When it comes to modern day NBA legends, Al Harrington has to be one of the most underrated. But if the gamer has never made the headlines or won awards like some of his most famous competitors, there is one area where he has already made an indelible mark: the cannabis industry, where Harrington’s Viola brand continues to thrive as one of the most respected and credible names in the business .
Harrington founded Viola in 2011, and suffice it to say the company was what would be called pioneering – they struck at a time when the idea of state legalization was still a pipe dream and battled the social stigmas that the marijauna plagued and planning for a future in which weed could be accepted as the harmless recreational product it is. History has obviously proven Harrington correct, and Viola, unsurprisingly, is one of the leading wholesalers and manufacturers of premium cannabis products anywhere.
This month, under a distribution agreement with the biopharmaceutical company Avicanna, Viola officially launched a range of its products in Canada, which will be made available nationwide through the Medical Cannabis by Shoppers online platform. To celebrate Viola’s entry into the Canadian market, we caught up with Harrington on the phone to talk about the cannabis landscape, drug testing in the NBA, and why everyone in the league was smoking weed but kept extremely silent about it.
Congratulations on the Canadian start. How did that happen?
I was up there four years ago when the legalization was going on just looking around to see if I want to join. There were many challenges back then. It was early and the time wasn’t right for me. But later on, I was working on my CBD-focused company and I met some people up there and we just hit it off. We talked about our vision and where we saw the business, and we really just got our bearings. We are very excited to launch our vapes and sublingual spray. Shoppers is a great partner. You have helped us a lot to achieve our goals in the great country of Canada.
I recently read a study that said the leading companies in the cannabis industry in Canada are 84 percent white. Viola’s mission is to promote diversity, so I wanted to know what can be done to change that in this area.
It’s a lengthy answer, but the main thing is that fairer opportunities need to be created for People of Color. The industry has so far been managed to be built for what it looks like. As People of Color, we don’t have the resources that our white colleagues have. And then when it is made so expensive that we can get involved, everything from the way the tax structure is set up leaves us literally no choice but to watch from the sidelines – even though our communities have been hardest hit and destroyed by the wealth of generations.
Does things like Black Lives Matter have an impact on it?
I feel like because of Black Lives Matter, people who don’t look like us pretend they care. It’s like, oh yeah, blacks have to get a fair chance! They talk about it, but only in a way that will benefit them, and not in a way that will benefit the people who actually need it, the colored people who deserve to actually participate and have a part in it.
So what has to happen?
I think the legislature and the decision-makers have to sit down in a room with other entrepreneurs who are black or colored and develop a game plan on how we can get involved. Because, as is happening now with all these conglomerates, all this consolidation, we will never be able to play a part in the game. You will have too much control and too much power. My fear is that it will grow into yet another industry that People of Color co-founded. That’s not fair. We need to find new ways to get involved now, rather than in ten years.
“When I’ve played in the NBA so far, it’s the same reason 40,000 people are still locked up because I’ve found a new way to take care of my family. It doesn’t sit right on me. “
What ten years ago – you’ve been doing this for a decade. How much has the cannabis landscape changed during this time?
Oh my god it has changed drastically. When it started nobody wanted to be associated with him. I met so many people back then who are now in the room. It’s a gold rush now, as they say, and everyone is trying to get into the game and create brands. It has become very crowded and competitive. From the beginning until today it is very different. Nothing is the same, to be completely honest. It is now a thing that everyone wants to be a part of.
On the other side of the coin, we still see thousands of people jailed on petty allegations and not released even after the weed that brought them there was legalized. I know you asked for a pardon and were instrumental in making this change. But what has to happen for that to really change?
I think everyone in the industry needs to value it. We must not forget the people who actually created this opportunity. For me, when I’ve played in the NBA so far, it’s the same reason 40,000 people are still locked up trying to find a new way to take care of my family. It’s not right for me. How can that feel right as a person? So we have to use our resources to raise awareness of the topic, but also just spend money on it. We need people who are constantly lobbying. My biggest goal in doing this is that we all do it in one way, around an initiative. There are so many people trying to find out, but in silos. We have to pool all of our resources in an alliance, in one direction. One could cope with that.
Another thing you’ve been involved in is the NBA’s change in attitude towards marijuana. Do you think the NBA is listening? Have things changed?
You have definitely changed. This is the third year they have stopped testing, which is huge. You will not be going back in that direction. I think they wait before deciding to take it off completely to see how the players react. I take my hat off to the players for that. I mean, I was in a market where cannabis was legal and I saw a current NBA player walk in. It was an eye opener. It was like, wow. The players deal with their stakes very professionally. They look at it like alcohol. You use it after the game to relax with your friends. At the level they play at, they would never smoke before a game. It’s like having five shots and a beer before the game. And because of this, there haven’t been any real issues with players using cannabis at all.
“I never thought I could smoke weed and make it to the top levels in the league, but these guys actually did. It’s a complicated part of our community and our culture. “
Do you think the lack of testing has changed the culture in the NBA a bit?
Well, there were always people going out, going crazy, and getting DUIs, and you haven’t seen that in the last three years, all right? I have a feeling that this just throws everyone off balance. It’s an alternative way to help guys deal with things outside of the game. And remember, this is most of your life. The game lasts two hours a night. The other 99 percent of the time they have to live real life. And we all deal with shit, right? Just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you won’t have problems.
Do you think that when you were in the league the players used just as much weed but were just quieter?
Yeah, I think the usage was the same. It was like the best kept secret. But I think there was a time in the league when jobs were competitive, game time was competitive, and you never wanted anyone to have anything with you. When I smoke, I don’t want you to know I smoke because I don’t want you to go to the carriage and say, “You know, Al might be high last night!” It’s like, you’re still bullshit that happens. Some of the greats may be more open about it, but the tenth man, the ninth man, he would be silent. You could say that to some people. You went on her floor and it always smelled like strawberries and you thought I know what’s going on here.
Image via publicist
Have you now been able to speak more openly with athletes about their use?
Yes. I remember the first time I spoke to some athletes about when they first smoked and was amazed – you heard shit like 11 or 12 years old. My mindset, I was scared of it, and I figured if I smoked weed when I was ten, I would still live on the corner in New Jersey. I never thought I could smoke weed and make it to the top levels in the league, but these guys actually made it. It’s a complicated part of our community and our culture. In my day some guys didn’t smoke it due to the random tests, but once the season was over they smoked it as soon as they got their hands on it.
You still have some strange problems, like last season with Alex Caruso. It just seems crazy to me because there is a pharmacy on every block here.
And here too! It’ll be completely legal here soon. It’s a question of if, not when. But I think the Alex Caruso thing was a time in the summer when there was no content. He was strangely caught at the airport with a few grams. People. Come on. It’s not even newsworthy. There was nothing else to discuss so that’s what they did.