It’s A Bird, It’s A Fish, It’s A Square Grouper

Lily Snowden

It’s always exciting to hear of large blocks of drugs washing up on the coast of Florida and wondering where the pirates or fugitives are that let the product slip away. What is often not thought about, however, is how or why the bale was let go or how it got there. What normal, non-drug smuggling people do not think about is the logistics from a drug dealer’s point of view. “If I drop this package from the air at this coordinate, the boat three nautical miles away will be able to pick it up due to the changing tides and distance of the boat from the product.” Though I am not a drug dealer, I have to assume this is what the process might look like—and what the process has looked like for over 50 years, especially just off the coast of South Florida.

The term “Square Grouper” originated in 1970s Florida, right around the time cocaine found its way into the beaches and clubs of Miami. This slang term is rumored to have origins from within the fishing industries, possibly from the Coast Guard or fishermen themselves. It refers to the plastic wrapped bales of marijuana dumped off the coasts of Florida from planes and boats that were often bartered over between smugglers and captains.

Though the large bales of drugs are more popularly known to contain enormous amounts of marijuana, they also often contain cocaine as well. It often depends on the origin of the package. In the 1970s, however, the term specifically referred to the bales of marijuana dumped by non-violent, Florida-based drug smugglers. These small groups were often mellow and did not take action against other gangs. Many of these groups were made up of Florida-based surfer boys in their early 20s.

Though there were dozens of small groups fishing for square grouper, many were not serious or organized enough to move their own product. In 1973, however, seven men under the age of 25 pulled off the largest smuggling of marijuana Florida at that time. Steve Lamb, the most famous member of this group and current Florida resident, was under 20 years old when caught with nine tons of marijuana on a shrimping boat on the west coast of Florida, near St.Petersburg. The weed had come from Jamaica and a dealer who went by the name of “Boobs.” Though four tons of the marijuana was thrown overboard before reaching land—and six tons had been safely transported to Clearwater—the men were arrested and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Lamb is now a free man and resides in St.Petersburg.. He has written a book called The Smuggler’s Ghost and continues to tell his share of his experience with the square grouper to this day.

Though many of us will never be able to catch a square grouper, the history it has in Florida is one of the most elusive and interesting of its kind.