Smack in the middle of Brandie Lanier’s spare bedroom is something that underlines just how much America has changed in the decades since her famous father, a champion race car driver, was busted as one of the most prolific marijuana smugglers South Florida and the country have ever seen.
There, inside a special tent, is a bountiful crop of plants: cannabis, shining purple under bright artificial lights.
Lanier lives in Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2014. The plants are her personal stash, her “home grow.” She also makes her living in the state’s booming pot industry, providing medical marijuana to the ever-expanding Denver dispensaries.
That’s right, the daughter of Randy Lanier — fearless racer turned notorious kingpin of a ring that moved so much tonnage federal prosecutors dubbed it simply “The Company” — now has a career in the weed business. Legally.
The pedal-to-the-metal life and times of Randy Lanier — explored in a new Miami Herald podcast, Smoked — mirrors the profound shift in American attitudes toward marijuana and state laws governing its use.
And Lanier and his partners certainly weren’t alone in the thriving pot smuggling trade centered in South Florida in the 1980s. Thirty years later, other children of Lanier’s contemporaries — and even one ex-smuggler himself — also have found legitimate work in a business that once put drug kingpins behind bars.
Brandie distinctly remembers getting an excited call from her dad, then serving a life term in the federal penitentiary, not long after Colorado legalized pot.
“It was … an exciting time,” said Brandie, 39, a former schoolteacher. “We didn’t even really know what it meant, you know? Cannabis was legal. At that point, it was just like, ‘OK, so does this mean that we can drive around with it? Or can we grow it? Or can we smoke it?’ ”
But Brandie — and her dad, surprisingly — would be able to figure that out together. A few months after their call, Randy Lanier was released from prison after serving 27 years of a life sentence. His freedom came as part of a sealed deal with the government.
And when he visited his daughter in Colorado not long after, Randy briefly disappeared during a trip downtown. Brandie and her mom soon found him coming out of a nearby dispensary — a pioneer of pot’s illicit past breathing in its newly lawful and lucrative future.
“He said ‘Oh, I’m gonna go in every single one of these stores just because I can,’ ” Brandie recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I get it. Absolutely.’ ”
While Randy Lanier was in prison, attitudes in the United States on legalizing pot began slowly swinging toward acceptance — a shift that polls show has picked up speed. In 1995, a quarter of Americans approved of legalizing marijuana in some form, according to a Gallup poll. By 2018, that number had climbed to 66 percent.
Even in Lanier’s old base of operations in Florida, where political leadership has leaned to the right for decades, voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana measure in 2016. There are now 33 states that allow marijuana use in some form but under a patchwork of sometimes contradictory laws. So far, for instance, only 10 states have signed off on selling weed purely for recreational use — elevating it to the socially acceptable status of liquor. Illinois, the state where Randy Lanier was sentenced to life behind bars for smuggling pot, is now set to become the 11th early next year.
To add to the confusion, the U.S. government still officially considers weed an illegal substance. More than that, it remains classified as one of the deadliest drugs out there, on par with heroin. Smuggling it or selling it remains a prosecutable offense under federal law. But that, at least so far, hasn’t stopped states from forging ahead with their own policies.
Three decades ago, there was no legal gray area. It was the era of “Just Say No,” and the height of America’s War on Drugs. Smugglers of pot, coke or any sort of drugs were considered menaces to society. After the feds finally busted Randy Lanier’s coast-to-coast operation, prosecutors in his 1988 trial portrayed him as a drug kingpin — a phrase more typically applied to violent Latin American cartel bosses.
Measured by volume alone, Lanier was one of the major suppliers of America’s marijuana in his time.
“Not that I’m trying to swell my head, but on the size of it ... there was no other smugglers bringing in the amount that we were at one time,” he told the Miami Herald in a series of interviews.
That’s saying something, because there were plenty of competitors up and down the Florida coast during that era. Bales routinely floated up on Florida beaches, discarded from go-fast boats fleeing drug patrols.
Lanier — already quickly making a name for himself as an up-and-coming car racer — also excelled in his other high-risk, high-reward enterprise. He partnered with Benjamin Kramer, an offshore powerboat champion from Miami who co-owned a local go-fast boat building company called Apache.
