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'Brave New Workers': A Burning Desire To Get A Medicinal Marijuana License

Malcolm Mirage and sister Nina Parks operate the cannabis business Mirage Medicinal in San Francisco.
Marissa Ortega-Welch
Malcolm Mirage and sister Nina Parks operate the cannabis business Mirage Medicinal in San Francisco.

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.

The only reason there's a pie to be cut up is because people like myself going back decades created this pie.

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.

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Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).