California native Malcolm Mirage's dream was to own a legal cannabis dispensary. For years, he had grown marijuana and sold it on the black market, while working a day job as a personal trainer. But in his late 20s, Mirage decided it was time to jump into the growing legal industry — before it got too crowded — and build his expertise into a sustainable, above-board business.
In order to open up that business, which he calls Mirage Medicinal, he needed to come up with $500,000 in startup capital, so Mirage began to scale up his operation, expanding into lucrative markets in other states.
"I needed [money] for anything that a regular normal business would need $500,000 for, except I could just never go to a bank," Mirage, 34, says. "People still can't go to a bank to get a loan for selling cannabis."
Mirage had almost reached his goal when he fell on some bad luck. He ended up being arrested and serving time in jail — a record, which now makes it a challenge for his cannabis business to thrive.
Under California's newly-passed Proposition 64, registered businesses will be able to sell recreational marijuana starting in 2018. But for some aspiring entrepreneurs trying to join the green rush, the law says they may be denied a license to sell if they have prior drug convictions. That provision worries Mirage.
Racial disparity in who gets license
Mirage, who asked to not be identified by his real name, says there's a racial disparity when it comes to people who are selling medicinal marijuana on the black market and most of the people who get to sell it "legitimately."
"The black market is filled with people of color — just like the prison that I was in — and the people in the above-ground market, who are distributors, manufacturers and investors, are all white," he says.
"I may never be able to own a business selling, growing, manufacturing cannabis because of my record. ... And to me, it's a huge hypocrisy. The only reason there's a pie to be cut up is because people like myself going back decades created this pie."
Looking back to when he first decided to get into the legal cannabis business, Mirage recounts the chain of events that led to his current situation.
"In 2012, a pound of marijuana grown here in the state of California could be bought wholesale for anywhere between $1,500 to $3,000, depending on the quality," he explains. "Outside of California, it could go anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000, and so in order for me to gather up the largest sum of capital I could in the shortest amount of time, I had to go out [of California] and get clients instead of having native clients here."
Those efforts led Mirage from his hometown in San Francisco to numerous trips across the country over the next couple of years. Then, one day in the summer of 2014, he was pulled over just outside of Amarillo, Texas.
Arrested before business development
"There was 140 pounds of marijuana in the back of the vehicle and I ended up in jail for cannabis distribution in Texas," He says. "I still wasn't deterred though, I was very determined, and I wasn't gonna let even an arrest in Texas stop me from opening up Mirage Medicinal."
Mirage made bail, but on Halloween Day he was arrested again, this time in New York.
"I was in the tombs in Manhattan, which is what they call central booking. I had been arrested on the Lower East Side making a transaction with somebody who informed on me," he says. "In the tombs, the judge asked what I was on probation for and when she said, 'And he's on probation for 130 pounds of marijuana in Texas,' you could hear this audible gasp in the courtroom. ... The jig was up at that point, and that was when I called my sister on the phone."
Mirage said in that phone call, he made a pitch to his younger sister, Nina Parks, that he had a legal California cooperative that was already registered. He then asked her, "Do you wanna do it, sis?"
Passing the business on to sister
"I was like, 'Alright," Parks says. "But I get to be CEO right?"
Mirage agreed to that arrangement.
He then served one year in jail for both the Texas and New York offenses while 32-year-old Parks ran the business. On his release in 2016, he returned to San Francisco.
"When I took over Mirage Medicinal, my brother's full dream of being able to have a brick-and-mortar was far from a tangible reality, financially" Parks says. "The only thing that we could really roll out was a delivery service ..."
Mirage Medicinal now has an actual physical space where they operate.
"We do all of our storage. We have a container, a shipping container, inside of a garage, inside of a building," Mirage says.
The brother and sister duo continue to work assiduously at their delivery service. Parks also does activism work with a group called Supernova Women, which gives out free information to people of color trying to get into the cannabis business.
Mirage, who now calls himself owner and CEO of Mirage Medicinal, plans to apply for a license in 2018. He hopes San Francisco looks favorably upon him despite his record.
NPR's Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. contributed to this report.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Americans are arguing about a lot of things these days, but one thing people on the left and the right seem to agree on is that the economy has changed tremendously in recent years. And some people are reaping the benefit, and others are being left out. But what actually happens to the people when an industry collapses or a new technology takes off?
