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Power moves from the NBA to the cannabis industry - Al Harrington (and his grandma) are selling medical weed; Ex-basketballer signs licensing deal with Jamaican company

n Al Harrington (and his grandma) are selling medical weed n Ex-basketballer signs licensing deal with Jamaican company

Published:Monday | February 25, 2019 | 12:00 AMLeVaughn Flynn/Contributor
Harrington was introduced to cannabis as an alternative treatment for pain by vaping the flower and ingesting CBD drops.
Al Harrington discovered five years ago, the therapeutic properties of cannabis.

Al Harrington (and his grandma) are selling medical weed

Ex-basketballer signs licensing deal with Jamaican company


Al Harrington used to have a conflicted relationship with cannabis.

He had family members that used it but didn’t do so responsibly.

As a New Jersey native, he grew up, like most people, believing Government propaganda that cannabis was as dangerous as heroin and had no medicinal application.

During that ‘War on Drugs’ period, Harrington figured marijuana was something you just smoked if you had nothing better to do.

But in 2014, the former 16-year NBA pro would experience first-hand the therapeutic properties of cannabis. While playing for the Denver Nuggets in Colorado, America’s testing ground for its legal cannabis industry, he underwent a botched knee surgery that left him with a staph infection. He received a shopping list of painkillers and anti-inflammatories that left him drugged-up and still in pain.

Then one day a close friend visited him in hospital and introduced him to cannabis as an alternative treatment by vaping the flower and ingesting CBD drops. Harrington was amazed at how effective it was at managing his pain and overall well-being.

He started doing in-depth research on cannabis’ medical efficacy and figured if it helped him his grandmother, who was going blind from glaucoma, he could also benefit.

But she wasn’t having it.

“I ain’t smoking no reefer,” said Harrington playfully, re-enacting her response.

His insistence, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the doctor-prescribed medications, eventually led to a vape session in their garage.

After a few puffs they both went about their business.

An hour passed and Harrington decided to check on his grandma to see how she was doing. He was overcome with emotion when he discovered that his grandmother, who had been unable to see printed text clearly for nearly three years, was reading her Bible in her room, tears streaming down her face.

That was the moment of truth for Harrington. He named his company in honour of his grandmother and today Viola is an award-winning medical and recreational cannabis company operating in four US states with further expansion planned for 2019.

While Viola is positioned as a premium and hip brand with numerous celebrity endorsements, Harrington says his grandmother’s soul is embedded in the DNA of the company.

“If it’s not good enough for Grandma Viola we’re not putting it on the shelves. If you know anything about me, you know how much I love my grandmother. Nothing but the best for her,” Harrington said firmly. “Even the colour scheme is inspired by her – purple is her favourite colour and when we’re making apparel I usually get her opinion on it.”





The quality of life both he and his grandmother have experienced through cannabis helps shape the company’s purpose. Harrington says he envisions a society where cannabis is normalised and that he hopes both their stories will help to destigmatise the plant.




That includes the use of cannabis in professional sports.




In an interview with former NBA commissioner, David Sternin 2017, Harrington estimated that about 70 per cent of athletes in all major sports smoke marijuana, even while being a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency.




Athletes recovering from injury are usually prescribed copious amounts of opioid drugs in a rush to get them back in action quickly. Some of them also face depression during this period and alcohol use becomes an outlet.




Other athletes and coaches have publicly expressed their opinion on medical marijuana use. Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has admitted to using cannabis for back pain, says he thinks medical marijuana will eventually be allowed in professional sports.




Former NFL running back, Ricky Williams, who was suspended numerous times throughout his career for violating the league’s cannabis rules, has even co-founded a cannabis-friendly gym called Power Plant Fitness that combines weed and workouts. Members, however, would be first required to pass a “cannabis performance assessment”.




“Once we have adequate testing, I think it (cannabis) will be allowed in locker rooms and sports organisations in general,” said Harrington.




“Ever since I’ve been introduced to cannabis that’s all I use to manage my pains.




There are lots of athletes with the same story so the more of us that share our story the world will start to realise that this plant is really medicine and we can start giving it the respect that I think it deserves.”




The NBA vet has also created a separate business called Harrington Wellness which focuses on using CBD-based products for sports therapeutic treatment.









Harrington’s transition from the NBA to cannabis entrepreneur is a success story within itself. While he had the capital to invest (US$3 million), as a Black man, Harrington, and his partner, Dan Pettigrew, represent a small minority of non-white cannabis business owners.




US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the discrepancy recently when she informed the House of Representatives that 81 per cent of cannabis executives in Colorado and Washington are white. Actress Cynthia Nixon, while running for Governor of New York last year, also drew attention to the disproportionate rate of incarceration. She said, “80 per cent of New Yorkers who are arrested for marijuana are black or Latino, despite the fact that whites and people of colour use marijuana at roughly the same rate.”




The disadvantageous position minorities have been placed in whether weed is legal or not is an issue that hasn’t been lost on Harrington.




“One of our missions is to create opportunities for black and brown people, and women as well,” said Harrington. “When you look at the market there aren’t a lot of blacks that are even applying for the jobs, so we want to help create opportunities for people that look like us because we are the ones who suffered the most during prohibition.”




Harrington and his team achieves this through several social initiatives, such as providing 10 university scholarships each year, working with cannabis regulators in Illinois to ensure a portion of tax revenues goes towards assisting disenfranchised communities impacted by the ‘War on Drugs’, supporting expungement programmes and sponsoring incubator programmes for minority-owned businesses.




Harrington has also invested in Butter Baby, a female-led, minority-owned business in Los Angeles that produces cannabis-enhanced edibles.









Harrington’s vision to build Viola into a global brand took him to Jamaica two years ago for initial talks with Itopia Life Ltd, a local medical cannabis company. Both companies have signed a mutual licensing deal with the Viola brand being marketed and sold locally. Similarly, the Itopia brand will be marketed in the US states Viola operates.




Itopia Life President Joan ‘Nanook’ Webley says the company will be leveraging Viola’s award-winning extraction process to provide superior quality cannabis oil for local consumers while beginning to build its brand awareness in the US market.




Harrington added that given the country’s strong cultural identity with ganja, it was important to use Jamaica as one of its first international markets.




“Jamaica should be considered the capital of cannabis – that’s what Jamaica means to the industry,” said Harrington. “So for us to be able to launch a brand here and get respect from Jamaicans that would be a win in itself for me.




“I was impressed by the team that Itopia brought to the table and their knowledge of cannabis and what’s going on in the industry. It was a deal that made sense for us to do.”




In the NBA Harrington was known as ‘Big Al’, a talented all-round athlete that could play almost any position. He was known for his work ethic and passion and he has transferred those life skills from the NBA to the cannabis industry. No doubt Grandma Viola is proud each time she reads of his burgeoning success.