Planet Money
12:28 pm
Wed June 5, 2013

Freeway Rick Ross Has A New Business

In 2011, we talked to Freeway Rick Ross (pictured), about the economics of illegal drugs. Ross was one of the biggest crack dealers in LA in the '80s and '90s, and he confirmed for us what a lot of economists say about illegal drugs — making them illegal drives up the price and makes criminals rich. Ross told us that he once grossed $3 million in a single day.

"When I sold drugs, if they'd told me they were going to legalize it, I'd have been mad, because I knew that was going to drive the price down," he said.

Ross went to prison in '96, and was released on parole in '09. Since then he's started a number of businesses. According to Los Angeles magazine, these have included a "trucking company," "rehabbing distressed properties," and "Freeway Fast Tax Service."

The magazine just did a great feature on Freeway Rick in which he talks about his latest venture — selling human hair.

At 53, he is a late arrival, trying to insinuate himself into a mature market, with higher start-up costs and entrenched competitors and, above all, profit margins that have not been propped up by prohibition. As much as it mimics cocaine—as agreeable as Rick finds the lexicon and arithmetic—his new scheme hinges on a legal commodity. Wherever he drives, the decal across the Kia's rear window broadcasts his business: "100% Indian Virgin Human Hair."

On the streets he once flooded with drugs, Freeway Rick is hawking weaves. A staple of the African American cosmetology industry, the weave—or "hair integration" piece—inspires cultlike reverence: a beauty secret that transforms an age-old preoccupation into a declaration of fabulousness. Rick has no training in hair care, no affinity for it either, but he knows that weaves cost a fortune, more than the average customer can sanely afford. A 3.5-ounce bundle, depending on length, retails for $150 to $175, and most women need several bundles to achieve a full, versatile coif, which means $1,000 or more to have the whole thing anchored and styled. In Freeway Rick's brain, that adds up to opportunity. "It could be milk, tires, fertilizer—I don't care," he says. "They're just products."

"Just like crack, you don't need weave," Rick says. "It takes advantage of people's ignorance, I guess you could say. But there's a lot of stuff people don't need, and still we consume it. That's how business works in America. It's all programming—accessories—things we've been made to believe that we want."

Freeway Rick knows selling a legal good means he can't demand the same premium as he could in the drug trade, but he's still got big dreams for his hair business. He told Los Angeles magazine he dreams of going directly to the source — traveling to India to make a connection with an East Indian broker.

"If they let me bring a million dollars of hair back, it's over," he says. "This can change the whole game for me."

For more: Listen to our podcast with Rick, A Former Crack Dealer On The Economics Of Drugs

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