Over the next few weeks, we're going to hear stories from around the country about how people are coping with this new world, learning new skills and new jobs, rethinking who they want to be. It's a series we're calling Brave New Workers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do I still see myself as a cowboy? Yeah, I do, and I hope I always do.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Free porn has completely killed the industry as we know it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was a underground coal miner. Now I'm in paramedic school.
MARTIN: Our first story for this series comes from San Francisco, Calif. Medical marijuana has been legal there since the mid-1990s. Starting next year, registered businesses will be able to sell recreational marijuana. But what about people who have criminal convictions for their past involvement in the very industry that's now been legalized? Can they get in on the green rush?
That's the dilemma facing Malcolm Mirage. And, no, that's not his real name. He asked that we not use it, so he can speak freely. He's 34 years old now, and he's been growing and selling marijuana on the black market since he was a teenager. He realized that legal cannabis was on the horizon, so he decided to scale up his operation in an effort, he says, to raise capital to create a legal enterprise. And he was almost there when things took a turn for the worse.
MALCOLM MIRAGE: I absolutely needed to come up with half a million dollars in cash to open up a cannabis dispensary. I needed it for everything that a regular normal business would need half a million dollars for, except I could just never go to a bank. People still can't go to a bank to get a loan for selling cannabis.
In 2012, a pound of marijuana here grown in the state of California could be bought wholesale from anywhere between 1,500 to $3,000 depending on the quality. Outside of California, it can go anywhere from 4,000 to $7,000. And so in order for me to gather up the largest sum of capital I possibly could in the shortest amount of time, I had to go out and get clients. Unfortunately, on one of those trips, I got pulled over about 40 miles outside of Amarillo, Texas, on the 40. There was 135 pounds of marijuana in the back of the vehicle, and I ended up in jail for cannabis distribution in Texas. I still wasn't deterred though.
I was very determined I wasn't going to let an arrest in Texas stop me from opening up Mirage Medicinal. By October 2014 Halloween, I was in the Tombs in Manhattan which is what they call central booking. I'd been arrested in the Lower East Side making a transaction with somebody who informed on me. In the Tombs, the judge read what I was on probation for. And when she said and he's on probation for 130 pounds of marijuana in Texas, like you hear this audible like (gasping) in the courtroom. It was kind of - looking back on it, it's funny. But at the moment, it was dread. It was like, oh, my God.
And they said you're a kingpin by state law. You are going to have half a million dollars in bail. The jig was up at that point. And that was when I called my sister on the phone. My pitch to my sister was, sis, I have a legal California cannabis cooperative that's already registered.
NINA PARKS: I got this website. We got hoodies. We got T-shirts. We got bags. We got everything.
MIRAGE: It's all turn-key.
PARKS: The only thing that it's missing is the weed to go inside the bags, and then someone to be able to roll out the customer service.
MIRAGE: Do you want to do it, sis?
PARKS: I was like, all right. But I got to be CEO, right? And he was like fine. I was like, OK, cool, yeah. I'll take it.
MIRAGE: You're the best.
PARKS: Thanks. So when I took over Mirage Medicinal, my brother's full dream of being able to have a brick and mortar was far from a tangible reality financially. The only thing that we could really roll out was the delivery service, and that's where we are now.
MIRAGE: This is the space that we use from Mirage Medicinal. We do all of our storage. We have a shipping container inside of a garage inside of a warehouse inside of a building (laughter).
PARKS: This is orange creamsicle. And so with that one, you can totally smell the citrine - right? - which is also found in orange peels. It's also really creamy on the back end, and then it has that gas (laughter) - that weed gas to it, you know?
MIRAGE: When I compare my colleagues in the black market with my colleagues in the current cannabis market here in California, the black market is filled with people of color just like the prison that I was in. And the people in the above ground market who are distributors, manufacturers and investors are all white majority, I'd have to say.
Being involved in this business and possibly being prohibited from it because of my involvement in the selling of growing marijuana previously and having an arrest record for it is very unsettling. I may never be able to own a business selling, growing, manufacturing cannabis because of my record of growing, selling and manufacturing cannabis. And to me, it's a huge hypocrisy. The only reason there's a pie to be cut up is because people like myself going back decades created this pie.
MARTIN: Malcolm Mirage runs Mirage Medicinal, a marijuana delivery outfit in San Francisco along with his sister Nina Parks. Nina is the co-founder of Supernova Women which is working to get more women and people of color into the legal marijuana industry. They spoke with us for our series about people trying to adapt to a changing economy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.