In the ’80s, “Freeway” Ricky Ross built a nearly billion dollar drug-dealing empire providing livelihoods for hundreds for young black men in multiple states.

It cost him two decades of his life. Now, he’s rebuilding that empire, recrafting it for the new business boom: legal cannabis.

Last week, the prolific former drug trafficker secured his spot in the game, acquiring a license to open his own dispensary in Los Angeles. He’s got big plans to help people in the black community, who have been shut out of the legal game or incarcerated due to the war on drugs, actually profit from marijuana sells. Even if the promised social equity measures don’t hold up.

Saturday, Ross, who serves as vice president of community outreach and relations for National Diversity and Inclusion Cannabis Alliance, traveled with the group to Chicago to host a social equity summit and expungement clinic in Bronzeville. 

He sat down with The Chicago Reporter to discuss the legal cannabis industry, social equity and what black entrepreneurs in Chicago can learn from California.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What has the legalization process looked like for black and brown people in California so far?

(Laughing) None. I think on the first round of licensing maybe two people got licensed for the pre ICOs (interim control ordinance). We were able to get a social equity program in LA, but I don’t think it really looks like social equity the way it’s supposed to be. They know that blacks were arrested eight times more than whites and like four times more than Latinos. But when social equity came out, it didn’t favor blacks.

I think our social equity program right now in Los Angeles is favoring Armenians, then Mexicans, then whites, then blacks. That’s not social equity. A black person should have been the first one to win a license in this poll. But the way LA set their whole thing up, I thought was anti-black and anti-poor because they had it set up where you have to have high speed internet, special computers, like the Ferrari of computers. Most of the people in my neighborhood don’t even have computers and don’t have internet. So that would already put them at a disadvantage. I thought that it should have been a situation where since blacks have been affected eight times to one, that decision will be set up where these eight times would have an advantage, if it’s social equity. I don’t think that it turned out to really be social equity at all.

Have there been any success stories through social equity programs?

I’m a success story in social equity. I won my license two days ago. I’m happy for myself, but I’m also sad for so many other people that were coming to the rallies that were working so hard to get an opportunity to have a license. 


Marijuana dispensary rollout illustrates fears that social equity measures are just blowing smoke

One of the guys I know, Antidote, he started working about two years ago and he was really diligent about what he did. He went to the meetings and I think he came back like 600 on the list [for licenses] and they’re only giving out 100 licenses. It’s disappointing when you see that. Then you see so many other people who are not social equity applicants, people who are staying in $5 million houses, but because they know how to manipulate the system they make themselves look like social equity applicants. Most rich people have learned to live off of corporations. They don’t make any money, on paper, kind of like what Donald Trump does. Donald Trump hasn’t paid taxes, I think in 15 years or something they said. They understand how to make themselves look good on paper, where they don’t have to pay taxes. But they live like kings driving Ferraris and Bentleys and, staying at Mar-a-lago or whatever it’s called. But on paper, if you take them to the tax people, the tax people say he’s broke. You would qualify for social equity, even though you’re living like a king, and I don’t think that that’s what social equity was meant for. 

We have people out here who are actually broke, who are actually hungry and those are the people that I feel should be benefiting from the social equity program. And those are the people my license are going to be helping.

Thirty years ago you were able to create a national illicit network that provided livelihoods for hundreds of black people at least. Are you are you going to be able to do that same process with legalization?

How did you know? I already got a plan. I feel like I have a plan that even if the system doesn’t work in our favor, with the one license that I have, we’ll be able to help a lot of black people. We get a delivery service and with the delivery services you can deliver all over the state of California. 

We’re getting together to build an app for black people and everybody’s going to know it’s for black people. I don’t care if they know. They might say that I’m a racist because I’m doing it, but I felt that they’re going to be a lot of black guys like Antidote. Even my brother, he applied and he didn’t even get vetted until after the process was all over. Then they vetted him and told him ‘oh you’re eligible’ when it was too late for him to get in. [With my plan], all those people can still participate in the business without actually winning a license.

What can residents of Illinois, who are going to try to jump into this game and apply for some of these social equity aspects, expect? What kind of pitfalls should they look out for?

