The King of Pot is shorter than you'd imagine. When you meet a famous drug dealer, one expects scars and a distrustful sneer and some flashy clothes. But Bruce Perlowin, found waiting for an elevator at the Los Angeles Convention Center dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, is more Patch Adams than Tony Montana. Standing about 5 feet 6 inches tall, he has Robin Williams' twinkling eyes as well as his manic energy.
What he lacks in stature, though, he more than makes up for in reputation among pot smokers and those who bust them. Perlowin is the biggest West Coast dope smuggler in U.S. history, a fact he offers like a verbal handshake to every new person he meets. He has his script down cold, a near-giddy 30-second biography of not only himself but also his former marijuana-running buddies, who are at the convention center on this mid-January weekend. There's the Duke of Dope, for instance, a guy who looks like a roadie for the Grateful Dead. And there's the Sultan of Shrimpers, who became famous for running pot into Florida in the 1970s on a fleet of fishing vessels. And there's Robert "Bobby Tuna" Platshorn, a former drug runner who holds the record for serving the longest sentence for marijuana smuggling, 29 years. It's not a stretch to say that these men were responsible for practically every joint smoked from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale in the late 1970s and early 1980s before the boom fell and most of them were sent to prison.
But now they're back on the street and back in the marijuana business, in a big way. The occasion for their gathering at the convention center was the inaugural Medical Marijuana Education Expo, a weekend of lectures, presentations and panel discussions about a new and emerging industry in which owning, smoking and cultivating marijuana is legal for medical purposes in 14 states. The expo was put on by Perlowin's latest business venture, Medical Marijuana Inc., a public company traded on the Pink Sheets penny stock market. Officially, the expo's goals were to share information, a valuable commodity in this industry's uncharted territory. Unofficially, its purpose was to rake in money for MMI's brain trust of former smugglers.
L.A. is the appropriate venue for such a coming-out party; Californians approved medical marijuana in 1996, allowing patients with a recommendation from a physician to own, grow and use small amounts of pot. As more and more states followed suit, the confusion over what is permissible and what isn't has only compounded. But the industry's Big Bang came in October, when the U.S. Justice Department sent a memo to its federal prosecutors to lay off busting those who were complying with their state's medical marijuana laws -- U.S. attorneys were to find better uses for their resources than arresting arthritis sufferers growing weed in their basement. This shift in enforcement priorities had the effect of a lighted match hitting a pool of gasoline. In each of the states that allow medical marijuana, intrepid ganjapreneurs sprang into action to mainstream dope. In Colorado, where voters passed permissive legislation in 2000, scores of unregulated marijuana "dispensaries" opened virtually overnight. Before the Justice Department memo, there were a few dozen such businesses quietly operating in the shadows throughout the state. Now there are hundreds, with more opening every day.
Each state that allows the medical use of marijuana has different rules, but the one thing they have in common is that they all conflict with federal law, which makes possession of any amount of marijuana for any reason illegal. Federal drug agents are going cross-eyed trying to figure out what to do. Municipalities considering banning such businesses are met with standing-room-only crowds of boisterous potheads at city council meetings. Marijuana advocates see full legalization on the horizon, but the path forward is fraught with confusion and uncertainty.
In other words, it's the perfect time for Perlowin to start his second act, this time as an aboveboard businessman. Medical Marijuana Inc. will not deal in actual marijuana -- with a board of directors made up of some of the biggest drug felons in American history "it would not be wise," Perlowin says -- but instead, the company will deal in all of the industry's peripheral needs, primarily education and information. That one of the most notorious drug smugglers in U.S. history can make the change from a wanted kingpin to a legitimate captain of cannabis commerce without so much as changing the product he promotes is a telling sign of just how far the national mood has shifted in terms of its relationship with weed. National polls consistently show that Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use. A slim majority also supports all-out legalization. There are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made in this new industry and more and more non-permissive states are considering their own medical marijuana legislation. It's like the dot-com boom all over again, only this time with the oldest technology of all: agriculture.
Who better, in that case, to blaze a path than the King of Pot himself?
As it turned out, the answer, even from some of his friends, was "almost anyone."
When Perlowin was arrested in Chicago in 1983, the chief of the federal Drug Enforcement Task Force in San Francisco told reporters that he ran his smuggling operation like a Fortune 500 company, a compliment Perlowin never forgot. It's hard to argue with the characterization. A self-described hippie who was heavily influenced by the flower-power ethos of the 1960s, Perlowin started selling pot in high school in Gainesville, Fla. They were piddling transactions, a few dime bags a week to keep his buddies high. In 1973, when Perlowin was in his early 20s, a friend asked if he could stash a few bales of dope in his house, allowing him to sell a few pounds for extra money. The second time he provided the stash house, he and his friend David Tobias (later renowned as the "Sultan of Shrimpers") sold all 50 pounds, and his career as an outlaw was under way. By the age of 25, he was a multimillionaire.
