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Al Harrington Wants Legal Weed as Much as You Do. But That’s Not the Finish Line.

Esquire logo Esquire 2/26/2021 Sarah Rense
a man wearing a hat: Former NBA star and current Viola cannabis magnate Al Harrington knows that when politics and money get together, social equity can easily get pushed aside. © Courtesy Former NBA star and current Viola cannabis magnate Al Harrington knows that when politics and money get together, social equity can easily get pushed aside.

Al Harrington, former NBA star and current cannabis magnate, has been having talks with politicians about weed. It's been a big couple of years for weed. Legalization is plodding its way through the states, and nationwide decriminalization is up for grabs with a Democrat-controlled Congress. Politicians want in on that record-high constituent support for recreational use.

They also really want in on the tax boom. So Harrington, who started his cannabis company Viola nearly a decade ago, is planting himself in front politicians to bring them back down to the realities of the legal cannabis industry: how it is remarkably difficult for BIPOC small business owners to get in and stay in, a gross irony considering how disproportionally the decades-long crackdown on illegal marijuana has hit their communities. The big cannabis players, most of them white-owned, most of them backed by lucrative venture capital and investor connections, just don't face the same obstacles to get the limited number of marijuana licenses, to get funding, to stay above water and the law.

The goal for minority-owned cannabis businesses, says Harrington, is generational wealth. Build it, and you build an equitable industry. You win. It won't happen by magic. It might happen through Viola's incubator program, which pours as much money as it can (about $750,000 so far) into minority-fronted weed operations that matter to communities—like a family-owned farm in Tennessee that went from growing corn to hemp, an edibles company making weed infused cooking essentials, and a chain of dispensaries in Oklahoma.

It'll also happen, Harrington hopes, by getting face time with politicians as they game plan nationwide decriminalization, even legalization. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after his meeting with Harrington,"We know that the war on drugs has been a war on people—particularly people of color... Al Harrington is an amazing advocate, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. Hearing from advocates and those committed to equity in the space, like Al, is vital as we continue developing legislation.”

Esquire got on the phone with Harrington earlier this week to talk about the stickiness of federal legalization, the still-thriving black market, and why politicians so often get it wrong with social justice reform.

ESQ: This is great timing, because just yesterday the New Jersey governor signed their legal cannabis bill into law, kicking 2021 off in a good way, as far as 2021 can go. What are you most interested in seeing in the cannabis space this year?

Al Harrington: I'm interested to see, with this new administration being very clear that they're friendly to the cannabis industry, how they plan on moving the industry forward. Obviously, there's a lot of issues that need to be addressed. One of the main things is banking—for us to be able to have bank accounts to put money in, but also being able to work with the banks to be able to get business loans, so that we can go out and have healthier businesses. The financial side of it is very tough when you have to get all your money from private equity, or private investors in general.

Can you shed a little light on the conversations that you have with politicians—what they're most interested in, what their blind spots are?

It's almost like politicians are like celebrities, right? It's like, Oh my God, I'm meeting with this person with his wife. At the end of the day, this person works for you. We are tax payers. We pay them to execute on our vision as a people. So really just being able to have those meetings and give them your perspective, uncut and raw. These are the things that we're dealing with. These are the things these other companies are not dealing with. These are the reasons why they're having the success that they have. And this is the reason why we just can't get our business off the ground.

It's really about being able to get their ear, and when you have their ear, being able to have a very real conversation to hopefully help them change their way of thinking. I spent some time in New York pre-Covid talking to all of [Governor Andrew] Cuomo's aides, because I felt like they didn't really understand the significance of social equity. And even after all that talking we did, I'm hearing that the new bill that they're proposing to go adult use [in New York] is missing social equity again. So for some reason, it's not registering in their heads of the issues in regards to diversity and inclusion.

Why don't you think it's registering?

I don't know. I just think that there's a lot of noise. I think that when you think about the multi-state [cannabis] operators, when they talk about how much money they can bring to the state and the infrastructure they have set up that can obviously turn on a money-generating machine, you lose sight of social equity.

a group of people sitting on a stage: Harrington at a (pre-pandemic) event for Viola. © Courtesy Harrington at a (pre-pandemic) event for Viola.

Are there any states or local governments that you think have done enough to incorporate social justice issues into their legislation?

I think Illinois is doing a good job. At least they're trying... I have to say that, Illinois. Michigan, Detroit area, they drew a line in regards of trying to really give the social equity people a real opportunity. I think Oakland has a pretty decent program. What I would hope to see, with potential federal legalization happening, is one way to operate these programs. It's like every state is trying to say,"I'm right, I'm right. You're wrong." To be honest, I wouldn't say there's one program that completely covered all the bases.

You mentioned federal legalization. Joe Biden is not really on board with legalization. He favors decriminalization. How do you feel about that?

It's a start, right? I still don't understand why he's not willing to take that leap and just say it: Cannabis is here to stay and we need to figure out how to legalize it. But for the industry as a whole, to be honest, we don't want federal legalization to happen too fast. And we've got to be careful of who's going to govern it, because we understand that if the FDA governs it, the industry will change a lot for the small business owners. It may potentially block them out completely. That's why I think that, as Schumer and them continue to write these bills, it's important that the right people are at the table so that they make sure that they address the people that don't have a voice.

I had never heard that distinction before, that the FDA itself might block out small businesses.

