Going To Pot With The Makers Of Square Grouper

South Florida weed smugglingTwenty-eight years.

That’s how long Robert Platshorn spent behind bars, a prisoner for smuggling marijuana in and out of South Florida.

The length of time makes him a candidate for entry into the Guinness Book of World Records: Longest time spent in the pokey for moving pot.

Today, the Philadelphia-born Platshorn, now grey and in his late sixties, is a free man.

He’s also one of the key people featured in the movie Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, now on DVD, an insightful, highly entertaining look at South Florida weed smuggling in the 1970s. The film’s directed by Billy Corben, who also helmed the acclaimed Cocaine Cowboys and Cocaine Cowboys 2, about coke dealing in the Sunshine State.

Platshorn was the leader of the notorious Black Tuna Gang, a group of young entrepreneurs who decided to cash in on the desire for marijuana, moving over 500 tons of the stuff until they were indicted in 1978.

In Square Grouper—which is slang for bales of marijuana thrown overboard or out of an airplane—Platshorn, his associates and some of the authorities in the case talk about the circumstances which led to his stiff prison sentence.

Something that didn’t help his cause was the allegation that he and his compadres had targeted a federal judge for assassination. Platshorn maintains the story was totally fabricated and used to build the government’s case against him.

Also showcased in the three-part film is the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, a spinoff of the Rastafaris who believed marijuana was a sacred herb, and started their own religion, church and business around the weed. Finally, another segemt of Square Griouper is dedicated to the denizens of Everglades City, who delved into pot smuggling after their swampy turf was named a national park.

Platshorn knew all of the featured parties and was involved with the production of Square Grouper from the get-go.

“They (the producers) had heard I was doing a book and asked if they could see the manuscript,” recalls Platshorn from a Philadelphia hotel located only a few blocks from where he grew up. “They told me they were thinking of doing a pot movie. One thread that goes through the film is my wife (who he was with when they were teenagers, divorced and are now remarried) and I saw that as the hook. I knew that if they read my book that they would find a thread there.”

Choosing which group of drug smugglers to focus on was not a difficult task according to Billy Corben, the film’s director and co-producer with his company Rakontur.

“All three of the groups here were used by the federal authorities as press release cases,” he explains. “They would say these were the three most significant gangs working out of Miami.

“Of course, everybody claims to have been in the drug business in Miami back in the old days. Eighty percent of the people in the city who have been down there say they were in the trade. That was the nature of marijuana then.”

Platshorn says that unlike director Corben’s previous Cocaine Cowboy films, there was no violence in this story. He also came aboard because no one working with Corbin’s production company knew much about the era, because they were too young.

Platshorn today

Platshorn’s self-published book, Black Tuna Diaries (available at www.blacktunadiaries.com), was penned while he was in a variety of prisons. “I wrote it on a manual typewriter with handwritten corrections,” Platshorn says. “I had to write it on the sneak and hide it behind writs I was working on and smuggle it out. In prison, you are only allowed to do legal work on the typewriters.”

Platshorn’s autobiographical tome chronicles his amazing roller coaster life, growing up as a juvenile gang member in South Philly, becoming a prominent pitchman on the Atlantic City boardwalk, morphing into a successful businessman with dreams of law school before he became a drug smuggler and, now, a spokesperson for NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).

While pot was illegal during his years using high tech smuggling methods, car dealerships and banks with Miami’s swanky Fountainbleau Hotel serving as his gang’s headquarters, Platshorn never felt guilty about his endeavors.

“I grew up with marijuana, so it was no big deal,” says Platshorn. “I thought it was going to be legalized during the Carter Administration. He said the penalty should never be worse than the drug.”

According to Platshorn, everything changed when a close confidante of Carter got busted. The president, Platshorn explains, got tremendous pressure from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) and FBI.  At one point, Griffin Bell, Carter’s attorney general, wanted to disband the DEA.

“I went down to Florida and got into the marijuana business. Not deliberately.  Someone came to me and said, ‘Do you know how I can get rid of 1500 pounds of pot.’ And I said, ‘Yeh, I got a friend in Philadelphia.’”

“I never felt that marijuana was slightly an anti-social drug,” he says. “I thought it was a social drug. At the university, the smokers weren’t the binge drinkers who were dangerous—dangerous to themselves. Smokers were peace, love and hippies and if you don’t have some, I will give you some.”

Platshorn noted that 26 states eventually decriminalized marijuana to one degree or another. “In Alaska, you could have up to what was 200 pounds and not break the law,” he says.

“So that was the trend, and we felt that at best we had a year or two to do it illegally, and then transition into the legal side of business. Then we figured we’d already have friends in Columbia because that was the best place to get marijuana. People we dealt with there were educated landowners and businessmen, entirely different than the coke people.

“My best friend (Raul Davilo-Jimeno) was the largest cattle breeder in the country, third largest cotton grower, and fourth or fifth largest coffee grower. Marijuana was something they were making money on, and it was a trend of the time.”

Platshorn had no worries regarding his newfound career. “I thought if we did get in trouble the penalty was two-five years, which were often suspended. Most pot purveyors had no criminal records, no background in crime. I had never been arrested in my life. But it all changed under Carter. We caught the first kingpin charge for marijuana, along with RICO charges, but the kingpin charges were much larger. I appealed and appealed up to six months before I got out, then I filed a suit after I got out.”

Corben says that getting the folks of Everglades City, a town with a population of about 500 in which everyone knows each other, to talk wasn’t easy at first.

“Our producer, Lindsay Snell, opened up Everglades City for us,” explains Corben, a Florida native who has films about the 1980s New York City nightclub scene and backyard mixed martial arts fighting in post-production right now. “You can sit down at a bar and people tell you smuggling stories, but when you ask questions they get suspicious. She went out there for six months, she’s smart and beautiful and has a wooden leg when it comes to drinking, so they opened up to her.

“Ten days before she’s done, this woman gets drunk, comes up to her and pulls a knife on her, then says ‘What do you know about my granddaddy, you bitch?’ The men Lindsay befriended helped out. Sent her away kicking and screaming from the bar. That’s why they call Everglades City ‘the last frontier.’”

Robert Platshorn—aka “Robby Tuna”—is happy with how Square Grouper has turned out, but hopes to someday be involved with a movie expressly about his life based on his book. And who could he see playing him?

He thinks for a second.

“Well, Errol Flynn is dead,” he says. “After Errol Flynn, it’s all a disappointment.”