Perlowin moved his operation to California to stay ahead of law enforcement, which began cracking down on Florida smugglers in the mid- to late-1970s. He did as any smart CEO would and hired a research firm to analyze West Coast business prospects. He found that most of the big busts happened near the borders, so he headquartered his operation in the San Francisco area.
At the height of his criminal career, he commanded a virtual navy of 94 marine vessels running dope into San Francisco Bay practically around the clock. The boats avoided interception thanks to a counterintelligence communications and surveillance operation that rivaled NORAD. Perlowin employed about 200 people and laundered money around the world. A 1985 article in the Berkeley Monthly had him running his cash through Vegas casinos, trust companies in Luxembourg, banks in the Caymans, real estate firms in Florida and shell companies in Nevada. He owned or rented half a dozen houses throughout California for use as command posts, stash houses and VIP retreats for his Colombian connections. His personal home in Ukiah, Calif., was a fortress, complete with a steel-lined bulletproof nerve center and a bedroom accessed by a steel staircase that could be electrified with the flip of a switch in the event of an invasion. Authorities estimated Perlowin's outfit put a billion dollars' worth of dope on the street.
It is this reputation that Perlowin hopes to parlay into aboveboard profits with Medical Marijuana Inc. A linchpin of the company's business plan is to replicate the L.A. expo throughout the country by selling licenses to franchisees. As much as it was meant to educate attendees who paid $420 for a ticket to the two-day event ("420" is stoner lingo for the time to get high), the expo was to be a showcase of how popular and profitable such symposiums could be for those willing to shell out up to $100,000 for a franchise.
To the casual observer, the expo went off extremely well. The presenters were top-notch, including growing experts, lawyers, advocates, cooperative owners and smugglers with war stories to tell. A highlight on both days was Richard Cowan, the former national director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Cowan, who now owns the research and development firm Cannabis Science in Colorado, gave riveting "call to arms" speeches that many attendees said were worth the price of admission on their own. Perlowin hinted of a pending partnership with Cowan's firm, which made the idea of investing in MMI all the more enticing. More than a few potential investors counted heads in the room and calculated the profits such expos could reap in their own communities. By the end of the weekend, the idea of giving a giant check to a gang of drug dealers didn't seem as harebrained as it might have at the start.
What few were aware of, however, was the mutiny brewing within the King of Pot's ranks. Or that some of those whom Perlowin touted as friends and partners would later draw unwelcome parallels with his new business venture and the title of a pro-pot film screened at the expo: "The Emperor Wears No Clothes."
Just days after the expo, Cliff Perry, MMI's former vice-president of business development who'd done a few years in prison decades ago on cocaine charges, was calling Perlowin a "rabid dog" who was bound for failure. Perry was broke and bitter, claiming to have footed the expo's bills out of his own checking account. Many involved say that Perry was the brains of the operation while Perlowin was the enigmatic visionary. They butted heads throughout the weekend -- Perry says Perlowin is flighty and loose with the facts; Perlowin says Perry is a tight-fisted dictator.
Despite this rather public meltdown of support -- it was played out in part on the MMI stock bulletin board where Perry and Perlowin exchanged insults -- Perlowin considers the expo a wild success. "We now have a runaway company," he wrote in an e-mail.
If that's true, his critics say it's because Perlowin misled his investors. None of them were told that out of the 200-odd attendees at the L.A. event, only about 40 actually paid, a fact that might have dampened some enthusiasm for buying a franchise license. Nick Bird, a Nevada man who paid $100,000 for a license that weekend based in part on his belief that everyone paid to attend, was surprised to learn that ticket revenues were far lower than he thought. "Don't print that," he quipped when contacted later. But he added quickly that he still hopes to sell at least 500 tickets to a similar expo planned for June 12-13 at a Las Vegas venue still to be announced.
If he does, the attendees won't hear from either Richard Cowan or Bobby Tuna Platshorn, two of the big attractions in L.A. who Perlowin said were considering deeper involvement in MMI's plans. Now, both have disavowed any connection to MMI; they are concerned that Perlowin exaggerated their involvements with the company in order to make it more appealing to potential investors.
"Frankly, I was a little bit disturbed at the conference when two different people came up and told me that they'd been told that MMI was going to acquire Cannabis Science," Cowan said. "There have been no -- zero -- conversations about that. They told me that Bruce was the source of that statement and that did not please me at all … There were too many statements made [about a relationship between MMI and Cannabis Science] that were not factual."
Likewise, Platshorn said he felt that there was "a lot of blue sky and smoke" being used to promote MMI in the hope of energizing its stock and wooing investors.
"I always had the feeling that what they were doing was a 'pump and dump,'" he said, referring to businesses that hype their stock to create the impression of a buying frenzy that allows shareholders to sell at a high price. In the case of MMI, most of the stock is held by only a handful of shareholders, most of whom are former drug runners. Buyers of pump and dump stock are usually left with worthless shares in a shell company.
