Documentary follows the highs and lows of a weed-smuggler

Posted: April 11, 2011

Robert Platshorn, 68, grew up on South Street. He speaks in a comforting baritone and has the leathery tan of a Palm Beach retiree. In 2008, he was released from prison after an almost 30-year incarceration for smuggling weed into South Florida.

But the single-most-defining feature of Robert Platshorn's life is his undying love for his wife, Lynne, who got his attention with the offer of a chocolate-chip cookie in the halls of Cherry Hill High School.

"I wasn't used to living in a suburban neighborhood. I lived in a tough-guy neighborhood, and I didn't know how to communicate with those people, but she nailed me with a chocolate-chip cookie. I'm walking by, 'Hey, come here,' " he said, remembering how she beckoned with her finger. "Would you like a cookie?

"Here we are 50 years later."

Bobby and Lynne's story is the centerpiece of "Square Grouper," a documentary about the marijuana trade in South Florida from the makers of "Cocaine Cowboys." "Square Grouper" plays Cinefest tomorrow at the Painted Bride. The film brought Platshorn back to Philadelphia for the first time since his release from prison.

Before he was arrested, Platshorn's main experience with crime was as a member of the South Street Gang, which consisted of a group of kids armed with water pistols and peashooters terrorizing shop owners, who Platshorn considered almost family. (His mother, who owned a children's store, would make him give the nickels and pennies he'd steal back to the rightful owners.)

After high school, Platshorn worked as a pitchman on the Atlantic City boardwalk, the same place that churned out guys like Ed McMahon and Billy Mays. It's a job he's never really given up. It's also how he got into the pot business.

After high school he followed Lynne to Europe and back to Philly again, then down to Miami, where Platshorn intended to finish his law degree. While hustling as a pitchman, a sales connection asked if he knew anyone who could unload 15,000 pounds of marijuana. Platshorn called his friend Robby Meinster, who owned a dress shop in Philly. "And we were in the pot business," said Platshorn.

Platshorn and his partners - who would be dubbed the Black Tuna Gang by the media because of a medallion they fancied - didn't grow pot or sell it on the street. They were the middlemen, providing the link from grower to dealer. They were indicted in 1978, accused of smuggling 500 tons of marijuana into the U.S.

Platshorn was sentenced to 64 years in prison, despite sentencing guidelines at the time that ranged from 48 to 52 months. The feds were involved in the case and wanted to make an example out of it, a major theme of "Square Grouper."

"Lynne and I had to divorce because I didn't know if I would outlive my sentence. She was 33, 34 at the time. I didn't want her to spend her life standing around. Not that she would have, but I didn't want her to. That made it so we could remain close friends. Had the divorce been acrimonious, had I carried on the way my emotions wanted to, we probably wouldn't have seen or spoken to each other ever again," Platshorn said. "Because it hurt. But it had to be done."

When Platshorn was released from prison, he didn't expect to reconcile with Lynne, but they were drawn to each other. He eventually moved into her Palm Beach senior community and they remarried, making the past 29 1/2 years merely a hiatus in their love story.

"Square Grouper" started filming Platshorn's story right before he and Lynne remarried, so the film includes their wedding. "The last thing on earth she wanted was a camera at our wedding," Platshorn said, laughing. "Oh my god, did that take a sales job."

It was also at Lynne's senior-living community that Platshorn found his next and perhaps most-daunting task as a pitchman - winning the trust of his neighbors, who were wary of the ex-con at first. But the "ugly faces" went away when they got to know him, and soon, his once-suspicious neighbors started talking about how they used to smoke dope when they were kids, reminiscing about Woodstock and, hey, did Platshorn know anyone who could score them a dime bag? Platshorn flat-out refused to help his fellow seniors buy weed. The last thing he wanted to do was go back to prison.

But then he heard stories from guys like Rene, a man in his early '70s whose wife is bedridden with multiple sclerosis. If she wasn't doped up on opiates, she was in excruciating pain. The only cure that didn't leave her in a fog was a joint. But Rene didn't want to go out on the street to buy it. He was worried he'd get duped into buying schwag or, worst of all, arrested. Then who would take care of his wife?

"Those kinds of things affect me," Platshorn said. That led Platshorn to hook up with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, for which he is now a chapter director and runs Silver Tours, which focus on educating seniors about medical marijuana.

"I do what I do, and I like doing it," he said.

His work can only be bolstered by the fact that Platshorn looks more like a genial grandpa then a drug kingpin, with his generous paunch and penchant for storytelling. Like any good pitchman, he can state studies and facts and uses phrases like "endocannabinoid system" in a way that even the most fervent stoner (or politician) can understand. Recently, he spoke in front of a group of Florida politicians, including state Rep. Jeff Clemens, a freshman Democrat from Palm Beach County. Platshorn told them about Rene and his other friends who wanted a safe way to buy marijuana for medicinal purposes. Later, Clemens contacted Platshorn asking for his help, and on March 10 the representative proposed a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana in Florida.

But Platshorn has a more personal goal than to change U.S. drug laws. He hopes that "Square Grouper" will lead to more sales of his memoir, Black Tuna Diaries (blacktunadiaries.com). If the documentary helps him sell the rights of his story for a TV show or movie, he might be able to buy a little house in the Keys and spend the rest of his days fishing. "And I want to give my wife some security. She worked hard, and she was dead broke when I got out," Platshorn said, his voice taking on a serious tone. "I want to be in the position to do something for her. Give her a little security. She hasn't had that in a long, long time."

"Square Grouper," 9 p.m. tomorrow, The Painted Bride, 230 Vine St., $10, 215-925-9914, phillycinefest.org.

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