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Nation's failed weed war turned blacks into prisoners and whites into moguls

Ferrell Scott is spending life in federal prison for selling large amounts of marijuana. Entrepreneurs are making millions now doing the same thing.

September 5, 2019

By Eileen Rivers, USA TODAY

It was 2012, and Ferrell Scott was watching television inside Pennsylvania's Allenwood federal penitentiary when he learned that the sale of marijuana, something he was given a life sentence for just four years earlier, was becoming legal in two states.

Colorado had approved its recreational use, the inmate learned from the broadcast, and so had Washington. 

Scott had been struggling with depression since he was incarcerated in March 2008. But he felt a bit of hope as he watched the framework that had put people like him away without parole begin to crumble.  

The country was changing, he thought. Perhaps that would mean a change on the federal level, too. Today, 11 states and Washington D.C., have legalized recreational use of pot. Scott, still incarcerated at 56, is angry about the hypocrisy. 

"You would think that selling marijuana is the worst thing in the world because I was given a life sentence for it," he wrote to me from prison recently. 

Scott and hundreds of other people of color have been living behind bars, watching businessmen like Kevin Murphy, the CEO of one of the nation's most lucrative marijuana companies, get rich. In the first quarter of this year, his company, Acreage Holdings, reported revenue of $12.9 million.

The top tier of the legal pot industry is run almost exclusively by white men, and retailers, dispensaries and pharmacies nationwide are expected to take in nearly $45 billion in revenue in 2024 from all cannabinoid sales — which include marijuana along with over-the-counter items like CBD ointments and supplements, according to a study by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics. 

Scott said he wasn't getting rich dealing pot, just trying to make a living for himself and his two kids. If Scott were selling large quantities of marijuana today, he might be on magazine covers hailing him as an entrepreneur. But because he was selling large quantities of marijuana a decade ago, he's a lifer.

Racial disparities surrounding drug enforcement didn't begin with state legalization. But Scott's story and the legalization movement highlight a stark reality: Whites have long been getting more of a break on dealing marijuana while blacks have been getting more frequently incarcerated. 

First Step and third strikes 

The difference in the rate of pot use between whites and blacks in this country is nil. However, the difference in the rate of arrests and convictions is vast, according to data from an American Civil Liberties Union study. In states with the largest disparities, blacks were six times more likely than whites to get arrested for possession in 2010, the last year of the study. 

About 84% of the more than 2,000 marijuana offenders who were federally sentenced in 2018 were people of color, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Only 11% were white, even though whites make up more than 60% of the U.S. population. 

Past strikes

Ferrell Scott was given a life sentence on a third-strike charge. A look at his previous charges, most of which happened in the 1980s. Click below to view the full document.

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Scott has been in prison for 11 years on a third strike. He was arrested and convicted twice in Texas in the late 1980s for drug possession and distribution; he ultimately served about two years of a 15-year sentence for violating probation. 

Every day in prison gives him time to think about his biggest regret — not being there for his youngest children. One daughter, Serrell, was 15, and his son, Skyler, was entering his senior year in high school with a bright future in football when Scott was sentenced to life in Allenwood.  

Now Serrell is 26 and has three children of her own. His son never made it as far as they had dreamed. He played professional arena football but lost his focus, Scott said during a recent phone interview: "(I) feel like I failed him."