Former NBA star presses lawmakers for Black equity in marijuana industry

Marquise Francis
·National Reporter & Producer
·6 min read

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Ron Wyden announced this week that they are working to advance comprehensive marijuana reform legislation.

“The War on Drugs has been a war on people — particularly people of color,” the senators said in a joint statement on Monday. “Ending the federal marijuana prohibition is necessary to right the wrongs of this failed war and end decades of harm inflicted on communities of color across the country.”

“But that alone is not enough,” the statement continued. “As states continue to legalize marijuana, we must also enact measures that will lift up people who were unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs.”

Former NBA journeyman Al Harrington, who played 16 years of professional basketball, is a leading advocate for reforming marijuana laws and has been pushing lawmakers to enact change.

Al Harrington
Al Harrington of the Washington Wizards in November 2013. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

The CEO and co-founder of the cannabis company Viola Brands, Harrington told Yahoo News that Black Americans deserve to have an equitable share of a booming marijuana industry that once “destroyed” parts of the Black community.

“Right now we represent less than 4 percent of the industry, especially when you talk specifically to Black ownership and participation,” Harrington said. “We have to figure out a way to stop that and to get more involved in the industry. … Social equity in theory is a good program, but until we can figure out funding, it’s something that we're not going to be to take advantage of.”

Last week, Harrington interviewed Schumer on Instagram Live and the two talked about increasing partnerships to enact change. Harrington added that connecting with the likes of Schumer and Booker will help inform more politicians on the challenges happening on the ground.

“Talking with Schumer and Cory Booker, just really being at that table, and just letting them know what’s really going on on the ground [is important],” Harrington said. “A lot of them aren’t businessmen or women. They’re not true entrepreneurs, they’re politicians. We put them in those positions to do a job, but when we think about what’s going on in the cannabis industry, you really need industry knowledge in order to be able to really write the laws, to be able to have the industry be successful. So I’m just really excited about the opportunity.”

Al Harrington (Viola)
Al Harrington. (Viola)

Harrington’s experience in the marijuana industry hasn’t always gone so smoothly. Believing his investment in the industry was far too risky, his old financial adviser fired him. At one point, Harrington considered giving up the marijuana business and investing in real estate instead. But he said that his experience in pro basketball reminded him of the need to believe in himself.

“I learned that with basketball, nothing’s going to be given to you,” said Harrington, who played with 7 NBA teams over 16 seasons. “You’ve got to really work for what you want and you have to believe in something. You have to believe in what you’re doing more than anybody else and never quit.”

In 2011, something special happened. One day Harrington convinced his grandmother, who suffered from glaucoma and could barely see, to try cannabis. He knew the drug could help alleviate chronic pain, depression and seizures, so he figured it could help a loved one too. When he went to check on his grandmother some time later, he found her crying and reading a Bible. This moment convinced Harrington to fully invest himself in the industry and he named his company Viola, in honor of his grandmother.

Today, Viola physically sells marijuana to adults over the age of 21 in four states and has joint ventures in six. In the third quarter of 2020, Harrington’s company turned its first profit and he’s looking to continue this trend. But it’s not all about the money for Harrington. “Our purpose is really focused on creating opportunities and empowering people of color to be able to participate in a space and industry that was used to destroy our communities,” Harrington said.

Al Harrington
Al Harrington, former NBA player and current CEO of Viola Extracts. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Increased education on the purported health benefits of the drug as well as the tax benefits to state and local governments from the sale of marijuana has resulted in a growing number of politicians supporting its legalization. In 2021, legal cannabis sales are expected to surpass $23 billion dollars across the industry, and states that have legalized the drug are expected to make hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue. But critics say the communities that were most penalized for cannabis deserve an equitable share of its market.

The three Democratic senators committed this week to release a draft of their plan “on comprehensive reform to ensure restorative justice, protect public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations” in early 2021.

Despite decades of stiff cannabis criminalization measures, or perhaps because of it, attitudes about the drug have undergone a radical shift in recent years. Sixty-eight percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana in the U.S., according to a Gallup poll from late last year. That is the highest number ever recorded, and support continues to rise each year.

Chuck Schumer, right, with Cory Booker
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, right, speaking with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At the same time, however, a 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve individual rights, found that 43 percent of drug arrests in 2018 were for charges relating to the possession and sale of marijuana. Despite data showing that white and Black Americans use marijuana equally, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for using the drug, a figure that has remained unchanged for nearly a decade. Even as marijuana has been made legal for recreational use in 15 states, an estimated 40,000 Americans remain incarcerated because of marijuana offenses.

With Democrats now in control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency, investment analysts believe that significant criminal reform for marijuana has its best chance of being passed in history.

Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus, is optimistic about the prospect of marijuana reform that was most recently blocked by former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell under President Trump.

“We look forward to working with the Senate to refine the bill, advance its core principles, and end the federal prohibition of cannabis once and for all,” Blumenauer said in a statement this week. “The missing ingredient in cannabis reform has been Senate action.”

Marijuana plants in San Francisco. (Getty Images)
Marijuana plants in San Francisco. (Getty Images)

Harrington sees the marijuana industry as a way to fulfill the unmet promises America has made to Black Americans.

“I think this would be crazy for us to end up being customers in this industry when we should be owners,” he said, adding, “This is a tremendous opportunity that we could really start to put the ship going in the right direction,” Harrington added.

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Samuel Corum/Getty Images, Viola

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