Their organization, which eventually included hundreds of people, smuggled an estimated 300 tons of Santa Marta Gold, a prized strain from the mountains of Colombia. From 1982 to 1987, they ferried the bales across the sea in an ingenious fashion: secret compartments of an ocean-going barge, covered with decoy cargo up top like Brazilian wood and cement.
Once the load made it to the States, workers with welding torches cut open the compartments and extracted whole shipping containers of pot, moving it across the country in refrigerated trucks.
Back then, Lanier admits he wasn’t envisioning a day when his work might be legal or even beneficial to some people.
“I didn’t bring it into the country for medicinal purposes,’’ he said. “I brought it in to make money.”
And they did. The group made tens of millions of dollars. The government, in its case against “The Company,” estimated that Lanier alone made at least $60 million.
On top of the world
He funneled some of his share of the cash into his racing team, named Blue Thunder, and won a national championship in the International Motor Sports Association series the first year. As he spent more time in the winner’s circle, he also kept upping the size of his marijuana smuggling shipments.
His dual life became something of a high-wire act. In one memorable week, Lanier missed an important race in Atlanta because he had to meet a $44 million shipment of pot being smuggled into San Francisco. But he recovered — nicely.
“That particular load I ran down and won the LA Grand Prix within days of getting it all in. Flew back to Fort Lauderdale and bought a yacht. So, when I was looking at boats, I was thinking ‘Man, things are going pretty good!’ So yeah, you feel like you’re on top of the world,” he said. “That was probably getting closer to peak. The summit. But things kept escalating.”
In his racing career, too. He took aim at the big prize: the Indianapolis 500. And on his first try, in 1986, he was named Rookie of the Year with an impressive 10th place finish.
“I’d like to say any race I’m in at the moment would be my favorite race,” he said. “But great memories of the Indianapolis 500. It’s just such an honor just to race on the track and just to be able to make the field.”
The Lanier family, meanwhile, was living large. Lanier bought restaurants and planes and shopping malls and houses — one in Davie and one in Colorado. And that yacht, a 60-footer he named Reel Nice, ended up being the boat he was finally caught on after nine months on the lam, when the feds closed in.
The government seized everything when he was convicted in 1988. After that, his children only got to see him in prison visiting rooms with bolted-down plastic chairs or through thick glass, talking on phones.
His infamous partner, Kramer, remains in prison. In 1989, Kramer made headlines again when an attempted escape by helicopter from a Miami federal prison failed when the chopper tail rotor got caught in a wire fence. In 1993, Kramer was indicted in the notorious 1987 hit man-style murder of boat racing rival and business partner Don Aronow. Kramer pleaded no contest to manslaughter in Aronow’s death.
But Randy Lanier got out, free in a world where the product he once smuggled had undergone its own kind of rehabilitation.
Four years after his release, he’s now working on the other side of the drug business as a behavioral health technician helping to counsel people struggling with addiction. He works near the beach in Fort Lauderdale, and holds a meditation class on the shore at sunrise.
The modern world has been a bit of a jolt for Lanier, who is now 64 — from cellphones to the overwhelming number of choices at the grocery store.
“Back there it was plain cream cheese, maybe with chives. Now you got strawberry, coconut, mango, you name it, the selection is like crazy. So many,” he said. “I’ve been out for four years. I can still get stuck at a store, looking at the selection, going, ‘Wow, they’ve got so many choices.’ ”
And then there is the sublime irony of the business his daughter is now in. He says he didn’t push her to follow in his footsteps — at least not consciously.
“We have effects on our children,” Lanier said. “I’ve never asked her why she’s in the dispensary. I know she knows the business very well. She’s been around it all her life with coming to visit me and doing all her homework. She’d go to the appeal courthouses and sat in with my attorneys and stuff as she was going through college. So she’s been involved in the cannabis industry, fighting for my freedom, since she was a young girl.”
Brandie Lanier is more than comfortable with her decision. Her family made a fortune with pot illegally and paid a price — her father behind bars for decades. Now, pot is paying the bills again.
She’s not politically outspoken on legalization but she does donate to some industry groups and she supports the efforts of groups like Life For Pot and Freedom Grow. They aid people jailed for nonviolent marijuana crimes and advocate for legalization.
“If I can go to a store and buy it, I don’t see why anybody should have to lose their freedom because of it,” she said.
