When you adjust the figures for inflation, Rick Ross — the famed cocaine trafficker, not the rapper — earned an estimated $2.5 billion in the 1980s. Known as "Freeway Rick," Ross was believed to have bought and sold a full three tons of white powder, which was often converted into crack cocaine in American inner cities.
If these facts about Ross’s role in the '80s drug epidemic aren’t crazy enough, here’s another shocking one: As recounted in the forthcoming documentary Freeway: Crack in the System — the exclusive trailer for which you can watch above — Ross was an unwitting pawn in a U.S. government conspiracy to trade drugs for guns during the Iran-Contra affair. Investigative journalist named Gary Webb (who’s played by Jeremy Renner in the upcoming biopic Kill the Messenger) tied the CIA to an off-the-books operation that offered financial support to Contra rebels in Nicaragua with American drug money (something the CIA didn't completely deny during 1998 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee). And it was Ross who kept money flowing in.
Freeway digs into the crack-cocaine epidemic that was allegedly abetted by this secret alliance. We discussed the film by email with Ross, who served five years in prison in the 1990s, and now follows a different life path, teaching and speaking on college campuses:
How did you first get involved with selling crack cocaine?
Growing up in South Central [Los Angeles] totally illiterate, your opportunities are limited. When my friend introduced me to it, I saw an opportunity. Cocaine didn’t discriminate — black, white, anybody could sell it. I could be an entrepreneur.
When you found out the U.S. government was involved, what was your reaction?
When I first heard, I didn’t believe it. It was hard to believe that someone with such a humble background as me could be tied into something so big.
Do you feel you were pawn or a mastermind in the '80s crack epidemic?
In the big picture, I was a pawn because I didn’t know what was going on. In my community, I was a mastermind. It’s all according to where you are standing and where you are looking. The guys higher up had more of a game plan than I did.
You were bringing in so much money back in the ’80s, and now, I’ve read, you’re struggling to make ends meet. Would you go back if you could?
No, I wouldn’t. Life is not simply about money. People in this country think it is. It’s not the most important thing. I'm happy with where I am at today. I accept my past for what it is. I embrace it for what it is. I didn’t have an easy life selling drugs. I wasn't always making a million dollars a day selling drugs.
What do you hope people will take away from your story?
I never quit. I never gave up. I kept my head up. I believed in myself. I educated myself. I taught myself to read in prison. But I realized, people who aren’t educated are already in prison — the prison of their mind. When you’re not educated you get trapped and you can't get out. I know anyone can overcome and keep fighting. You can grow, you can free your mind, educate yourself and teach others.