Talking With NBA Veteran Al Harrington About Black Representation In Cannabis

NBA vet Al Harrington is a true believer in the healing powers of cannabis. And he’s on a mission to end the stigmatization the plant faces in the sports world, while uplifting communities that have been historically disenfranchised because of its illegality. That’s a tall order, but Harrington’s a tall dude and feels certain he’s up to it. Inspired by the pain-relieving and healing properties of the plant — which he stumbled into while helping his grandmother cope with glaucoma — he’s fully transitioned from the court to the farm as the head of Viola Extracts.

It should be noted off the top — Viola isn’t just a weed brand. Social issues, particularly Black ownership, are central to its mission. Last month, Viola Extracts teamed with another Black-owned cannabis brand, Chris Ball’s Ball Family Farms, for the release of a collaborative Prince-inspired indica strain, dubbed “Reign.” $1 from every sale of Reign was donated to Root & Rebound, a non-profit helping those convicted of cannabis-related crimes get a second chance by entering the industry.

On the heels of that initiative, we linked with Harrington to chop it up about the stigmatization of cannabis in the world of pro sports and the importance of Black representation in the industry. We took a nice smoke break to enjoy Reign. Before we dive into the interview, here are our notes on Big Al’s latest strain.

Ball Family Farms/Viola Extracts — Reign

Dane Rivera

THC: 27.7%
CBD: .06%

This indica-dominant strain sports frosty greeen buds with flecks of purple hairs that truly do recall the Prince album it’s named for. With 27.7% THC, a single bowl of this flower is powerful enough to surprise even the most hardcore potheads and the high ushers in heavy waves of relaxation upon the first hit.

The flavor is heavily influenced by notes of pine and rich purple grape skins.

The Bottom Line: A great strain for end of the day chilling. Double down on the grape flavors by rolling this in a grape blunt or enjoy through a vaporizer to really savor the taste.

Where does Viola Extracts get its name, and what’s the mission behind the brand?

Back in 2011, I sent for my grandmother to come to see me play out in Colorado and when she got there she was telling me about the different ailments she was dealing with and one of them was glaucoma. Maybe two or three days before she got there, especially being in Colorado — when the medicinal market was just started to get going — there were all these different articles about the benefits of the plants, and one of the things I saw was glaucoma.

So I talked to her about it, I kept calling it “cannabis” finally she got to the point where she said, “Well, what is cannabis?” And I said “It’s marijuana. Weed.” She said, “Reefer? Boy, I ain’t smoking no reefer! You’re out your mind!” But the next day she was in pain and she was complaining about her eyes and she said, “You know what I’m in so much pain I’m willing to try anything!” So that’s how it started.

I went to the dispensary, bought a strain called “Vietnam Kush,” we vaporized it for her, had her try it, and an hour and a half later I went to go check on her and she was downstairs reading her bible crying. She told me it was the first time she was able to see the words in her bible in over three years. That made me want to get started in the industry.

I named the company after her because she inspired the start of it. Our purpose is about creating opportunities for people of color in the Cannabis industry because right now the industry is dominated by white male owners. People of color represent less than 5% of the total industry and I just have a huge problem with that. Especially growing up in New Jersey, seeing the war on drugs, seeing how it impacted our communities, and even some of my family members who have lost their freedom and every opportunity in life because of a cannabis conviction.

We’re here to uplift, educate, empower, and create opportunities for people from our community.

So that’s what attracted you to transition from a life of basketball to cannabis as a wellness product — grandma?

Fully my grandmother. When you think about someone who is 80-years-old, she was born in 1930 and cannabis has been criminalized since then. For her to be open-minded enough to try it and for it to actually help her, that spoke volumes to me.

It inspired me to learn more. A year later, I was making an investment in my first facility in Denver, Colorado.

I know you have an interest in non-psychoactive cannabinoid products, what’s attractive to you about that space in the cannabis industry?

Well, as an athlete who has had 14 surgeries throughout my career, there was a time for seven years straight when I was taking anti-inflammatory pills. I would take two in the morning and one at night just to be able to keep my body at a level that I felt good enough to go out and compete.

