Former Drug Dealer, Now Cannabis Entrepreneur, Inspiring and Hiring Others

Oct 21, 2022
3:42 PM

Coss Marte (Jon Levy/Twitter)

One thing that makes Coss Marte proud, is that he has always been good at math. His mother, a Dominican teacher who moved to New York when she was still pregnant with him, used to school him at home when she was not working at a factory.

“I learned how to do multiplication before I even went to school,” Marte told Latino Rebels.

By the time he was 13, his knack for numbers had him dreaming of one day becoming a graduate student in business. But the neighborhood where he was born and raised, Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the tumultuous ’80s and ’90s, influenced him into thinking that the business of marijuana was the best way, or even the only way, to achieve success through his talent for numbers.

His illicit career soon earned him a few trips to prison, including in 2009 when he was named as the head of a multimillion-dollar drug operation.

“I was arrested about nine times. Going in and out was just like a revolving door,” Marte said, recalling the ways of his “old me.”

Yet, despite his stints behind bars, his only goal was to make more money. “Every time I went inside, I thought I was just strategically waiting to come out to do something larger and bigger,” he said.

It took a stay in solitary confinement, where he sat in 24-hour lockdown in a cell with zero communication, limited food, and only a couple of showers a week, to lead him into what he describes as a spiritual awakening.

“It was a difficult time where I just started really reflecting,” he recalled. “I basically read the Bible from front to back, and I realized what I was doing was really wrong, and how many people I was affecting due to the stuff that I was doing in my life. And so I vowed that I was gonna come out and do something right.”

Out of confinement, a warning from the medical staff about his very high levels of cholesterol fueled a desire for working out. Running and using the pull-up bar in the yard, he developed an effective system of losing weight and getting in shape through bodyweight workouts. Marte turned the life-saving and liberating experience into a method, and then into an idea for a new business.

Today, Marte is the CEO of Conbody, a gym in his native Lower East Side, which also operates inside jails and prisons across the country. With only two exceptions, all of Marte’s 50 employees were hired after coming out of the prison system.

“Success,” he said. “it’s really just being a person for others, and to be and treat people good. That is where I get my reward from. It’s not actual things, because we get things and then we get bored of things. But when we see somebody flourish, and we give somebody an opportunity and they take advantage of it, and they move on and they start doing incredible work, that’s real success.”

Marte is also the co-founder of Conbud, which, like Conbody, is focused on giving former inmates a second chance. He is one of the 900 applicants pending a license by the New York Office of Cannabis Management to be among the first recreational dispensaries of cannabis in the state. The first round of 150 licenses, 70 of them to be located in New York City, will go to people who have experience running a successful business and who have past marijuana convictions or their family members.

Considering the previous marijuana convictions as an advantage for the first group of licenses is an unprecedented approach, unique to New York, and has been hailed by cannabis advocates as a way to repair historic inequities.

“The cannabis business, I feel like, it’s just some sort of reparation for me that grew up in this neighborhood, that got stopped by cops probably over 200 times and got searched, and got thrown in jail for a bag of weed,” Marte. “I feel like this is an opportunity for us to make money, and I can also have employees of mine and create more generational wealth, and give back to the community that I work with.”

About President Biden’s pardon for the thousands of Americans convicted for minor federal offenses related to marijuana possession, Marte says it is a great start because it opens up a conversation about cannabis-related sentences.

“Cannabis hasn’t killed anyone. You don’t see anybody going to smoke a joint and wanting to start a bar fight. It’s used for recreation, to chill out, and for the medical benefits,” Marte explained.

He agrees with Biden’s recommendation to the Department of Health and Human Services and the attorney general of downgrading cannabis as a Schedule I drug, which passes it alongside much more dangerous substances like heroin and LSD, and even above crystal meth, OxyContin, and fentanyl.

“I think (marijuana) should definitely be used with responsibility,” Marte said. “It’s a flower, it’s a plant. I don’t think we should be incarcerating people for it anymore.”

This past summer, Marte was invited to speak before Congress on providing opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.

“What if you were judged for the worst thing you’ve ever done for the rest of your life?” he asked members of the Senate Committee on Small Business.

Asked for a piece of advice to young people that might be facing the same circumstances he faced in the Lower East Side when he was 13, Marte told Latino Rebels: “To any young individual who thinks that the street is the way to success, I would tell ’em, like, try to get out of that four-block radius that you’re living in. There are so many more opportunities out there of making money.”

According to data released by the Youth Justice Research Collaborative in 2020, youth arrests in New York City dropped more than 40 percent, but the racial disparity is overwhelming, with young Blacks and Latinos representing 93 percent of arrests.

“When I was a kid, all I saw was the streets. We didn’t have a phone, we didn’t have social media. Today we have so many eye-opening opportunities out there,” Marte noted.

“Do research on that,” he added. “Jump on that. Just be patient and trust the process. There are other ways to make it, and if you continue doing the right thing, trust me, right things will come back.”


Juan de Dios Sánchez Jurado is a summer correspondent for Futuro Media. A writer, lawyer, and journalist from Colombia, he is currently studying at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. Twitter: @diosexmaquina