By Robert Nolin, Sun Sentinel
Pot promoter: Feds have me in their sights
4:07 a.m. EDT, August 27, 2012
From notorious smuggler to ex-con to author and lecturer, Robert Platshorn has assumed several personas over his 69 years.
But now the West Palm Beach man's latest incarnation — pitchman for pot use by seniors — has drawn unwelcome attention from the government, which, he says, is singling him out because of his advocacy.
"They want to stop me from advocating and would like me to be poor and quiet," the parolee said. "They want to put the Tuna back in the can."
The U.S. Parole Commission has thrown the full weight of its power upon him, he says, demanding spot urine tests, making unannounced visits and restricting his travel — and source of income.
Federal officials are aware of Platshorn's complaints — they're defending against a lawsuit he filed — but decline to discuss specifics of the case.
Platshorn, a member of the Black Tuna pot smuggling operation in the 1970s, served 30 years in prison and was released on parole about three years ago. Since then he has become the Johnny Appleseed of medicinal marijuana for the silver-haired set. He has argued for the legalization of pot at community centers and synagogues, and via billboards and videos such as "Should Grandma Smoke Pot?"
He has written a book, "The Black Tuna Diaries," and travels the country on a "Silver Tour" to speak at pro-legalization rallies and legal conferences. Though on parole after his release, Platshorn was allowed to travel on book and lecture tours.
In May 2011, Platshorn received a message from the Parole Commission. "You are hereby discharged from mandatory parole," it stated. "By this action you are no longer under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Parole Commission. You are commended for having responded positively to supervision."
But Platshorn's unusual mission attracted national media attention, and he's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and on CNN. Last spring, after Platshorn's parole officer died, a new one, Scott Kirsche, appeared at his door, cup in hand for a urine test.
"I read about your case, I know who you are and I know you've been smoking pot all along," Platshorn quoted Kirsche as saying.
Platshorn attributed the increased scrutiny to his growing notoriety. "There's definitely a correlation," he said. "I've got a national reputation."
Kirsche informed Platshorn that while he'd been told he was off parole, he still had eight years to serve of "special parole."
Parole officers showed up unannounced at his house. Recorded calls would give him an hour to appear at the local parole office for questioning. He was put on a demanding urinalysis schedule.
"For a month they made me come in every Friday and give them a drop," he said. "I'm getting ping-ponged. It's definitely vindictive."
Platshorn failed initial drug tests because he had been treating skin cancer lesions with cannabis oil legally purchased out of state as medicinal marijuana. He has since proven clean. "I've been very careful not to do anything wrong," he said.
In July, two days before he was to speak before the American Bar Association in Chicago, Kirsche called. "He said you are not permitted to travel to promote the legalization of marijuana without the express permission of the U.S. Parole Commission," Platshorn recalled.
"They know for certain it's my only income," he said of the speaking engagements. "I've missed five events now, each one means a couple of grand to me to supplement my $690 a month in Social Security."
Parole Commission spokeswoman Johanna Markind said she couldn't discuss Platshorn's case, but said that travel restrictions are standard conditions for parole. He should also have known of his special parole status, she said.
Karen Goldstein of West Park, director of the Florida chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said Platshorn is being targeted.
"They're uncomfortable with his activism, they're trying to silence him," she said. "It's like double secret probation, like in 'Animal House.' "
Platshorn sued the Parole Commission in federal court. His attorney, Norm Kent of Fort Lauderdale, said government lawyers admitted they mistakenly told Platshorn his parole was terminated.
Kent said by law Platshorn is still under the Parole Commission's control, but even so, he has a constitutional right to voice an opinion. "They are violating his fundamental First Amendment rights, even as a parolee," he said. "If there is anybody who ought to have a right to protest against unjust marijuana laws it ought to be somebody who's served 30 years in prison for them."
Pot advocates are rallying behind Platshorn. Last week about 100 supporters left phone messages for Parole Commissioner Isaac Fulwood pleading for his discharge from parole.
"He's bucking the system and they don't like it," said Kim Russell of Orlando, chairperson of People United forMedical Marijuana, who organized the phone-in. "It's just wasting taxpayers' dollars."
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