DA's Morning Tip

Al Harrington wants to help NBA see benefits of medical marijuana

Ex-player builds successful medical marijuana company after playing days end

He swears that this came to him later in life, when he’d tried everything else.

“And I’m not lying; I was one of those guys who grew up thinking if you smoked weed you had no future,” Al Harrington says. “I never tried it as a kid. My boys were smoking when we were kids and I never tried it. I was always so scared to try it. I felt like if I came home and I smelled like weed, my mother would kill me.”

But toward the end of a 16-year career that saw him go from “Baby Al” as a high school Draft pick (No. 25 overall) by Indiana in 1998 through seven NBA stops, Harrington was dealing with the same chronic knee and joint pain that follows just about every player who stays with it long enough. And he had a knee operation that led to a staph infection while playing for Denver in 2012 left Harrington in severe pain. The anti-inflammatories he’d been taking regularly the previous seven and a half years weren’t having much effect.

Harrington then thought about trying medical marijuana. And, fortunately, he lived in a state that was one of the first to legalize use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Colorado residents approved Amendment 20 in 2000, which legalized medical marijuana use for patients who got explicit medical consent. Voters then passed Amendment 64 in November, 2012, which led to full legalization in 2014. Adults 21 and over could grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

“I didn’t have to do much research because I was in Denver when everything started to go legal,” Harrington said. “I’m one of those guys that reads the paper the next day to see what they said about the team. And it was always in the paper, every single day. So I was always reading up on it, reading up on it.”

Harrington began using the medicinal form of the drugs, in creams that he rubbed on his knees, and drops. They didn’t bring the high that smoking marijuana delivers. (Much more on that below.) But it brought Harrington relief. He says that after using anti-inflammatory pills for seven and a half years, he hasn’t had to use one since. And it opened his eyes to the possibilities that medical marijuana could bring to people in pain.

And after he retired in 2014 (he did play in Ice Cube’s Big3 league this past summer), Harrington has gone into cannabis full-time, leading to the development of marijuana businesses in three states and a dream of being a major mogul in the still-burgeoning racket of legalized medical marijuana.

His company is called Viola Extracts — Viola is Harrington’s grandmother, and, as he describes it, his “guinea pig” in the struggle. When Viola Harrington’s glaucoma was eased by using medical marijuana a couple of years ago, Al Harrington became a true believer. Now Viola Extracts is a one-stop grower, distributing and selling to more than 30 legal marijuana stores around the country.

I travel more than I did when I played in the league. I gambled on myself and I put everything on my own plate. I’ve learned the industry.”

Al Harrington, on his medical marijuana business

And Harrington now thinks medical marijuana should be available for use in another location — the NBA. And his view is now supported, publicly, by the unlikeliest of parties.

“I’m now at the point where, personally, I think it probably should be removed from the banned list,” former NBA Commissioner David Stern told Harrington in a segment for a piece on Harrington’s new business that aired last week on Uninterrupted, the multimedia platform for athletes launched in 2015 by LeBron James. (Full disclosure: Turner Sports, which runs this website on which you’ve stumbled, is an investor in Uninterrupted.)

“You’ve persuaded me,” Stern told Harrington, after the two had met a couple of times earlier this year to discuss the pros and cons of medicinal marijuana. “… If you told the fans that if the players rubbed it (marijuana creams) on their knees that they wouldn’t take a night off, that would really send it over the top.”

Marijuana has been on the NBA’s banned substances list since 1999. A first positive test for marijuana requires enrollment in a treatment program, along with aftercare testing. A second positive test results in a $25,000 fine, and a third positive results in a five-game suspension, with each subsequent positive test thereafter adding five more games to the previous suspension; i.e., 10 games for a fourth positive test, 15 games for a fifth, etc.

The NBA’s Executive Vice President of Communications, Mike Bass, gave this statement to USA Today’s Jeff Zilgitt last week: “while (current NBA) commissioner (Adam) Silver has said that we are interested in better understanding the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana, our position remains unchanged regarding the use by current NBA players of marijuana for recreational purposes.”

Bass said last Thursday that this remains the NBA’s official statement on Stern’s comments.

But Silver’s position on medicinal marijuana is a little more nuanced. He said during a trip to Israel in August: “I would say it’s something we will look at. I’m very interested in the science when it comes to medical marijuana. My personal view is that it should be regulated in the same way that other medications are if the plan is to use it for pain management. And it’s something that needs to be discussed with our Players Association, but to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we’ll be open to it. Hopefully there’s not as much pain involved in our sport as some others, so there’s not as much need for it.”

Stern’s shift dovetails with a decided move in public opinion toward increased legalization of marijuana.

The NBA, after applying great public pressure, got the National Basketball Players Association to agree to add marijuana to the banned list in ’99. Entering the post-Michael Jordan era (at least, that’s what everyone thought at the time; Jordan had retired following the 1998 season, only to return to the court with the Wizards in 2001), the league had public perception and keeping its paying customers and sponsors happy on its mind. And after the arrests of several high-profile players for marijuana-related charges, the NBA made a marijuana ban a priority. There were also, sotto voce, players who were concerned about the prevalence of use among their brethren.

But now, 29 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use. Those states are home to 18 of the NBA’s 30 teams — the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers, Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards. Eight states — Alaska, Colorado, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, along with D.C. — have legalized recreational use.

And a Gallup Poll released just last week showed a record number of Americans — 64 percent — now believe all marijuana use should be legal. That percentage is the highest in a Gallup survey since the company started polling on the issue in 1969. And the majority support cuts across party lines, with 72 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Independents and 51 percent of Republicans supporting decriminalization.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he tried medical marijuana last year to try and ease the chronic back pain he’s suffered with for the past two years. Former Knicks president and Bulls coach Phil Jackson said on the CBS Sports Network program “We Need to Talk” last year that he smoked marijuana in the 1970s while recovering from back surgery, but did not know if it had medicinal value or not.

“I think it was a distraction for me as much as a pain reliever,” Jackson said. “But I’ve never thought of it as, ultimately, a pain medication for that type of situation. I know ocular things, stomach, digestive issues and other things, I think it’s regarded quite highly.”

But it’s high time (pun indented), Harrington believes, to get in on a business that generated an estimated $6.7 billion in revenue last year, and is projected to generate more than $20 billion in North America alone by 2021.

Harrington started in earnest in 2014, after providing plants for cancer patients and HIV patients in Colorado. By the time he applied for a license, he’d discovered the Byzantine layers between states when it came to being a budding entrepreneur.

“There’s a lot of different restrictions in each state,” Harrington said. “Each state is governed differently. Some have residency requirements. Some are trying to monopolize the whole process, where they talk about giving out only five licenses. Some states are equal opportunity. Every state is different and has different rules. But in Colorado, you had to be a resident. I was a resident because I was playing. But obviously I couldn’t put it in my name because I didn’t know how the NBA would even react to knowing I had a small piece of ownership in a marijuana company.”

Harrington’s cousin, Dan, became the “owner” of the company, with Al Harrington the silent investor.

Their company doesn’t have much overhead. Though Harrington has hired a COO to get some of the day-to-day business off his plate, he and his cousin do a lot of the scut work throughout the process.

“We’re vertically integrated for the most part,” he said. “We cultivate, manufacture, package, handle ourselves … I travel more than I did when I played in the league. I gambled on myself and I put everything on my own plate. I’ve learned the industry.

“I’ve had a lot of people that were interested in joining my operation and different things like that, but for me, being an entrepreneur and doing this for the first time, I wanted to learn everything on my own without other people influencing and different things like that. Even as far as raising money, I’ve just gotten to the point in almost five years where I’m comfortable raising money, because I know how exactly I can get everyone’s money back. I know how to grow this business now.”

Harrington is not only a rarity in the medical marijuana because of his former day job, but because of his ethnicity. Though some states, including Michigan and Massachusetts, have tried to open up the marijuana marketplace for minority businesses, the vast majority of marijuana dispensaries in the United States are owned by whites.

I think its fair to say we have to be mindful that given the current administration and Sessions’ comments on his view, that it’s a gateway drug, it wouldn’t be prudent for any changes to be made until we know what the current DOJ has to say about this”

NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts

This is relevant for a simple reason: the overwhelming majority of people arrested for marijuana possession and/or distribution are people of color, and have been for a generation. And, in most states, anyone who’s ever been convicted of a drug felony is ineligible to work in marijuana stores or processing plants.

Harrington had money, so he had access. But he knows that others have been shut out. He’s a member of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, which seeks to increase minority representation among cannabis company owners, employees and investors, and educate minority populations about cannabis use.

“When you think of the social justice issues and the war on drugs, at the end of the day let’s keep it all the way real — it’s against black and brown,” Harrington said. “I tell people all the time, if you look at the black market, the black market, their biggest clientele is college campuses. And you never see no bust on college campuses. But you go to every project, every ‘hood in America where there’s black and brown, and you see all these busts. It’s really messed up, because they block you out. If you have a felony, if you have a small felony charge as a kid, a dime bag of marijuana, you can’t even work in the industry. If you have a felony, you can’t get a job in the industry, let alone own a business.

“And then you look at some of the other things. At the end of the day, even with black people or minorities in general, we’re very creative. I feel like we influence culture. What we do not have is access to capital. And these states are requiring you to, they’re saying, okay, you can apply for a license, but as part of the licensing process, you have to show a million dollars of working capital in an account before we’ll even look at your license or your application. It’s just messed up.

“My whole thing is, it should be an environment where you can allow them to apply for the application, then allow them the opportunity to go out and raise money, or give them some opportunities to be able to get some capital so they can take advantage of this opportunity. At the end of the day now this industry is being built on all the minorities’ backs, and now this is a new industry. To keep it real, all the white people are trying to cash in on it.”

Harrington’s company specializes in extraction, pulling the various parts of the marijuana plant out for use as waxes or oils. He believes in the part of the plant that produces the compound CBD — cannabidiol — which has anti-inflammatory benefits. Other cannabinoids with similar pain-relieving properties are CBN (cannabinol) and CBG (cannabigerol).

“THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is what gets everybody high,” Harrington said. “It works with CBD. It’s like a perfect combination where you can combine the two. But I also understand that some people don’t want that high feeling. So when you use CBD, you don’t feel anything when you take it; you just start to feel the relief of whatever you’re dealing with.”

Harrington says he never tested positive for marijuana even though he was using both medical marijuana creams on his knees and taking between 25 and 50 milligrams of marijuana drops daily the last two years of his career.

“The last year, when I was in Washington, I was almost hoping that I tested dirty because I wanted to be able to open it up to the program people and be like, look, this is what I’m taking,” he said. “But I took it all those times and I never tested dirty. I had even asked do they test for CBD and they said yes, and I promise you, I was taking it every single day, and I never tested dirty on one of my tests. And it didn’t give me no advantages or anything like that; it just gave me the pain relief that I needed to be able to perform.”

All I’m asking for is testing. Can we find out if this stuff really is as impactful, as a miracle drug, that most people, I feel, and most of the other patients feel about this?”

Al Harrington

Harrington says he’s spoken with NBPA President Chris Paul on several occasions in recent months to see if the union is willing or ready to make a push toward easing the current substance ban to at least include medical marijuana use. But changing the current policy would not be that simple; potential Pandora’s Boxes are strewn about.

Even though the 29 states and D.C. have legalized medical marijuana use, it is still, technically, a violation of federal law — the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which does not differentiate between recreational and medical marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Administration still considers marijuana a “Schedule 1” drug, defined as such:

  • The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
  • The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.
  • There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or substance under medical supervision.

So, even if the NBPA and league were to agree to allow medical marijuana use by players, no one knows for sure what would happen afterward. Could a player using medical marijuana that was approved by his team still be arrested under federal law? Would players thus be held to a higher standard than other people in those states?

After cracking down on medical marijuana developers earlier in the Barack Obama presidency, the Obama Administration did an about face, saying in 2013 that it would not challenge laws legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington state, and generally wasn’t interested in prosecuting people for simple possession.

But the Trump Administration has taken a much harder line. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last month that “Federal law remains in effect” with regard to marijuana use, and made clear that he is not a supporter of more progressive policies with regard to the drug.

“I’ve never felt that we should legalize marijuana,” Sessions said last month. “It doesn’t strike me that the country would be better if it’s being sold on every street corner. We do know that legalization results in greater use.”

There also isn’t a monolithic point of view among players.

There are, of course, many players who support its use, both recreationally and for medical purposes. Others don’t support drug use under any circumstances (the “my body is my temple” folks). Others wonder why the NBPA signed off on testing for marijuana while other sports league do not. And there are players who wonder why marijuana is banned in some states, yet legal in others.

“I think its fair to say we have to be mindful that given the current administration and Sessions’ comments on his view, that it’s a gateway drug, it wouldn’t be prudent for any changes to be made until we know what the current DOJ has to say about this,” NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts said Sunday. “The other sports that aren’t testing for marijuana like we are, I don’t know if they’re paying attention to today’s DOJ. I want us to be aware of what the political agenda looks like.”

Harrington not only wants to grow and sell medical marijuana, he is an advocate of it as a “clean” drug compared with the painkillers developed in pharmaceutical labs.

“There’s clinical risk in every pain medication they give you,” he said. “And they give you so much of it and (they’re) so irresponsible. All these side effects. But when you look at marijuana, marijuana is a miracle drug. It heals … and I just want to get it out there.

“Because like I said, I grew up with that mindset that it was just the worst thing in the world. But when you think about it, it came from God. It’s a plant. There’s no other drug that you can go outside, in your back yard, drop seeds and just let it grow. How is that a drug? Explain it to me. Why is that in the same classification as heroin and cocaine? That makes no sense to me.”

At the least, he’d like to have it available for players who otherwise gobble anti-inflammatories by the handful. The shorthand has been well-known in NBA locker rooms for decades: Naprosyn, Celebrex, Vicodin, Orudis, Vioxx, Indocin and on and on.

“All I’m asking for is testing,” Harrington said. “Can we find out if this stuff really is as impactful, as a miracle drug, that most people, I feel, and most of the other patients feel about this? At this point, my mom is part of the Mother’s Association. I’m helping out like five, 10 moms right now with different things — knee replacements, things like that. And it’s working.”

Stern — who was talking only about taking medical marijuana off the league’s banned substances list, not making recreational use legal in the NBA — told Harrington in the Undefeated interview that he believed testing would begin in earnest once the world’s major pharmaceutical companies figure out how they could monetize medical marijuana to their benefit.

Harrington recalled a meeting a friend of his had with billionaire investor Warren Buffett; the friend wanted $850 million to start a movie studio. “And Warren Buffett said, ‘for our company, if it’s not a $10 billion deal, we don’t even look at it,’ ” Harrington said. “I think that’s what’s happening with Pharma. Pharma, of course, is going to take over … but it’s not enough money (now) for them to waste their time. Once it gets to $50 billion, $100 billion, that’s when they’ll come in and buy all the established people. So that’s why I firmly believe we have a five- or 10-year window to build our brand and build our businesses before Big Pharma comes in and the big money really starts coming in and they start buying people up.”

So Harrington has time to make his mark. He bought acres of land in Oregon in March, and just had his first harvest; his products will be on shelves out there by the end of this week. He’s doing sales runs, meeting his sales teams and dispensary owners, and telling them his company’s story. And he plans to keep working his former employer to change its mind.

“I think we’re getting closer,” Harrington said. “We are getting younger (NBA) owners. I personally feel a lot of those owners actually consumed, at different times, in different ways — edibles. I don’t care. They can say what they want. I know what it is. Because we were NBA players, we’re around a lot of bililionaires and some of the most successful people in the world, and when I talk to them about marijuana, the first thing they say is ‘send me some.’ ”

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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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