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‘The Green Flash’ documents Florida’s most famous smuggler

Bill DeYoung

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The late Steve Lamb on St. Pete Beach. A screengrab from "The Green Flash."

In the new documentary The Green Flash, St. Pete Beach surfer dude Steve Lamb recalls watching his mother, who worked as a waitress, crying at the kitchen table as she counted out coins. Dad had walked out years before, leaving young Steve “the man of the family,” as Mom raised three children on her meager salary.

Steve Lamb was a boisterous tow-headed kid with a mischievous streak, a fighter who never backed down from a challenge or a dare. He was a teenager, he explains in The Green Flash, when he began smoking marijuana. He learned how to turn a profit re-selling small bags for more than he’d paid. Suddenly, he could do more than help out his mother with the monthly bills.

“So I just went at it,” he says. “It was fun to do … I just became a pot smuggler.”

The most notorious of the 1970s “beach kids” who brought in weed from Jamaica in borrowed shrimp boats, Lamb’s long and winding road – he ultimately fled justice and spent a decade living incognito in Venezuela, before being busted again – is exhaustively chronicled in the film, which premieres April 26 at AMC Sundial theaters, part of the 2024 Sunscreen Film Festival.

Anyone who’s followed the story of Steve Lamb, the so-called Steinhatchee Seven case (in 1973, the largest-ever pot bust in the country) or the subsequent rise and fall of the lucrative Florida west coast smuggling business, will spot familiar figures talking history in The Green Flash.

Lamb, left, and Joe Nuzzo. Screengrab.

Sadly, several have passed away since the documentary went into production. Among them: Fellow smuggler Troy Polk, federal agent Charlie Fuss, Suncoast Surf Shop owner Joe Nuzzo … and Steve Lamb himself, who died Feb. 28 of this year at 71.

In one of the last interviews with Lamb in the film, he’s in a hospital bed, describing the meteorological phenomenon known as the Green Flash, known to every beach kid, fisherman – and pot smuggler – in Florida.

Just as the late-afternoon sun is disappearing into the western Gulf of Mexico, as the last sliver of orange light slides beneath the horizon, there’s a bright green light. It’s there and it’s gone.

Not only is that a metaphor for the lucrative pot smuggling business – here one minute, gone the next – for writer/director Jodi Cash the “flash of green” had additional meaning.

“Green being money, green being marijuana, green being naivete, green being the sun now setting on everyone and all that time that’s passed,” she says. “It clicked for us – Steve is here telling us the meaning of the film, and the meaning of life, and all you have to do is just tune in.”

“He was telling us the whole time,” says co-director, co-co-director of photography and co-editor Ethan Payne.

The Atlanta-based journalist/filmmakers collaborated on the documentary, along with Cash’s husband Gresham.

Cash discovered the Florida smuggling saga when she was assigned to write a retrospective story for the digital magazine The Bitter Southerner in 2016. Her photographer on High Times and Low Rides at Reefer Beach (subhead: POSESSED BY DEMON WEED, BEACH KIDS MAKE MILLIONS!) was Ethan Payne.

Introduced to such a cast of “colorful characters,” Cash explains. “We had a blast, and we thought well, just doing a story doesn’t feel sufficient. We should go back down and get them on camera.”

The movie was, all-told, a seven-year project.

“When we started, we had in mind that we would be covering all the incredible volume of marijuana that was being smuggled, all of the people that were involved,” Cash explains. “Kind of like the scope of the trade.

“But then, as we got closer to Steve, and had different interactions with other people who were close to the story, it became so much more of a character study. What we were interested in was presenting a kind of alternative narrative about what kind of people do this kind of work, and why they might have wanted to do it.”

While on the lam, Lamb met (and eventually married) a Venezuelan woman; they had three children. The entire family, including Lamb’s Spanish-speaking mother-in-law, appear in the film.

“Once we met Steve’s family, and saw him interact as a father and a grandfather, we were just sold on kind of having a different approach to the story.”

The Green Flash doesn’t present Steve Lamb as an altruistic angel. His illegal activities didn’t end until his third stint in prison, after he brazenly returned to the United States from South America in the late ‘80s, living more or less openly in California. His (now ex-) wife and adult children clearly love his charming, charismatic side, but they don’t mince words about the pain he caused them over the years.

Similarly, “it never felt like Steve was self-editing or holding back,” Cash says. “He was such an open book.”

Adds Payne: “We wanted the audience to experience Steve the way we did. He’s a befuddling character, he’s hard to pin down, he goes on these tangents, you’re not quite sure what the story is or where he’s taking you. It can be frustrating sometimes.

“And then suddenly you see him as a grandpa who’s proud to have us over for dinner at his daughter’s house. And introduce us to his granddaughter, who’s a surfer like he was. And he’s so proud of her.”

Jodi and Gresham Cash, Ethan Payne and members of Steve Lamb’s family plan on attending the April 26 screening. Find tickets, and the entire Sunscreen schedule, here.

 

‘Pirates’ on the horizon

It’s open season on St. Pete smuggler stories: Director Terry Lukemire’s Pirates of Pinellas County, a five-part series chronicling the rise and fall of the western Florida amateur pot-smuggling enterprise, is currently being pitched to distributors for possible television streaming. Ex-smugglers – including Steve Lamb – appear, along with other figures from the timeline.

In an email to the Catalyst, Lukemire says the series is based on Lamb’s memoir, The Smuggler’s Ghost.

According to executive director E. Allan Hilsinger, the series is more “expansive” than The Green Flash. “We have five former smugglers on film in very riveting interviews,” he explains via email. “We have over 100 reenactments to support their wild tales. Smuggling, murder, corruption, huge $$, sex, betrayal, jail time, death threats … we even have a guy who did time with Ted Bundy and threatened to kill him in prison. Boats, planes, helicopters … you name it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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