Ron Tannebaum shares his story of the luxurious wealth and crippling addiction that came with smuggling, dealing, and ultimately abusing cocaine and heroin.
“I had a headboard built over my bed that could fit 100 kilos in it. There were suitcases of money all over the house,” Ron Tannebaum casually says. “That’s when things got crazy.”
Ron, or “RT,” is a college friend of my father’s, who has been in recovery for cocaine and heroin addictions for 27 years. He is an engaging speaker, never stopping to ask if I understand what he’s talking about, but rather just explaining anyway. He doesn’t censor himself because I’m his friend’s daughter and sometimes I get the feeling that he’d be talking even if I wasn’t sitting across from him. Not to say the interview is one-sided, but RT is definitely one of those where I don’t have to talk as much. He’s got gray hair and very blue eyes and he opens the conversation with proud talk of his son Jake’s high school football game from the night before. He has all his teeth and doesn’t look “weathered” like a former drug addict might. He just looks like a dad.
When RT was 11 years old, his mother died and his father buried himself in work. Ron was left basically unsupervised, growing up in South Miami, a move he says “set the tone” for him to start drinking at a young age. He was also an extremely popular and social kid; an athlete who played high school football (like his son) and partied a lot. He also went to the University of Florida, where he started smuggling marijuana in from Colombia.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I interrupt. “Hold on. You can’t just say that!”
Ron laughs. He tells me he was selling weed in high school but that back then, in the ’60s, pot wasn’t a big deal. “It was the love generation,” he says. “I started dealing as sort of like, a hippie thing.”
Once in college, through his dealings, he met a Colombian classmate from Texas whose father was the biggest pot smuggler in Colombia. The federal government wasn’t as involved in marijuana trade back then and Ron was able to set up a large network of customers without attracting much attention. After a year and a half, the father requested that his son bring Ron to meet him in Colombia. Once down there, Ron met him on a 140 ft. yacht with a helicopter on the back. The father told Ron he loved his work and wanted him to be more directly involved. Over the next couple of years, into the early ’70s, Ron’s smuggling business grew. In order to avoid legal trouble, they started paying off government officials and police officers, who would inform them of raids or stake outs (“Don’t do this, don’t be here,” he says.)
“It was big money,” Ron explains. “We had our own planes, boats, ranches. I’m talking millions of dollars. And there was always a scene at my house with drugs laid out but I was really unhappy. Everyone would be out but I’d go back into my bedroom and try to be alone. I had 180 grand in my closet in college.”
This sounds insane; and strangely too good to be true. I think about my own college years and how tame they were compared to this. I can’t imagine it and I certainly can’t imagine college kids being smart with that kind of money. RT says they weren’t. The feds were slowly catching up to them.
When a supply of weed was coming in, Ron had guys pick it up and drive it to Gainesville, where he would distribute it to customers from as far away as California and New York waiting in nearby hotels. He’d front the money, the customers would deal the weed at their home bases and then a week later, return their profits to Ron. But just before one shipment in 1974, his Colombian suppliers got nervous about the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), then called the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), cracking down on pot. They asked Ron if he could instead sell his customers cocaine.
Ron was reluctant but agreed. His contacts showed up with 100 kilos of cocaine in hollowed-out filing cabinets. Ron was astonished. “You said you could sell cocaine,” they argued. Luckily for Ron, his customers agreed to take the replacement drug.
“It was all gone in a day and we made all our money back in four days,” he says. Ron started using cocaine then too. He and his friends were 23 years old with unbelievable amounts of cash to burn.
“We’d say, ‘Hey, do you want Chinese food?’ and then we’d hop on our planes and go to Chinatown,” he says.
But the party soon hit a big hurdle. On a pick-up, a year after Ron graduated from UF, his usual contact, a guy named Kennedy, didn’t call ahead like he usually did. Twenty-four hours later, he showed up at their meeting place and called to ask them to come pick up the drugs. Ron’s partner, a friend from junior high school, was dying for a fix and wanted to go meet him but Ron was suspicious of the delay. He told his partner not to go, but his friend didn’t listen.
“Boom,” Ron says, shaking his head. “Thirty feds showed up.”
The group had 7 1/2 kilos of heroin on them. When Ron heard, he drove straight to the Jacksonville airport and went to Aspen for a month.
“[He] never gave us up. They offered him drugs, said, ‘Tell us about your friends who were involved and we’ll give you heroin,’ all of that,” Ron says. Rather than rat out his friends, his partner spent five years in prison. “Now, I’m his daughter’s godfather.”
Needing to be the face of the business and work with clients, Ron says he started doing heroin to come down from the cocaine high he was on at parties.
“Heroin brings you down immediately and I’m a very impatient person,” Ron says. “It would make me even so I wouldn’t be hyper. When I was on both cocaine and heroin, most people couldn’t even tell.”