‘This has got to change’
There are plenty of other full-circle stories like that of the Laniers in the growing legal marijuana industry.
Brady Cobb, 38, is a pot lobbyist in both Washington, D.C., and Florida — and his dad was a smuggler a few years before Randy Lanier. C.W. “Dollar Bill” Cobb ran a suntan lotion company, and at the same time, he used shrimp boats to move marijuana from the Florida Keys up the west coast to the Panhandle.
When he got caught — “they were trying to figure out why all these rednecks in Cottondale, Florida, and areas outside of Pensacola were riding around in SL500s with 24 karat gold Rolexes on,” his son said — C.W. was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
He served just two after he became a government witness. Years after his release, he got cancer. And his son ended up buying his dad pot on the street to help him with his pain and appetite as the cancer drugs took their toll.
“It was something that allowed him to sleep, but more importantly to eat because he was not eating. When he died, he was under a hundred pounds,” Cobb said. “That really struck me as, why is his son or his wife having to go out and buy something on the streets somewhere? … So, to see that with my own eyes with him was just an eye-opener. At some point, this has got to change.”
Cobb, a lawyer, began lobbying for medical marijuana on the federal level but also in Florida, where his dad had run those first shrimp boats.
“I consider my dad, some would say he was a criminal. I’d say he was about 40 years ahead of his time. Yeah, he was doing it one way: shrimp boats and everything else, but that was an opportunity that he saw for a market that people, obviously, wanted his product.”
Like his dad, he sees the business potential in pot — legally, this time. Medical first, and maybe recreational use later.
“Once California went full rec, the genie’s out of the bottle. Once you got rec in Michigan ... Ohio’s now wide open. Florida’s wide open. Gas pedal down. It’s not 20,000 patients anymore. It’s mainstream,” he said.
And it’s not just smugglers’ children waving the flag for pot legalization these days. Sometimes it’s the smugglers themselves.
Robert Platshorn, who was dubbed Bobby Tuna by federal authorities for his leading role in a notorious South Florida smuggling ring called the Black Tuna Gang, is now out of prison and doing what he does best. Pushing pot.
But this time, it’s all aboveboard and out in the open. The man who spent 28 years behind bars for bringing planeloads of the drug into the U.S. is now a regular speaker on the Silver Tour, promoting medical marijuana to older folks for their aches and pains. It’s sponsored by one of the Florida medical marijuana companies, Trulieve.
Now 76, Platshorn — who was a boardwalk pitchman in Atlantic City in his early days — has even produced a video called “Should Grandma smoke weed?” that he shows during his speaking events.
And of course, he has a medical marijuana card.
During a recent trip to his local dispensary in Palm Beach County, he pulled the card out of his wallet. It looks kind of like a Florida driver’s license, with his picture on it. He uses it to buy medical marijuana for his ailments.
“Back pain. I have lower lumbar that occasionally comes out, and it’s very painful. This will relax me, and usually I can do a little stretching, and get it in, or go to a chiropractor after I do a nice smoke,” he said. “Nice and relaxed, and everything goes back in place.”
It’s still a thrill, he said, to buy pot in a storefront, with the state’s permission:
“You can imagine how nice this feels after 30 years in prison, to be able to walk in, show my card, and get medicine.”
But the bigger high is simply being out of prison — wearing his gold Black Tuna Gang medallion — while hawking pot.
“Everybody says, ‘But aren’t you upset because now it’s legal, and you did all that time in jail?’ ” he said. “You can’t afford to look back. You look through the front window, not out the back window.”
Randy Lanier is also looking straight ahead these days. In addition to his job as a behavioral health technician, he sometimes teaches racing on weekends at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Performance Driving Group Racing School. He’s in the passenger seat this time, but that’s fine with him.
“I love every moment of my life. ... Life’s blessed me,” he said. “Just to be able to experience the freedom. To be here at this moment, to experience the awe of all the abundance that’s coming my way from getting into a car to chit-chatting to people. All of the moments. Pretty awesome.”
On a recent Sunday, he pulled on his helmet and climbed into a canary yellow Corvette as the engine roared to life. He looked through the windshield at the sun-warmed track.
“Beautiful day,” Lanier said. “Great day to be at a racetrack.”