Former Crack Kingpin Gets Candid About the Opioid Crisis
“Freeway” Ricky Ross, who managed a billion-dollar drug empire in L.A. during the crack epidemic in the 1980s, shares his pointed thoughts on Black Lives Matter, the contemporary opioid crisis, Donald Trump, his Hollywood projects and why he wants to get into the legal marijuana business.
An opioid crisis is sweeping America. Some of the opioid drugs — heroin, oxycodone — have been around long enough to be household names. Others, like fentanyl — which led to music legend Prince’s death by overdose earlier this year — are relatively new.
The scope of the crisis is frightening. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, 350 people become addicted to heroin every day, quadruple the number 10 years ago. And drug overdoses are leading cause of injury-related death in the United States.
For Ricky Ross, this present-tense crisis is eerily familiar. At the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s, Ross maintained a drug empire worth hundreds of millions on the streets of South Los Angeles, where he was raised. On a busy day, Ross could bring in more than $1 million in a single 24-hour stretch. The crack epidemic swept through large swaths of black America, upending millions of lives and sending tens of thousands of people to jail for decades on relatively minor drug offenses. It also made Ross a fantastically wealthy man — with earnings in excess of $2.5 billion in today’s dollars — before he was arrested in 1996 and sentenced to federal prison for 27 years. He was released in 2009.
Ross recently came back into the public eye as a key character in — and behind-the-scenes player with — Freeway: Crack in the System, a 2016 Emmy-nominated piece of investigative longform TV journalism that explores the crack epidemic through the lens of mass incarceration. And now Ross is working on another documentary, about price-gouging in U.S. prisons, as well as other film and TV projects.
Outside of L.A., Ross was well-known as the street-level connection for a drug ring whose members were alleged to have ties to CIA-backed rebels fighting in Nicaragua in the 1980s. San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb broke that story in a series titled "Dark Alliance," which explored the ties between Ross and Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan drug trafficker who later became a DEA informant and eventually fled the country. The "Dark Alliance" series was one of the first pieces of journalism to penetrate the African-American community via the internet, which in the late 1990s was still in its relative infancy. The newspaper later issued a statement addressing problems with the story when several large American newspapers, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times poked holes in the reporting. Webb left the paper in disgrace and later committed suicide. (His story is told in part in the 2014 film Killing the Messenger.)
“People often forget this scandal was among the first online stories to erupt within the black community,” says Antonio Moore, a producer on Freeway: Crack in the System. “In a time before computers were accessible for most of America, blacks found their way to an access point for the internet to read about the Iran Contra Scandal. As journalist Gary Webb and the San Jose Mercury published the 'Dark Alliance' series 20 years ago, in August 1996, they also released it online. It was effectively hashtag activism, before Twitter was even an idea.”
THR reached out to Ross to get his thoughts on the opioid crisis, the legacy of the crack epidemic, Black Lives Matter and the ongoing problem of police shootings of unarmed black men. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You’ve been watching the opioid epidemic spread?
With the crack epidemic, it was young black males. Here, it’s young white guys selling opiates. Poor whites. I was at a clinic in Cleveland, it’s one of the worst-hit places in America.
Do you see people reacting to the two crises differently?
Yes, but I hope the reason they’re treating it differently now than with crack is not because there’s white kids being addicted, but more so because they’ve gotten wiser and understand that drug [addiction] is more of a sickness. The people getting high are sick, they need help. The people selling it are doing it out of economic need.
You said you hope it’s different.
I really don’t think America has wised up. We’re still putting too many people in prison, the walls are going to burst. From what I see now, they are giving more treatment than incarceration.
So … progress?
It’s slow progress. Obama did give a few pardons out to people I was in prison with. There were 260 guys who had life sentences, he gave them pardons. One guy had been in prison since he was 19, [for possessing] like 2 ounces of crack when he was 19.
What was your average transaction like when you were dealing?
It varied. I’d sell a kilo [of cocaine] for $15,000 at the height of my career. Some transactions would be $150,000, or $300,000. But I had houses that would do 100 bucks. I never did $5 transactions. It was just selling drugs all day long.
You had some big days, didn’t you?
A million a day and sometimes three. I had $3 million days. But it was very stressful. To live with the fact that this could be the day that you kill somebody, go to prison or get killed. You have to live under those circumstances when you're in that business.
You were in prison for 20 years. And recently you completed a documentary that was up for an Emmy award.
I had no high school, no GED. I was on the front line of putting that documentary together. I dreamed about putting it together in prison. I’m in Ohio now working on a documentary about the prison industry. We’re going to focus on why the prison industry has been gouging inmates for phone calls, emails, at the commissary.
You’ve also been following these police shootings?
I think it’s disgusting. There was one day where like seven guys got shot in a row, where the police have shot black men that were innocent. That’s just another fallout from the crack era: When they started to feel that we were all criminals, they treat us different than anyone else.