I think about all the harmful side effects of the pills that I was taking, and realize that cannabis could’ve been an option for me all along. It’s all-natural and way safer. An alternate way to medicate. That’s what I’ve been able to do since 2012. I’ve been able to manage all my pain through cannabis, whether it’s through topicals, tinctures, capsules, or different things like that.

I know athletes. I know what they put themselves through. When I was taking those pills, I knew the side effects but at the end of the day, I had to provide for my family. I didn’t have another option. I just want to provide options for other athletes and other people in general who deal with chronic pain, or anxiety, and let them know that cannabis is a real option for them.

Let’s talk about Reign, which you designed in collaboration with Chris Ball of Ball Family Farms — what kind of strain is it, how did you cultivate it, what was the process behind developing it?

The main thing was — before the strain came about — we knew that it was time to put our money where our mouths were. We’ve always talked about group economics and Black companies coming together and supporting each other and doing things together to trying to create a stronger network. We wanted to do something collaborative in that space, so we decided to launch a strain.

It comes from an indica-dominant standpoint. I’m a big fan of OGs, that’s something that I like to consume. It allows me to relax, allows my mind to get at ease, and even my body. Chris had a strain called Daniel LaRusso that has a father strain that is proprietary. We used that crossed with another strain and that’s how we got Reign. We had a couple of different phenotypes of it, we went through six of them and ended up settling on the one that’s on shelves and it did great on the market.

We plan on having future drops of it.

How long did it take you guys to come up with that label design and name? Obviously, it’s recalling a certain famous artist.

To develop it took us about a year, but the name of it we came up with pretty quick. We wanted to do something honoring “purple” because of Viola, and I had a deeper personal meaning for it. We all know that Prince suffered from pill abuse and I felt like we could create an interesting narrative around that but we had to honor the estate’s wishes so we ended up just naming it “Reign.”

A lot of the sales went to contribute Root & Rebound, can you expand on what that is?

Root & Rebound is very important for us. After meeting with the people at Root & Rebound and seeing what they were doing — bringing together a group of attorneys that volunteer their time to help people who have dealt with cannabis convictions try to get back into society and back on their feet — that was something that I felt was very important.

We’re all benefiting from this opportunity which some people have had their lives ruined over.

Obviously, representation in the cannabis industry is incredibly important and incredibly uneven. Why is it important for Black-owned brands to collaborate?

It’s super important because there is no representation. There have been industries before cannabis that black people have pioneered. Rice, sugar, cotton, the lottery, even alcohol. When you look at those industries now, there is no meaningful ownership from people of color. That’s why it’s so important to continue to come together and continue to push our narrative.

Because we are somewhat behind, it’s important for companies of ours to come together to make bigger statements and broaden our audiences.

Cannabis is losing the stigmatization that it’s held previously, but it’s still not legal in every state. Could you speak on the stigmatization that exists in the NBA space, specifically?

People still believe it’s a gateway drug and all these different things. Like maybe it’ll affect how competitive players are or how focused. But just look at the fact that the NBA is not testing these guys while they are in the bubble. There has to be some belief that there are guys who are using cannabis in the bubble, and if that is the case you see how high the level of play still is with these guys having access.

If you look at other sports and how they’re loosening their bylaws in regards to cannabis, I think we’re on that path. Bruh, I think people are starting to realize that cannabis is just an alternative way to medicate, and as an athlete, these guys should have it. Because look at what the alternatives are.

We’ve seen guys who use pills, and then they abuse them and lose their careers. Guys that drink alcohol and fall into alcoholism. With cannabis, I don’t see that. And the players that I know who have always used cannabis, have always used it responsibly. A player who respects his craft is going to respect his craft. Players don’t come to the court drunk, but they have access to alcohol, its the same thing with cannabis. Why would you come to a game-high when you know you need to compete at a high level?

The stigma is changing, but it’s still there. The more guys who speak out on it, especially retired guys who can talk on it when they’re done — if you can say “You know what? I was a hall of famer but I used cannabis the whole time!” That’ll help the people who feel strongly against it realize they shouldn’t feel that way.

What do you hope to see change in the cannabis space going forward?

More participation of people of color — that’s just such a huge issue. We need to focus on creating more opportunities because this is generational wealth is at risk for our people and I feel like if they allow us to participate and give us a fair shot, I think we can really change our communities for the better through this plant.