tuna Diaries. As it is, my book is a bit longer than average.
The story of the indictment, the informers, the six bizarre trials and our conviction will be the subject of my next book.
Many people have asked me to do a book on my 17 years as a pitchman on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, home shows, fairs and on TV. A sample of these adventures is in Black Tuna Diaries and I have enough to fill another book or two.
As you know if you’ve seen the back cover of my book, the late, great pitchman Billy Mays claimed that I was “a legend in the pitch business.”
Watch for upcoming articles by me in High Times and High Times Medical Marijuana. Both are about Irv Rosenfeld, one of the four remaining patients who receive medical marijuana from the federal government.
If you are having an event and you would like to see the Tuna Show, you can contact me or order a copy of Black Tuna Diaries