Of all the scenarios former cocaine kingpin ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross could have imagined himself in after getting out of jail, selling weed legally was not one of them.
Growing up poor in South Central Los Angeles, Ross played tennis well enough to earn him interest from California State University, Long Beach.
“I thought that was going to be my way out of the ghetto,” Ross, 59, whose nickname Freeway comes from the Los Angeles Harbor Freeway that divided the city along racial lines, told VICE in an interview this summer.
But, unable to read and write, his dreams of going to college died. Instead, he started selling cocaine, eventually making up to $3 million a day moving several metric tons of blow around the U.S. His name is synonymous with the crack epidemic that overwhelmed Los Angeles and spread to other parts of the country in the 1980s. The city’s law enforcement dedicated a special task force to taking Ross down. And in November 1996, after being busted in a federal sting trying to purchase 100 kilograms of cocaine, he was sentenced to life in prison.
“Mr. Ross does not get a free pass to deal drugs the rest of his life," U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff said during the sentencing, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Ross learned to read in jail and discovered a legal loophole that he used to set himself free. He argued that the three-strikes law was unconstitutionally applied to his case. He was released from prison in 2009.
"It's going to be all whites doing everything."
Now, he’s become the unlikely face of a movement to empower people of color to get into the legal cannabis industry—an industry largely dominated by rich white men.
“It’s going to be all whites doing everything,” said Ross, his wiry frame engulfed by a sweatshirt bearing his face and nickname. “The guys who’ve been on the streets selling, all they’re going to be able to do is consume.”
On paper, California and cities within it have passed more measures to address the harms of the drug war than any other jurisdiction with legal weed. Those measures include a streamlining of the expungement process for people with criminal records and equity programs to help criminalized people get into legal weed.
But Ross and other advocates who spoke to VICE said in reality, many of the marginalized folks who should be benefitting from these policies aren’t. The reasons for that are varied: there’s little awareness in communities, a deep mistrust of anything to do with the state, and a lack of finances or training to break into the business. The end result is a new industry that has largely carried over the injustices of the past.
“It’s sickening, absolutely sickening,” said Ross. “The same people who used to incarcerate people for selling [weed], now because somehow they were able to accumulate money, they’re running it.”
California legalized recreational weed in 2018, making it the largest legal cannabis market in the world. Sales are expected to reach $3.1 billion in 2019, according to a report from Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics.
It is also home to at least 1 million cannabis convicts—people who’ve been incarcerated for consuming, buying, and selling weed. These are not the people benefiting from legalization’s financial windfall.
There were nearly half a million cannabis arrests in California from 2006-2015, and Black and Latinx people were disproportionately arrested according to a report from the Drug Policy Alliance, despite not consuming or dealing weed more frequently than white people. Black people were almost five times more likely than white people to be arrested for a felony cannabis offense, while Latinx people were 26 percent more likely, the report found.
The consequences attached to a felony conviction affect a person’s ability to find housing, vote, gain employment, access social services, and volunteer.
After weed became legal, Californians with cannabis convictions were able to petition the court to have their records cleared. But the process was onerous and costly, so few bothered.
“I figured I’m gonna get bamboozled,” said Ryan Brown, 45, of getting his record cleared. Brown, who is from Inglewood and spent five years in federal prison in part for selling weed, has good reason to be skeptical. Years ago, he said he was ripped off by a lawyer who promised to help him get his record expunged and disappeared with his $500.
"Most people are so traumatized from the system that they won’t go into county buildings, they don’t want to be near law enforcement."
This year, California passed a law requiring the Department of Justice to review and identify all records eligible to be expunged or reduced and pass those onto each county. Barring any issues raised by district attorneys offices in individual counties, the records become automatically available for expungement or reclassification (e.g. felony to a misdemeanor).
Even so, a lot of people don’t know about the law or haven’t taken advantage of it.
“The problem is most people are so traumatized from the system that they won’t go into county buildings, they don’t want to be near law enforcement, they just don’t,” said Bonita Money, cofounder of the National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance (NDICA), a group that advocates for equity in legal weed.
That’s where Ross comes in. Ross, who is currently pursuing his own weed retail license, has been working with NDICA to encourage people to take advantage of expungement and equity policies. He has a credibility that is hard to come by.
“For me to go in those communities and try to gain the trust of people that have been very traumatized and damaged… from the war on drugs, they’re not gonna trust me,” said Money.