At the time, cocaine wasn’t facing the serious stigma it does today. Medicinal reports had come out deeming cocaine as “not addictive.” Abusing it had the same tone as taking prescription pills, but RT was more so enamored of heroin, which he snorted regularly to the point that a friend warned him, “Don’t ever stick a needle in your arm because I see how much you love it.”
“It was always two in the morning and people were like, ‘Well, it’s time to go,’ and I was always that person that was like, ‘No, no, we’ll go to bed tomorrow! Let’s keep partying,’” he says, adding that the mentality stemmed from insecurity. “It wasn’t about having goals. Money, power, property, and prestige were the goals. Money was the goal. I didn’t want people around but I needed them around. If we went out, four people, to have burgers, I’d pay and leave a 100 dollar tip. If there were 40 people eating, I’d still pay and leave a 500 dollar tip.”
But slowly, Ron was “unraveling.” Eventually he decided to leave the country to get clean. He took a flight to Samoa, downing 80 dilaudid pills on the plane over. “One was too many, a thousand was never enough,” he says.
After he got out, Ron thought he was clean. (“I was drinking every day but at least I wasn’t shooting heroin,” he reasoned.) He decided to blow some money traveling to places like Australia and Tahiti. Then, while in Thailand in 1980, he started doing heroin again.
“By then, I had one safety deposit box of money left but I wasn’t staying at the Motel 6, it was always the Mandarin penthouse suite, you know?,” he says, dryly mimicking how he’d drop money like nothing: “‘Yeah, and do you have a butler?’”
Once he was out of money and back in Miami, he started selling everything he had in his house.
“I was a heroin addict running out of money. I started selling everything off the walls,” he says. “I’d pay 4,000 dollars for a painting and someone would be like, ‘I’ll give you $400 for it,’ and I was like, ‘Sold!’,” he says. “I was desperate.”
Eventually, a friend who worked for a management housing company got Ron into robbing houses, because he had access to the keys. He was making thousands of dollars a day as a thief and blowing it all on drugs. The pair committed over 150 robberies before the other guy sold RT out to the cops.
“He went one way and I went the other and it was a trap and I got arrested,” he says of the botched burglary. “I just remember thinking, thank god. Thank god, someone is arresting me and taking me off the streets. Now, I have to get clean.”
But RT made bail and the first thing he did was get a fix. Even once he was in the treatment program he was held in before sentencing, he says he shot heroin every day. By now, Ron was 30 years old. He was then sentenced to 3 years in jail, of which he served 1 year. He says he got high every day in prison as well. “All the bad feelings, all the insecurity, all the negativity, all the loneliness,” he says. “[Heroin] would just take it away.”
As soon as he got out of prison and was looking for the first day job he would ever work in his life, one of his old contacts called him up. “Oh, you’re clean,” he told Ron. “I’m going to bring you a kilo to sell.” That’s when he started freebasing and doing heroin to come down so he could go to work. His girlfriend had kicked him out. By 1983, RT was living with a friend who’d gotten clean five months before and was lying to him by saying he’d also stopping doing drugs.
“If he was up at 7:00, I’d get up at 6:30 and shoot dope,” Ron says. “But eventually he caught on.”
His friend told him he needed to go into recovery meetings and RT agreed. His first night off heroin, September 20, 1983, he was “sick as a dog” and told his friend he wanted to stay home.
“He said, ‘No, we’re going to a meeting. I don’t care. You can throw up at the meeting,’” RT says. It was the tough love he needed, but detox didn’t get easier. His friend even relapsed once RT had been five months sober.
“Your whole body aches because your nerves are deadened by the heroin,” he says. “Your bones feel so brittle, like they’ll break if you walk on them. I probably didn’t sleep for a month.”
Since then, RT has never relapsed, a rarity for drug addicts. In October of 2008, he founded InTheRooms.com, a global social networking site for people in recovery that has 112,000 members and counting. RT says he hopes InTheRooms can soon start holding virtual meetings for people in recovery all over the world.
“It doesn’t take the place of meetings but it’s a place to come for the other 23 hours of the day,” he explains.
He and the girlfriend who kicked him out have been married for 22 years and have two children. (“That’s my proudest thing,” he says. “That neither of my kids have ever seen me pick up a drink or drug.”) Ron was also the first member of a narcotics recovery group to speak at the International Alcoholics Anonymous convention.
Though I’ve been enraptured by his story so far, I interrupt to ask the mainline question: why couldn’t he just stop? What did it feel like to be so addicted? He doesn’t hesitate a moment in his response.
“It’s an itch on the inside,” he says, “that makes you want to stick your hand down your throat just to scratch it.”
—Photo kevin dooley/Flickr