This former gang member wants to get kids off the street – with weed

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Jeremy Rivera sat at a small table in a Chinatown restaurant, eating bao pork buns and recounting parts of a life spent hustling drugs with New York’s Crips. He touched the three dots next to his left eye.

“It’s the only three places you’re going to go when you live this lifestyle,”Rivera spoke with NY Cannabis Insider. “You end up in prison, you end up in the hospital, or you end up dead. There are no other options.”

Rivera, now 35 and a safety instructor at a New York City construction consulting firm, said that he spent the majority his 18-year tenure in prison on drug trafficking convictions.

Rivera’s years on the streets, his friends who died, and the lives he saw in prison have all converged into a vision: He wants to be granted a conditional retail license for the first round. marijuana, return to the same streets he knew as a gang member, and give those kids an avenue out – through employment.

“I would like to hire directly from probation and parole,” Rivera said. “Drug dealers are some of the best businessmen you’ve ever met.”

Rivera will be answering questions about his plans and hopes for New York’s cannabis market, following the Office of Cannabis Management having reserved the first round of dispensary licensing for applicants with criminal records.

This interview has been edited to be more concise and clear.

NY Cannabis Insider: How was your life before you were sent to prison?

Rivera: I grew in a drug-infected area. My family’s from Bushwick, before gentrification, and my cousins were drug dealers, my uncle and my grandfather used to house guns for the old gangsters back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I come from a background of gangsters.

I joined my first gang when I was in sixth grade, and I really started getting into it around seventh and eighth grade – the violence and all that other stuff. I started getting into selling coke, ecstasy, crack, and then it’s heroin. I was then charged.

So this last one – it was enough for me. I was a three-time felon with predicate persistent. My next drug conviction was for which I was considering prison. I took advantage of the opportunities and ran with them. I’ve been home for four years.

Do you believe your background is a good preparation for dispensary ownership?

This pot thing, I feel like it’s right up my alley. It’s something the state can finally give back to us.

I’m a general superintendent for a big construction company. I have extensive managerial experience. Right now, I run over 100 men, I run six jobs and in total, we’re talking the equivalent of about $20 million worth of production. I believe I would know exactly what to do.

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Now, I’m not a business connoisseur. So there’s always assistance to be needed. However, I feel confident that I will be successful. I truly do. My neighborhood really doesn’t have much, and maybe a dispensary would help them flourish and blossom a little bit. It could also help men in similar situations to mine, who may not have one.

Are you concerned about the possibility that your OCM could disqualify or exonerate you for having a criminal history that goes beyond drugs?

Oh, absolutely. My first charge is a nonviolent act of robbery. Why should that be a concern? I don’t have a murder, I don’t have extortion, I don’t have any embezzling crimes. If I want to be better for myself, shouldn’t my past affect me? All my drug-related crimes were committed.

Look, I’m an authorized OSHA instructor. I’m taking a test for a construction health and safety technician through the Board of Certified Safety Professionals. I was denied for both because of my criminal record, but I appealed and won both. So, I am always denied for everything I apply for.

How did you appeal those denials successfully?

I have a lawyer. I’m not going to let these people determine how successful I’m going to be if I choose to be successful. I shouldn’t have a ceiling set on me when nobody else has one.

I committed the crime. I did the time. I completed parole. Why shouldn’t I have the same rights as anybody else?

You’ve been out for four years and have turned your life around. How many people can do that?

If people had the networks and the access to some of these programs, there would be much more. But you can’t expect a person to come home from prison and not give them anything and expect them to be successful.

That’s why I’m starting the Urban Safety Institute. Because I know construction, I’m good at it, I make a good living with it. But I’m one of the blessed ones – I was also able to come home, save the money, get the training, go do it and run with it.

But what if you can’t get the training, or can’t afford it? And even if they are getting into these programs, who’s teaching them? A person who doesn’t know who they are? A person who doesn’t know the struggles they’ve been through, and can’t relate?

When I came home, I was wondering if I would’ve had a good three-year experience. Someone would have told me. “Jeremy, put in an application, get a city job, get a government job,” and have assisted me with that application – I’d be a shoe up.

That’s the problem. These kids are so badly abused. They come from these families. These men and women come from these poor homes. Do you think they will be able to shed their armor and become vulnerable? You can be killed on the streets, bro.

So that would be your angle, with opening a retail store – helping these kids get off the street?

I would like to be hired directly from probation and parole. There’s a lot of smart kids out there who don’t have a chance. It’s up to you to choose them.

Right, so you wouldn’t be known for the strains you carry, but rather the business model behind the business?

The strains will be the strains, but pot is still pot. What are your community’s goals? That’s what social equity is in New York, right – giving an opportunity to people who may not have had one before in order to create a community in which people can create intergenerational wealth.

Look at me, billionaires sit in boardrooms with me, and treat me as an equal. They don’t know that I’m fully tattooed, that I’m a 20-year gangbanger, that I was a drug dealer my whole life. They don’t know that because I got an opportunity to change. But I fought for it. Now that I opened that door, I’m opening it for everybody.

But if you don’t know the door is there, you’ll be lost. It’s like Alice in Wonderland – you’ll be lost in the maze.

How confident are you in the people who are setting up this marketplace – the regulators, the politicians, etc.?

I’m hoping this actually works out the way they’re saying it will, with the social equity program. But it’s hard to have faith – it’s government.

And that’s the problem: They’re making decisions for people who they want to be the voice for, but never heard their own voice, right? To make the right decisions, you have to listen.

Don’t assume you know what the problem is with these kids, because you don’t. You’re not living in their shoes and you’re not living in the politics of their neighborhoods. You don’t know. But maybe if you ask, they’ll tell you. Some won’t. You have the stubborn ones, and it’s sad to say, but some kids are lost. I’ve had friends like that, that no matter what you tell them, they’re just stone-cold killers. It is what it is, you can’t change them. But that’s a very small minority. Very, very few.

There’s a lot of kids who are doing it because they don’t have another option. They don’t know anything else. So they do what they’re acclimated to do around their neighborhoods. I believe this weed thing can be changed if it is properly promoted and the right people are given the chance to open dispensaries. You’d be able to give jobs to people who need them, you’ll be able to teach trades.

Why not have a program where we can take guys on work-release and send them out to cut and prune and learn botany? Or, to rotate them in at a dispensary through an externship program or internship program. Teach the business.

Because I’m telling you, what’s happening now is we’re creating intergenerational corruption and criminality in these neighborhoods. My grandfather was a gangster, my uncle’s a gangster, I was a gangster. My kids aren’t going to be gangsters. I made that stop.

But it’s just going to continue until somebody says, “That’s it, I’m going to give you an opportunity.”

And what’s better than pot?

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