The cops just look at us different. We’ve been made to be the criminals of America. People are intimidated by [black men], and believe that we are the criminals of this country. It’s really bad for a lot of other black men. I don’t have a formal education. But I educated myself in prison. I know my skills are high.
What was the police response like during the crack epidemic?
When they came in, they came in as soldiers, with fully automatic weapons. They put the community under siege. They didn’t do anything like bringing in doctors, who are now being put in the community strictly to assist people hooked on opioids. I have a friend that has three offices that does that. And he gets paid from the government. It’s government funded. That’s a big difference.
Does that make you feel bitter?
No. Life is the way it is until you make it the way you want it to be. It’s up to us to make life the way we want it to be.
Is the police response different today?
I have run from the police numerous times, and they shot at me twice, and both times I was unarmed. I hope they weren’t shooting to kill. Today, the police are more prone to shoot to kill than back in the day. Back then, they’d pull their gun out, but weren’t trying to kill us. Now it’s shoot first and ask questions later. I was always able to run and get away, I always ran, but never had a weapon.
You never carried?
I sometimes did, but mostly not. When I had a weapon I had a purpose for it.
Did you use it?
I used it to protect myself and my friends. I never shot anybody.
Why are the police more prone to shoot to kill now?
They believe black men are more vicious and violent. If you watch the news, that’s how they portray us. And I believe rap music has played a big part of that as well. The Bureau of Prison records will tell you that drug dealers are generally not violent. But when we first went to prison they had us all listed as violent and dangerous.
You believe hip-hop music is also responsible?
Absolutely. Most white people don't have a relationship with black people. As communities, we don’t interact really. You don’t see whites in South Central L.A. too often. So the only information that most white people get from blacks is on TV and radio, and that’s not a true representation of the black community. Most of the black community is hard-working people who just need opportunity. If you turn on the radio and listen to rap, they’re talking about killing, shooting, all kinds of terrible stuff. Those things do happen in our community, but that’s just a small percentage of what goes on. If you’re watching the TV, then you start to believe that’s who those people are.
So you don’t like rap music?
I do like it, and the guys who make it are brilliant. Do I like the message? Absolutely not. They’re putting us in a position that’s putting us back in time, just like I did when I was selling crack. I used to walk through South Central and blacks used to own it. Now you walk through and they’re sleeping in cardboard houses, and under bridges.
Some people would criticize you for expressing these views on hip-hop.
I don’t think most logical people would. I would be the first to criticize myself for selling crack. Then add on top of that, most rappers never sold drugs or gang-banged or went to prison. It’s just a show. Also, they’re not the only ones responsible. Their record labels, the ones making all the money, are the guys behind it. They paid big bucks for what we’re gonna be programmed to listen to — and music is definitely programming.
Are you involved with Black Lives Matter?
Not at the movement, but I do believe that black lives matter, and I went to the rally with Snoop recently here in L.A. I back that. But I don’t just do it once in a while, I do it every day. Whenever I get a chance to speak to young kids, I tell them that they do matter, whatever their circumstance is right now.
What would you say to people who argue the problem is that too many young black men are killing each other?
We are constantly preaching the fact that we shouldn’t be killing each other and making life difficult for ourselves. Every time you shoot another black man, it gives police and politicians ammunition to say that we are dangerous. But just because a few people decide to be renegades and thugs, it doesn’t mean that you should treat everybody with black skin the same way.
Do you run into those questions?
It’s like the crab in the bucket. When people are frustrated, the people they lash out at are those closest to them. I don’t think we should be lashing out at anybody. We should be pulling ourselves up and making our situation better. But a lot of this happens out of frustration, and our inability to see ourselves in a better place. Have you taken a trip through South Central Los Angeles? It’s terrible.
Should marijuana be legalized in California?
This will be my first time voting. I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, and I’m also voting for marijuana to be legal, recreationally. I hear that marijuana could be a huge industry and black people could definitely use those jobs. I’ve been studying the business. Some aspects they say I can’t participate in, but some I can. I can grow it. I spoke to the L.A. City Council about the issue of not allowing ex-cons to get into business. I think that’s crazy. I think my past skills are perfectly suited to industry. Distribution skills, motivating people to do their best.
What do you make of Trump?
I think he’s too out of touch with what’s going on in the world. A really good president has to experience life, and I don’t think he’s experienced enough to represent the country. HRC has her issues too. When [Bill] Clinton was president they locked up more black men than before, but I’m hoping Hillary learned her lesson from there and is willing to correct some of the wrongs.
You’ve dabbled in Hollywood. What else are you working on now?
I’m working on a miniseries, and I’ve got a motion picture with Reginald Hudlin and Geno Taylor. I’ve got another movie idea I’m pitching to Lionsgate. I’ve got a lot of Hollywood connections. I met with Ari Emanuel. One of the Weinsteins. Mark Wahlberg. All those years working Hollywood have put me in a really unique position.