"I didn't want the legal liability and, very honestly, I didn't like the idea of basically scamming people, if not intentionally, then inevitably," Platshorn said. "[There's] no substance in the business. They want to sell learning centers, which is their default product now, but there wasn't so much as a training manual, a teaching manual, a business manual. There was nothing. Bruce wanted to take money from some of these people who wanted to buy territories. Maybe some of them decided [to invest] after they heard me speak. I hope not, because I told them I was not connected to MMI but was there to negotiate possible employment."
Both men were further alarmed when MMI's credit card, used to secure their hotel rooms for the L.A. expo, was declined when they checked out. They say Cliff Perry came to the financial rescue once again.
Perry has already put plans into motion for his own marijuana seminar business, Cannabis Business Solutions. He might not have the pedigree that Perlowin has as the King of Pot, but for him, that's a plus.
"I don't think a company, especially a public company in a movement that has had all types of challenges over the years, should be propagating that it's owned and operated by drug smugglers," Perry says.
True to his nature, the King of Pot brushes off this criticism with the explanation that Perry and the others don't understand MMI's business model.
They can hardly be blamed. Sitting in a plastic chair in a cafeteria at the convention center, Perlowin invoked holograms and quantum physics in trying to describe the company's mission. It's better to visualize a paint bomb, because its goals and ideas are all over the place. They involve schemes as varied as selling tax collection software to local governments struggling to collect a cut of medical marijuana sales to creating thousands of "hemp homesteads" across the country that will not only grow this useful perennial shrub if and when it one day becomes legal to do so but also, as an added benefit, offer free rent to military veterans based on their length of service. Another plan is the creation of a Women's Council, in which participants will be given free stock in the company with the hope of creating a corps of female millionaires who will move into positions of power and end war and suffering.
This model is based on quantum economics, but is also an extension of Perlowin's belief that to be successful in a quickly changing industry requires the fleet-footed skill of a street fighter. He admits it's a work in progress that got its start in his early smuggling days, where trial and error were part of the growth curve.
"The nice thing about marijuana smuggling," he says, "is that you could mess up a whole bunch of times and recover, because if you didn't make $100,000 every week you weren't doing something right. You could blow all your money in a week and get $100,000 the next week to start all over again. And there was a lot of starting all over again, but each time you got more and more sophisticated and fine-tuned what you did."
Outwardly, his former associates' opinions of him don't seem to matter to him. Since the L.A. Expo, Perlowin has remained as effusive and optimistic as ever, rattling off a growing list of cities where he'd got franchisees lined up to use the "King of Pot" brand to make a fortune. He has events planned for San Diego, Los Angeles, Providence, R.I., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Las Vegas. He's convinced his unconventional business model is working, and it's only a matter of time before the naysayers see that he was right all along.
"We got a really hot business opportunity here, as you can see," he says. "Watch what happens next. Watch how many centers emerge. We have a feeding frenzy for people wanting to open up centers. We have a feeding frenzy for people who want this information and knowledge ... It's not a one-man show anymore.
"Yeah, my heart's in the right place, but I'm a great businessman and [critics will] understand that down the road. We're blazing a new path. There's no road maps for how to build a medical marijuana company."
While that might be true for smuggling, even some of his old kingpin buddies can see the limitations of that philosophy when applying it to business.
Ray Wickstrom is one of those old hands, a former drug-runner who "disconnected" from Perlowin's criminal organization a few weeks before the hammer fell in 1983. One of the reasons the dope ring had such a long run, he said, was because there was no telling from one day to the next what Perlowin would do.
"The only thing that ever made [the smuggling operation] work is that it was very loosely structured," Wickstrom said. "There was no plan, even though in most cases it's represented as though it was some big ingenious plan. The only reason they never caught him before is because he was too disorganized … It was so hit and miss where we were going to be, how we were going to meet, what we were going to do, that they couldn't follow that kind of a pattern. Because there was no pattern."
Like the others, Wickstrom considered Perry to be the yin to Perlowin's yang. A company without ballast for the King of Pot's whims, he said, is just too unpredictable to be involved in. He reminds those who are enamored of Perlowin's outlaw past that the whole billion-dollar operation came crashing down in part because of the boss's capricious attention span — he left a notebook filled with incriminating information in a booth at a Denny's.
It was such a boneheaded move that FBI agent Chuck Latting sounded almost embarrassed describing for a CNBC documentary the big break in his till-then fruitless search for all the dope flooding into San Francisco in the early 1980s.
"The book was the key to everything we found," Latting said on the documentary "Marijuana Inc." "I couldn't imagine that anybody who was somewhat competent running an organization would walk away leaving their most prized possession sitting in a booth at Denny's."
That discovery led to Perlowin's eventual incarceration for nine years.
"I don't want to take anything away from Bruce, but it's been my experience that nothing really culminates with Bruce at the head of it," Wickstrom said. "He's brilliant … but none of it ever really comes to fruition. He's a very likable guy. He's very genuine. He's got a big heart. But he's like a shotgun blast."
Greg Campbell is a Colorado-based freelance journalist and author. His latest book is "Flawless: Inside the World's Largest Diamond Heist ."