The Real Rick Ross wants in on cannabis

The real Rick Ross is not a rapper. The outsized rapper has little in common with the diminutive native of South Central Los Angeles, the high school dropout-turned entrepreneur who grew a small business to a massive multi-state empire. “Freeway” Rick Ross’s reign over the crack game lasted over a decade, before his CIA-connected wholesale supplier of cocaine flipped on him and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Ross is now five years removed from almost twenty years behind bars, a stint reduced from life thanks to an appeal that the once-illiterate drug dealer helped assemble behind bars. He’s famous – boxer Floyd Mayweather picked him up from his stint at a halfway house after his release – but he’s now criss-crossing the country telling his story to rapt audiences, he’s teaching a class at Fresno City College – and he’s also looking to get involved in the cannabis industry.

His angle? Vegan edibles.

Ross discussed all this and more with SF Evergreen following a talk at Laney College’s black student union. He’s also promoting a book, “Freeway Rick Ross: the Untold Autobiography,” and was the subject of a two-part documentary, “Freeway: A Crack In The System,” which premiered on Al Jazeera in March.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SF Evergreen: We saw you at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco in February. What’s your interest in the marijuana industry?

Rick Ross: I want in. People have approached me (with offers)… It’s a lot of money involved, and I’d like to open up a dispensary. I want to open one up in my neighborhood, in South Central.

SFEG: What would the Rick Ross dispensary be like?

RR: It’s gonna be fair… it’s going to have great prices, great service. I believe in giving the consumer something they can’t get anywhere else. Just like how I ran my other business (laughter).

SFEG: Are you worried about the image of “Rick Ross, the convicted crack dealer” selling another drug?

RR: No. They don’t say that about (prescription drug companies), and they sell drugs that kill more people than illegal drugs all put together.

I can find benefits in providing cannabis to the community… You can see, it’s been on TV, little girls having seizures. Cannabis helped them, solved their problems. I have no problems doing that.

SFEG: What special product would you offer?

RR: We want to make a vegan edible. We’re working on a company… we want to offer a whole line of vegan edibles. I’m really on a health trip – no sugar, no butter, no glucose. You don’t see a lot of vegan, healthy edibles… That’s the kind of product I want to come up with.

SFEG: You do a lot of interviews and a lot of talks. What do people ask you about the most?

RR: Well, the first thing people ask is, how do I feel about the rapper using my name (Editor’s note: Ross sued the prison guard-turned rapper Rick Ross but lost on First Amendment grounds). The next thing they ask is, what did I do with all the money.

SFEG: They’re still fascinated with how you were able to dominate the crack trade. They’re not mad at you? Black audiences aren’t mad at you?

RR: No. People aren’t as mad at me as the general public might believe. Most people understand. Especially if you come to a place like this (Laney College’s black student union), they really understand why I did what I did.

It’s really amazing how fast the black community forgave me. I sold crack to so many peoples’ mothers, fathers and brothers – and they don’t hold it against me. They understand it’s a thing a lot of young people have done in this country.

SFEG: Your story’s been out there a lot lately. It was in a major Hollywood movie last year (“Kill the Messenger,” starring Jeremy Renner as real-life San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb, who discovered that Ross, played by Michael K. Williams of “The Wire” fame, was being supplied cocaine with the knowledge of the CIA). But some people are still surprised to hear that the CIA knew where all the crack was coming from.

RR: Gary said it best. He said, ‘What has happened to the news media, when the CIA has admitted that they knew these guys were selling drugs, and the general public still doesn’t know it?’ That’s a slap to reporters. They didn’t report. They weren’t telling people. It should have been in every newspaper.

It’s still a story that people don’t want to tell. The movie didn’t do well. It was shown for two weeks and they took it out. My story, nobody wanted it. I had to go to Al Jazeera. CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC… they didn’t want to touch it. They didn’t want the story. It’s too controversial.

I’m still having problems. Fresno City College, they’re going to let me come there and teach the kids, help them stay motivated… the teacher who wants me there is having problems with me coming. I have to remind them, “You’re teaching Malcom X – he went to prison, too. He’s a criminal too.”

SFEG: Meanwhile, you’ve spoken at Brown University, at Stanford, at UCLA Law. Audiences, white audiences, are fascinated by you.

RR: I don’t know if it’s fascination, but they want information. They want knowledge. And that’s what we have the black community understand. When you have more knowledge you start making better decisions. When I started making money in the cocaine business is when I became knowledgeable. When I didn’t know anything, I didn’t make any money. You have to have a thirst for knowledge.

SFEG: Some people see you as a role model. Does having a drug dealer give life lessons send a wrong message?

RR: I don’t recommend anyone selling cocaine. It’s dangerous. It could cost you your life. I put my whole family’s lives on the line. I definitely don’t think that’s anything someone should mimic.

But I went into prison not being able to read. I learned how. I read every day, I read newspapers, I read law books. And now I’m being paid to speak. For a guy who was totally illiterate to speak at Brown University… what I’m doing now is incredible.

Teachers are asking me to come to their high schools now, because they can see I’m not coming to kids to tell them how to be a drug dealer. I’m telling them that that shit don’t work. I tried it. I was one of the best to ever do it – and it didn’t work out for me. So it ain’t gonna work out for you.

SFEG: Your message now is hard work and passion will get you ahead. Is it resonating?

RR: It’s worse now for black people than it was when I was selling crack. Back then, we had jobs. My uncle, he drove a trash truck. Now all the garbage jobs are Hispanic. All our wealth, it all got lost. There are no black businesses in South Central anyway… and that’s all over the country. I travel the whole country, I go to the ghetto, and blacks are doing bad right now. Worse than they did before. Probably worse than they did in the 60s. They lost everything, everything’s gone – no property, no business.

Black people don’t even control the drug trade anymore. Even there, economic opportunity has been taken away.

It is hard (to convince people that hard work pays off). They have to believe that it works, and they really don’t believe that yet.

I tell these kids that they really have to work hard. Harder. Right now, some of these kids could be on their last legs, one step from jail. I tell them that they have to go to school because their next step could be the prison.

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie