Al Harrington and the Fight for Cannabis Use in the NBA

Former NBA player Al Harrington did not always see himself becoming a pot mogul in his post-basketball life but now it is his livelihood.
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In Oct. 2017, Al Harrington orchestrated a meeting he’ll never forget. Sitting on a plush, navy couch, Harrington held a piece of paper with a meticulously organized list of questions in his hands. To his right, sat former NBA commissioner David Stern.

“I’m now at the point where, personally, I think [marijuana] probably should be removed from the ban list,” Stern told him early in their conversation, which was filmed for an UNITERUPTED documentary. “I think there is universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”

Harrington was taken aback.

The now 40-year-old Harrington did not always see himself becoming a pot mogul in his post-basketball life. The Orange, New Jersey native had never smoked cannabis until the end of the 2008 season. It took until Harrington had multiple “botched” knee surgeries in 2012 for him to regularly use CBD in his rehab. “I don’t take any pharmaceutical prescriptions drugs anymore,” he says. “Like at all. I smoke because I believe in the plant that much.”

But it’s more than a belief for Harrington. It’s his business and now his livelihood. He is the CEO and co-founder of Viola, a company that markets and produces cannabis products designed for medical and recreational use. It’s named after his grandmother, who Harrington says had previously struggled with glaucoma. Years ago, she thought that “reefer,” as she called it to him, wasn’t “gonna do nothing, but make me hungry.” But it helped treat her eye issues. And after smoking for the first time, she was moved to tears by its impact. “I always like to tell people about my grandmother,” he says. “If she's not going to Heaven. We're all going to hell for sure.”

The No. 25 pick in the 1998 NBA draft says he now feels like he’s doing “God’s work,” educating people about the plant. And he hopes one day people refer to him as being the “pot guy” over the “ex-NBA guy.”

As of January 2020, cannabis use is legal in some form in 46 of 50 states. Across sports, a number of leagues have softened their stances on it, with MLB removing marijuana from its list of banned substances this offseason. The NHL tests for cannabis, but treats positive tests as a matter of health care, and doesn’t punish its players. The NFL’s new proposed CBA would eliminate player suspensions for positive marijuana tests. But NBA players are still subject to four random tests during the regular season and can get suspended up to 10 games for failing them, depending on their prior history.

Change is coming in the NBA, per Harrington. Last week, he sat down with Sports Illustrated to weigh in on how he’s combating such stigmas associated with the plant, discuss the future of cannabis in the NBA, voice his message to commissioner Adam Silver and comment Dion Waiters’ THC-mishap.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Image via Al Harrington

Image via Al Harrington

Sports Illustrated: How are you making a difference in communities that have been most impacted by perceptions of the plant?

Al Harrington: As I’ve grown into space, I’ve realized that when I go into a lot of rooms in the cannabis industry, meaningful rooms, I’m always the only one who looks like me. I’m trying to normalize this plant. I’ve always been trying to figure out how I can bring more people of color to the cannabis space. Think about where the stigma started, with all the arrests that occurred primarily in black and Latino neighborhoods. Viola cares is one of those ways we’re trying to make a difference. It’s gonna have a bunch of initiatives that we feel like align with our purpose, to help educate people, get them back into society. We’re looking to continue shedding light on the topic, but also do something about perceptions.

SI: Frequently after NBA games, we see a number of players post pictures or videos on social media of them drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages. Do you think we’ll ever get to the point where an NBA player can post a video of himself smoking and it won’t be newsworthy, and if so when?

AH: Eventually. I think it's going to be a while, though. I also understand perception, right. And I understand that kids are watching everything that we do. We don't want to teach kids to smoke anything at this age, let alone drink liquor. But just for some reason, obviously liquor has been around a lot longer. It’s something that's more accepted. I think cannabis, will have to go down that road.

SI: As a parent yourself, what conversations have you had with your children about marijuana?

AH: I've had to explain to them why daddy smokes. I’ve explained to them a little bit about the war on drugs. They understand how black people were historically demonized for being associated with the plant. I’ve talked to them about daddy's career and that he had a lot of surgeries. I talked to them about pills and pill addiction and why I choose to use cannabis instead of using pharmaceutical drugs. They also understand their grandmother’s story, the origin story of Viola. You have to get ahead of a lot of these things with your kids. Just explain to them the world that we live in.

SI: What was your reaction to Dion Waiters’ incident in which he passed out on the Heat’s team plane because of THC-edibles?

AH: It sucks, Ben. I would just say this, anyone that has ever used edibles has had that happen to them. Edibles can lead to one of the most unpredictable reactions, so education is important. But I feel like edibles are also one of the best ways to actually medicate with cannabis. The way I would like to see cannabis prescribed in the league is actually through edibles. Believe it or not, I feel like this is the best ways to do it. But obviously the industry took a hit when that happened.

SI: The NBA is so progressive on a number of topics. Why has it been slow to adapt its policies related to cannabis?

AH: Once again, when you look at the two sports dominated by the black athlete, those are the two that have the harshest penalty towards cannabis. Sometimes I feel like there's a target again.

I think about commissioner Adam Silver. I think he's definitely open-minded enough. He just wants more education around it, wants more information, more science, to back up these things. But I also think it’s on the players at this point. I think that if the players you know, bring it up and say that's something that they really want, I think that they can get it.

SI: What’s your message to Adam Silver on the topic?

AH: Just explaining to him why I feel this way. I'm really speaking up for the players. Once again these guys are professionals, they're not gonna abuse this opportunity.

You give them pills and liquor, why not cannabis? If you know anything about cannabis you would pick cannabis over opioids or alcohol because it relaxes you. It’ll probably encourage the guys to want to stay home, play video games, rest. Compare that to the alternative, drinking, standing on top of couches, potentially driving home drunk.

Image via Al Harrington

Image via Al Harrington

SI: You’ve previously estimated that around 80% of NBA players use cannabis during a calendar year, so when do you think it will get removed from the banned substance list?

AH: I think that it's gonna take one big name athlete in the NBA to come out and say like, “Yo, I use it and look how I play.” You know, say, “Look how my body reacts. I’m great. I don't miss games.” You know what I'm saying? I know there's a couple guys that are actually thinking about it and weighing if they should do it or not. I think that can speed up the process, but I think that within the next 24 months, I think that there will be some form of a change.

SI: Would quality of play be different if it wasn’t banned?

AH: I don't feel like cannabis would make them play worse. It's just impossible. It only makes them better, right? I really feel like if I had access to cannabis, I would have gotten two more years. I retired because I couldn't get this inflammation out of my knee and now that I use my creams and stuff, I still hoop from time to time. I box, I snowboard, my knees feel great. Think about it, the league spends so much money on building our brands. So just imagine if they get two more years out of a player because of cannabis.

SI: You’ve played for seven different teams throughout your NBA career, but I want to focus specifically on your time with the Knicks. When you look at the constant chaos surrounding them, what do you think?

AH: The Knicks may be be cursed or something like that. And it seems like it's real just because we just can't get out of our own way. You know what I'm saying? Like Spike Lee, super-fan, let him come through the employee entrance, what’s the big deal? It's Spike. It's one thing if he came in with an entourage of 20 people. Nine times out of ten it’s just him by himself. What’s the issue with that?

SI: Does the early, 12:30 p.m. Sunday game at Madison Square Garden impact opposing teams the way some people online like to think?

AH: So it does affect players, especially depending on the market you play in. If I play for the Indiana Pacers, I play for the Milwaukee Bucks, I play for the Utah Jazz, I come in to New York the night before we play at noon and we leaving after that, I'm gonna try to have a good time in New York that night. Just because I never get to come. And I think it gives the Knicks a competitive advantage for sure.

SI: When you look back at your NBA career, do you ever wonder how different it would be if you were still playing today?

AH: I’m like if my mom had me now, I’d make $200 million, maybe $300 million in this game. I mean, obviously the sport has completely changed. I might even play center now.