Black people in California were nearly five times more likely to get arrested for a felony cannabis offense than white people, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
“Rick comes from those communities, that’s his stomping grounds. They know Rick, they trust Rick, therefore Rick can go in and create awareness and outreach that most people couldn’t.”
When Money, a Black woman, started in the weed industry five years ago there was hardly anyone who looked like her. No one was interested in hearing her message about diversity, she said.
“These communities and these people of color paid the price to open up this industry and they deserve the opportunity now to have ownership,” Money said. “What’s horrible is that white people don’t want that.”
It motivated her to start a movement to break down barriers for people of color.
As part of that movement, NDICA has set up monthly mobile expungement clinics in low-income communities. There are lawyers or paralegals who pull up the records and file the paperwork onsite.
“If you make it too complicated for folks they just don’t want to be involved,” Money said.
In 2018, only 2,500 records were expunged in Los Angeles, despite more than 200,000 people being eligible, Money said. NDICA’s clinics were responsible for 500-600 of the expungements.
But clearing criminal records is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to drug war reparations. Making it easier for former black market weed dealers to go legal is also crucial to making the legal regime fair.
To that end, L.A. and San Francisco have rolled out equity programs, granting victims of the war on drugs licenses to sell legal weed.
L.A. in the midst of rolling out its equity program for legal weed retailers, handing out an initial 100 retail licenses to applicants who meet certain criteria. Top priority will be given to a person who has a cannabis conviction, comes from a zip code affected by the war on drugs, and is low income, followed by a person who doesn’t have to be low income but has lived in a community affected by the war on drugs for at least 10 years.
But, as with expungement, there are barriers.
"It's like modern-day slavery."
Buying or leasing a space that may cost $20,000 a month in rent is impossible for low-income candidates. That’s why the program allows for investors to partner with equity retailers. In theory, the investor should have a minority stake in the dispensary, but Money and Ross say in practice, some investors are trying to exploit the system by paying people from affected communities money to apply for a license and then not actually allowing them to have ownership. Or by giving them a small percentage of the company as opposed to the 51 percent to which they’re entitled.
“Rick and I have met more billionaires in the last year that have called us in for meetings because they want us to recruit social equity applicants for them,” said Money, noting she’s head of recruiters showing up at welfare and probation officers in search of equity candidates.
One investor had brochures offering $2,500 for names of people who could qualify for a dispensary license.
“That kind of behavior is despicable; it’s like modern-day slavery.”
After Brown got out of jail in 2012, his job prospects were grim.
“The average company, I can apply and I either just won’t get a response at all or possibly maybe they would hire me but fire me shortly after. How can you really make it?” Brown said, noting the costs of supporting himself and his family are “unbelievable.”
He started selling dime bags of weed when he was 13 years old, gradually moving up the ladder. When VICE caught up with him this June, he was interning at the Alternative Herbal Health Services, a cheerful dispensary in West Hollywood that sells things like kush-themed greeting cards and plays Taylor Swift.
The two experiences selling weed have stark differences, Brown said, noting the legal industry has a dizzying number of rules and regulations.
“The average person just coming from the street and coming into a business like this is going to be overwhelmed.”
As part of its push to help Black people get into legal weed, NDICA offers internships at dispensaries for those hoping to get a social equity license. Money said an internship program to help people learn the ropes made more sense to her than placing people in classrooms, where they wouldn’t get hands-on experience.
In the past few years, Money said diversity has become a buzzword in cannabis. And some big weed companies, including Canopy Growth, which recently sponsored National Expungement Week, are getting on board. But she believes true ownership and reinvestment in Black communities is what’s needed.
Ross, for his part, said even at the height of his wealth, clocking millions of dollars a day, he never left South Central L.A., and he doesn’t plan to now.
Currently, he’s low-income. But as he works to build a brand, and a legal cannabis chain, he said he’ll direct some of his revenue back into the community for causes like gang prevention, clothing, and books for young people.
He said navigating the legal cannabis world, with the help of Money, has made him realize his skills can be applied to anything.
“I’ve been out of prison almost nine years and nobody has really recognized my entrepreneurialism,” he said. “When you come from these areas where you don’t have the resources to show these skills then you’re going to look for other ways to raise money and that’s why so many young Black men sell drugs.”
But looking back on how things played out for him, he has no regrets.
“No remorse, only lessons.”
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.