There are going to be guys that come here that are going to look like they’re here to help, but they’re really here to rob and steal from the ignorant, from the people who don’t really know what they’re getting into. When they look up in a couple years, they’ll be offering them $100,000, which is going to look like a lot of money to some people, but it’s not really what social equity, in my opinion, was meant for. I believe that social equity is: if they create and make you a millionaire, then you’re supposed to take that money back into your community, and use that wealth to benefit everybody. But we have people who are now chasing social equity applicants, who already worth $100 million, and they do absolutely nothing for the community. And I don’t think that that’s going to change because, they sow up the social equity applications and the licenses around the country. It’s just going to be fat cats getting fatter, instead of the community benefiting from social equity, which is what it should be.

Do you have a reaction to the lack of black ownership in the Illinois cannabis business so far?

I was really disappointed when I came last time and I found out the way that Illinois had did the licensing process. I thought it was totally anti-Chicago to allow outside entities to come in first and get set up. From my dealing in drugs, I’ve found that humans are creatures of habit. If we start to go to a particular place, we tend to go there until something stops us from going there. What I mean by that is if you have a dispensary and your customers are coming in, and you keep treating your customers the same way, you don’t treat them no worse and no better. You don’t have to because they’re satisfied. And they’re going to keep coming to you. Now, when I open up my dispensary, why would they change from him and come to me, unless I was able to give some type of an advantage. So when you allow people to come in and get the licenses first, you give them an advantage over the people who’s going to come after them.

How does the push for legalization affect the rest of the war on drugs?

I believe that the war on drugs has softened a lot, especially with the opioid epidemic. The opiate epidemic mostly affected whites, and not really blacks. I think we’re probably going to get into it in a few years because we usually follow trends. Whatever trend they run, we usually get into it later. But, right now, it’s mostly affecting whites, and they softened up on the war on drugs. 



Opioid crisis ‘whitewashed’ to ignore rising black death rate

They started saying, well, this is not a criminal situation. These people need help and they need treatment. And I think that’s a wonderful thing, if it’s not being done only because they’re white. If it’s being done strictly out of passion for the people who have gotten caught up because I don’t believe that people who get caught up on drugs are really bad people. They make mistakes. 

I spoke in Kansas City about four months ago at a juvenile rehab center and all of these kids have been involved with drugs. I know from my experience of being in drugs that most people who get started on drugs usually get started by friend. It’s not some strange guy, some strange black guy walking in a park lurking with a hoodie over his head. Talking about ‘little kids, you want some drugs, here, take some pills.’ That’s not how it happens. It usually happens from a brother or sister or uncle or mother or father is usually the one who introduced them to drugs the first time. Somebody they trust, somebody they love. When I asked those questions to the kids, most of them answered in the affinity that that’s how they got started. So these are not bad people. Somehow they got some bad advice from somebody.

What’s going to happen to the neighborhood kids who aren’t going to have capital or are looking to help their families right now and they’re selling weed? 

I believe that they’re going to take their business away from them and that’s one of my issues with this is. So many of these kids have been taking care of themselves from selling marijuana. It was a much better look than selling cocaine or heroin or some of the other harder drugs. And these kids made the decision to go into marijuana and now they’re going to be ran out of business. But those are the kids that I want to work with. 

I want to work with the ones who have been selling marijuana, who knows the business and didn’t have the opportunity to get their license. Now they can participate in other ways because it is more than just being able to own a dispensary to making money in marijuana. I mean even the trimmers make like $25 an hour, $22 an hour just trimming marijuana. I’ve known illegal growers to make as much as $12,000 to $20,000 a month just for being the head grower at a grow facility.

How expansive is your business plan? Are you opening cultivation centers or just dispensaries?

Right now, I was granted a dispensary license. It also means that I get to deliver as well. I’ll start off with that. I don’t know if you know the whole story about the drug business, but I started off in the cocaine business with $125. I feel that if I can take that and build up, then I can take this and also build it up as well.

*Bonus Question: How accurate was “Dark Alliance?”

On my end, he was pretty accurate. I had read the book before Gary had passed and I had no gripes with anything that he said about me in the book. As for the CIA stuff, I really didn’t know anything about that stuff.  (Danilo) Blandon and I were friends at one time. But I didn’t dig into his background. We as black Americans, we have a tendency not to go outside the country, we don’t really dig into people’s background that we’re doing business with, we just don’t follow up like that. We’re not the kind who wants to know your last name, where your grandmother come from. We just don’t do that. We’re usually happy with the situation that we’re in. We’re making money, and we’re satisfied with it. So, as for my part in Dark Alliance, Gary Webb was pretty accurate.

Olivia Obineme contributed to this interview. 

Josh is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @TheVoiceofJosh.

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