I'm not saying they will block purposely, but you think about FDA... I'll just give you an example of the tobacco industry. The FDA took over the tobacco industry in 2009. A friend of mine has been in since'09 and he's still been trying to get his license from the FDA. He's been paying lawyers just to be halfway compliant to continue to run his business. When that governing body comes in, their regulations is just through the roof. If they incorporate that on cannabis, what about the small grower here in California, downtown L.A., that's been growing but doesn't have the means to build a GMP-certified facility?

If these FDA concerns were what became law, how would Viola do under those regulations?

I think that as our company becomes cashflow positive and we start putting together a war chest, hopefully in the next 18 months, we will be able to pivot as well and be able to make the upgrades to our facilities when that day comes.

We're also concerned about the taxation of cannabis. Cannabis is taxed so high that it still is driving most patients to the black market to buy weed. I could buy an eighth from my local drug dealer for 30, 40 bucks. But as producers, we're still putting that same product on shelves for 30, 40 bucks, so by the time you pay taxes you're going to pay $75. Obviously, there's a difference, because our product is all tested and super safe, and with the other black market product, you don't know what you're getting. People would look at it like,"I've been smoking black market products for the last 30 years and they did nothing to me up at this point. I'm going to keep doing it."

The goal is to continue to drive more patients into dispensaries, because number one, obviously, it's safer for them. It helps all these businesses. But also, it helps the state, because now the state collects more tax revenue.

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On the above-board business side, the cannabis industry is growing incredibly fast, and only a fraction of the companies are headed by minority people. And in a lot of the cannabis industry, at least from the outside looking in, it doesn't seem like issues of social justice and issues of systemic racism and issues that are leftover from the war on drugs, are anything but afterthoughts. Does it stand a chance of changing?

It's funny, right? I think most of these companies look at social equity as a way for them to get licenses [through partnerships with minority-owned businesses that already hold licenses]. I think that they want to help, but they're also business savvy enough to know that being attached to these licenses would give them an opportunity to take over this license in the next year, year and a half. I think 20 years from now, potentially, if people of color don't come together and wake up and realize what's really going on, it's going to be like,"We owned all these licenses. We went from this amount to this amount," which would be obviously minuscule. It's already minuscule.

So to answer your question, I would say I don't think that it's really a point of emphasis for many of these companies to really, really help those [small, minority-owned] companies to the level that will allow them to truly be successful.

It's ironic, because you're speaking to me during Black History Month, when a lot of companies will put out these statements that can strike as hollow, given that they're not backed by any action. What kind of action can a company take that you think is worthwhile?

I really think it's putting these companies, or these entrepreneurs, or these social equity winners, under your umbrella and giving them a true infrastructure, and allow them to be a part of what you're doing. What we do [at Viola] is we provide them with the back office, we provide them with the mentorship, and we provide them with some of our resources. And it's been somewhat successful. But it would be a lot better if we was able to raise $500 million. This is not a $10 million raise. This is not $100 million. It's more than $500 million, to be honest. It's very, very, very, very, very expensive.

I've got to ask the looming question: How has the pandemic affected your work in Viola's social equity programs?

Nobody could move around, right? And a lot of these social equity programs stopped because no one was coming to work. I think overall the industry took off. I've seen more soccer moms that used to drink wine now eating edibles or smoking pre-rolls, just within my circle. I've seen [sales of some Viola] products go up 30, 40 percent in the pandemic, which was surprising. I think that at the end of the day, the industry has shown that it is essential, and that the people want it. If we left it to a vote, I always say, to the country for legalization, I think we'll be legal before we know it.

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The NBA might permanently get rid of THC screenings. The MLB has done it. And the UFC has even eyeing psychedelic studies for treatments. Why does it seem like athletes such as yourself are always so far ahead of the curve, and how does that affect how the public sees these drugs?

Main thing is, I don't feel like cannabis is a drug. It's all natural, anybody can grow it. Drugs are made in labs, in my opinion. But as far as the athletes, the guys before me were ahead of their time. Before I started Viola I was afraid of cannabis—I thought it was a gateway drug, that whole thing. A lot of my teammates that were some of the best players using it consistently is when I realized that the stigma wasn't true. For me, once I saw my grandmother use it for her glaucoma and then go downstairs and read her Bible and see for the first time in three years, it's really what just changed my perception of it.

And then I had a botched knee surgery a year later where I almost died. I was in the hospital and they would give me all the opioids and the pharmaceuticals that I was allowed. I couldn't eat and was throwing up constantly, and then I started using cannabis. I'm not saying cannabis can cure anything, but at the end of the day I just feel like there's an alternative way to medicate. And when you really think about it, as much as athletes have used cannabis in the past for recovery, to deal with anxiety, and currently, they knew something that we just didn't know. This season in the NBA, knowing that athletes now have access to [cannabis] and the quality of play is super high, I think that's just great.

My last question for you is just a straight cannabis question. What do you love to see about the plants that you're cultivating for Viola products right now?

They're beautiful. They're really flowers. I sometimes hate that we have to burn them. It's beauty just to watch them grow. I love my job. I love weed. I love learning about it. There's times I'll go to one of those facilities, and literally just because we play music in the room—the plants like music. I listen to Jay-Z or I'll listen to Biggie. Me and the plants just rock out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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