Does Granny Need Ganja?
Robert "Black Tuna" Platshorn thinks so. After nearly 30 years in federal prison, America's longest-serving pot convict hopes to change the minds of a generation largely predisposed to dismiss the "science" of "medical pot."
Photo via Flickr / CC
Prior to his release in 2008, Robert “Black Tuna” Platshorn spent more time behind bars for marijuana than any other American ever has and maybe ever will, serving nearly thirty years in federal lock up on a first-time, non-violent smuggling conviction. Coincidentally, that's exactly how long the very same federal government has been supplying Irv Rosenfeld with 300 ready-to-smoke joints each and every month.
On Monday, Platshorn and Rosenfeld will travel to Washington, DC, to lobby Congress and speak at a press conference in support of HR 1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013, which would modify the Controlled Substances Act to make any individual or business in compliance with state law immune from federal prosecution. They'll join a broad political coalition in calling for an end to the DEA's ongoing campaign of raids and intimidation, including hundreds of fellow senior citizens bused into the nation's capital as part of Platshorn's Silver Tour, which works to educate the country's most powerful voting block about the many proven benefits of medical cannabis.
“When we started a couple of years ago, seniors didn't talk about marijuana. And the media definitely didn't talk about seniors and marijuana. But that's all changed, which I think has been responsible for a large number of people—especially politicians—re-evaluating their positions,” Platshorn informs me, citing positive press his organization has garnered in The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, plus feature segments on CNN and The Daily Show. “And once legislators see hundreds of white haired old folks walking the halls of Congress, wearing great big credentials that say "76% of Physicians Worldwide Support Medical Marijuana Legalization", with a citation from the New England Journal of Medicine, that will really turn some heads, and maybe even make them afraid to keep supporting the failed status quo.”
Back when he first regained his freedom, Platshorn focused on finishing the memoir he'd started writing in prison, with plans to sell the film rights and spend his golden years living like Jimmy Buffett in the Florida Keys. While on stage at the 2010 Seattle Hempfest, however, in the middle of telling an old smuggling tale that had the crowd at the nation's largest pro-pot event spellbound, he suddenly realized that preaching to the choir felt great, but accomplished little. Meanwhile, all the polls showed that older voters voiced the strongest opposition to legalization in any form, and yet nobody seemed to be reaching out to his generation directly, with a message tailored to their unique needs and concerns.
So, to help educate this geriatric demographic, Platshorn started organizing informational seminars at retirement communities near his South Florida home, where the promise of a free buffet guaranteed him a captive audience willing to listen to just about anything with an open mind. Next, he raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter to produce a 28 minute video called Should Grandma Smoke Pot?, and begin airing it as an infomercial.
A highly successful product pitchman in the Billy Mays vein long before he ever entered the underground ganja business, Platshorn begins each direct appeal by highlighting his own Kafkaesque experience with the War on Weed, to heart-wrenching effect. Then, after describing the racist underpinnings of cannabis prohibition, past and present, and the many government lies told to maintain it, he turns things over to a physician, to run down the science behind medical marijuana, including the fact that it has no lethal dose or dangerous side effects, is non-toxic, won't interfere with prescription medications, and can be used without smoking, or even without getting high. Followed by personal appeals from chronically ill pot patients, a lawyer's perspective on the many harms of the black market, and a call to contact local, state and federal politicians in support of reform.
“When I first heard the idea,” says Irv Rosenfeld (seen above), “I thought it was brilliant and so necessary.”
One of just four surviving members still enrolled in the federal government's long discontinued Compassionate Investigational New Drug program, Rosenfeld was among the Silver Tour's earliest supporters. A successful stockbroker out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, he's smoked over 130,000 marijuana cigarettes grown at the nation's only fully legal pot farm—housed on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Since 1969, that facility has, under contract from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, quietly produced copious amounts of cannabis for research purposes, a mission that expanded in 1982 to include supplying a limited number of patients with free marijuana—all part of an exclusive federal pot club that peaked at just 30 members, and hasn't admitted a new patient in more than 20 years.
Most people don't even know the UMiss facility exists, which suits the government just fine. In fact, Rosenfeld says that only the threat of a media backlash explains why, despite denying “smoked marijuana” has any medical use, the feds continue to supply him and his few remaining cohorts. Also, while the program requires him to submit a detailed report on his health every six months, he suspects they all go unread, lest the authorities learn how safely and effectively cannabis treats his multiple congenital cartilaginous exostoses, a rare and painful bone disorder.
“The amount of scientific knowledge we've gained about the amazing medical properties of marijuana since this program began 37 years ago is staggering, starting with the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, and yet our laws only change in response to lawsuits, voter initiatives and political pressure. Typically, when 85 percent of Americans support something, politicians fall all over themselves trying to jump on board, but that's not happening with medical marijuana, because Big Pharma does not want people to grow their own medicine.”
When Rosenfeld addresses the assembled press in Washington, DC next week, he plans to open by asking how many of them pay federal taxes. “Then I'll pull out my tin can, open it up, pull out a few joints, and say, 'I want to thank each and every one of you for helping to pay for my medicine!'”
Platshorn speaks at a Silver Tour event (via)
Which should provide a natural segue to one of the afternoon's most high-profile speakers, conservative anti-tax advocate extraordinaire Grover Norquist. A consummate beltway power broker, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform has long listed the War on Drugs among the wasteful government programs he'd like to see eliminated, with marijuana prohibition alone estimated to cost taxpayers between $10-14 billion each year. But this will be his most intensely public appearance to champion that cause, and he'll be flanked by strange political bedfellows from the left like progressive Congressman Jared Polis, plus representatives from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Institute of the Black World, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
“Marijuana legalization transcends gender, race, class, geography, and age, so it's encouraging to see people from different backgrounds and generations coming together,” Stacia Cosner, SSDP's 26-year-old Associate Director, says. “Young people and seniors don't share a lot of political views and interests, but this is a unique issue that's no longer on the fringe.”
Among the country's fastest growing on-campus political organizations, SSDP formed in 1998 to help young people fight back against an out-of-control War on Drugs that targets them disproportionately, including a federal provision that strips any student convicted of even a minor drug offense of their financial aid. The group's Washington, DC based leadership originally organized Monday's marijuana lobby day on a much more modest scale than what it quickly morphed into once Platshorn got involved and started raising funds, a process that continues even now, as the event, which includes free transportation and a catered reception, threatens to outgrow its budget.
“He's so dedicated and tenacious,” Cosner says in praise of her elder ally. “He cares deeply about this cause and will go to great lengths to get our message to policymakers and the public.”
The Silver Tour's impending arrival in the nation's capitol will mark an obvious high-point in those efforts, but the old smuggler at the center of things almost got left back at the dock. Platshorn's been battling his local parole officer for more than a year for the right to travel and speak before the public, restrictions that have already denied him “99%” of his former income selling books and signed copies of a popular documentary called Square Grouper that features his story alongside other legendary marijuana smugglers of the 1970s.
Fortunately, at the last minute, perhaps after appeals from friends in high places, the US Parole Commission finally backed down and cleared him to make the trip. And so, while Robert Platshorn will never get back the time he lost, he'll at least get to air his grievances directly to the government that did him so very, very wrong.
Images courtesy Irv Rosenfeld.