WASHINGTON -- Rick Ross began selling cocaine in the early 1980s amid a global recession's scarce opportunities in Los Angeles. Conditions are much the same now, he said.
"Me and my guys that I grew up with, we couldn't get jobs," he told The Huffington Post. "We'd have been willing to work at a McDonald's if they'd have been willing to hire us ... It's the same type of environment right now."
As a drug kingpin, "Freeway" Rick Ross made a lot more money than he ever would have toiling in a fast food restaurant. Over the course of his career, he pulled in more than $600 million, according to prosecutors, buying cocaine wholesale and exporting it to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1996, although that was later reduced to 20 years on a legal technicality. Around the same time, a San Jose Mercury News series revealed his primary source of cocaine was Oscar Danilo Blandon, connected to the CIA-backed Contras; profits from his sales were allegedly funneled to the Contra militia in its fight against the Cuban-backed Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Ross' sentence was later reduced further for good behavior, and he was released in 2009.
Now he is telling his story in an autobiography, due to be completed in 2014 with journalist Cathy Scott, who wrote books on the murders of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. (The former crack dealer is also the inspiration for the rapper Rick Ross' stage name.) The real Rick Ross contacted HuffPost as part of the forthcoming release.
Ross' career is, of course, deeply contradictory: He was very successful at business, something that most Americans admire, but illegally distributed an addictive drug to millions of people at a huge cost in terms of public health, violence and lives destroyed. His distribution chain helped make cocaine, once a drug for the well-off, cheap in the impoverished neighborhoods of Los Angeles and other cities.
Ross said he now speaks at rehab centers and halfway houses. Asked whether his story makes him a dubious role model, he said, "Why wouldn't you want to emulate me if you can't even get a job at McDonald's? It's a fact out here that even people with college educations can't get jobs." He continued, "You can go out and you can make a million bucks like I did, and have everything that you might think that you wanted. If you're lucky, you can accomplish that, and you work hard and make all the sacrifices. But then you're going to have to go to prison."
On probation until 2016, he said he is completely out of the drug scene. Since the government seized all his assets after his arrest, he is selling T-shirts and human hair for weaves.
Ross also runs the Freeway Literacy Foundation, which he said recently donated funds to help a financially struggling young tennis star, Sachia Vickery, take part in tournaments. Ross himself played tennis in high school and at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College before turning to sell drugs. He said, "Our foundation's focus is academic literacy, but we believe in the importance of other forms of social language as well. One of the things I learned playing tennis is the reality of how certain international sports can expose underprivileged children to new and more expanded worlds."
Ross, who was at the center of the war on drugs' efforts at his illegal peak, said that most lawmakers don't understand the problem. "The lawmakers are not here on the streets. They don't know what most of the people on the street are going with ... Most people are so out of touch that it's crazy," he said.
On President Barack Obama, Ross praised his honesty for his admitted former drug use but added that he never would have become president had he been caught back then. "At least he was honest. There's very few people in this country that hasn't smoked marijuana and had some type of contact with cocaine as well," he claimed. "The reason that Obama didn't stick with cocaine is probably because he didn't do well with it."
Ross added, "He probably wanted to be a seller. Most users want to be sellers." He did not offer any evidence for that sweeping claim.
Shortly after the November 2012 election, Ross noted his support for Obama in a HuffPost blog post, writing that he saw a "difference in the belief in the political process by African Americans when compared to the 1980s."
According to a March 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 48 percent of American adults say they have tried marijuana at least once.
Ross praised the current push for drug decriminalization, which had its first major success in Colorado, where small amounts of marijuana are legal to grow, to possess and, next year, to sell under state law. "We know the war on drugs don't work, so I think it's time to try some new things," he said, arguing that the illegality of certain drugs makes them 40 to 50 times more expensive.
The former cocaine dealer told HuffPost last year that he would have preferred to sell pot. But he said then, "You couldn't get pot at a decent price -- I couldn't, nor the quantity."
These days, Ross has no plans to move to Colorado himself. "I love LA. I wouldn't move just because of marijuana being legal or not legal, because I'm not involved with marijuana at all."
But he does not think that now-illegal drugs will ever become legal across the board. "If it does, it'll be a long, long time. I don't think society is ready to deal with something like that."