Harrington and his weed brand have been leading the fight to end the drug war, bring justice to those harmed by it, and advocate for cannabis as an alternative to opioids.
Al Harrington wanted to get busted for weed by the NBA. The 6-foot 9-inch forward was coming off surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2012. It was his 14th season in what would ultimately prove to be a 16-year career, but the recovery wasn’t going smoothly. He developed a staph infection and ongoing knee issues led to multiple invasive follow-up procedures.
Doctors prescribed Vicodin and then another painkiller, the name of which Harrington can’t recall. Despite adjusting the dosage and alternating the medications he ingested, it left him feeling perpetually drowsy and sluggish and the inflammation persisted. Thankfully, a friend visited him that summer in Colorado while he was rehabbing the swollen joint. Harrington found himself nodding off mid-conversation.
“Man, what is wrong with you?” Harrington said his friend asked. He rattled off the medications he was taking and the friend shot back: “Why don’t you stop taking that garbage.”
In lieu of synthetic opioids, his friend had come armed with a grab bag full of cannabis-based products, including “topicals, tinctures, capsules, and gummies,” Harrington said. It was a “godsend.”
The swelling in his knee subsided, and there were no harmful side effects. He continued to use cannabidiol (CBD) throughout the following season, even though he had been shipped from the Denver Nuggets to the Orlando Magic in August 2012. (Unlike Colorado, Florida has not legalized cannabis). Much to Harrington’s dismay, it didn’t register on an NBA-mandated drug test.
“I was hoping I tested dirty, so that I could tell the CBD story,” he said. Any fines, suspensions, or negative press would have been worth it, because the notoriety would have given him licence to publicly extol the benefits of cannabis. Since then, Harrington has devoted himself to doing just that. Beyond advocating for the medicinal use of cannabis by athletes, he’s fought to reduce sentencing for nonviolent, cannabis-based crimes, worked to increase participation for people of color in the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry, and created post-prison opportunities for those ensnared by the neverending war on drugs.
In 2014, Harrington co-founded Viola Extracts, a cannabis producer and wholesaler which boasts 100 employees and operates facilities in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, and Oregon. Last year, Viola secured $16 million in a funding round.
The company takes its name from Harrington’s grandmother. In 2011, prior to Harrington’s own revelations about cannabis, he learned that Viola, age 79, was taking a bevy of medications to deal with her health issues, including glaucoma. Harrington had read an article outlining the possible benefits of cannabis, but initially, his grandmother was reluctant, to say the least. “Reefer?” she vehemently told her grandson. “No way I’m trying no reefer.”
Harrington started crying, too. “I can’t believe I got my eyes and my eyesight back,” he recalled her saying. “God gave me my sight back.”
In that moment, his entire outlook on drug prohibition swung 180 degrees.
Growing up in Orange, New Jersey, Harrington had seen the impact of the war on drugs first-hand. When he was in the eighth grade, classmates of his were pulled out of homeroom for a drug-related offense, he said. The idea that people in his community who had become addicted to crack cocaine were led to ruin first by smoking marijuana—the ancient, debunked “gateway drug” trope—had been hammered home. And Harrington took it as the gospel truth.
But his experiences opened up a whole new world. He began to self-educate. Initially a “strain nerd,” as Harrington called himself, over time he expanded his knowledge of cannabis’ medicinal purposes. Now, he sees his mission as “changing the narrative as a whole,” and informing the public of how “dynamic” cannabis and CBD can be, particularly for children suffering from epileptic seizures, and for HIV and cancer patients.
Harrington has gone under the knife four times since his NBA career ended, and his recovery regimen has remained the same. “Once the IV is out of my arm, that’s the last time I’ll use any pharmaceuticals,” he said. Though he’s 20 pounds over his playing weight, he boxes and goes snowboarding regularly. Were he able to treat his inflamed knee with cannabis while in the NBA, Harrington is sure he could have lasted another two years. Should the NBA reverse course, the current generation of athletes will reap the benefits he was denied. “CBDs could be that important to the league,” said Harrington.“I was hoping I tested dirty, so that I could tell the CBD story.” — Al Harrington
A slew of NBA players past and present wholeheartedly agree with Harrington.
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant wondered why cannabis remains banned by the NBA, as has Andre Iguodala; Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr used cannabis to deal with the lingering pain from back surgery and said the NBA should afford athletes the same privilege; Charles Barkley, while making it clear he personally wasn’t in favor of recreational use, said cannabis had “really helped some football friends” of his; Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson backed pro-legalization efforts in Ohio; Cuttino Mobley and Clifford Robinson have also become cannabis entrepreneurs; and Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes have long been staunch pro-cannabis advocates. But the movement got a massive boost in 2017 when Harrington sat down to interview former NBA Commissioner David Stern.
When asked about Stern, who passed away in January, Harrington grew quiet. “God bless,” he said, his head bowed. “God bless, Dave.” Prior to their conversation, he was “hella nervous,” unsure if he could get Stern—a skilled, brilliant attorney—to go where Harrington wanted him to go. He had carefully prepared a list of questions written on cue cards, but Stern beat him to the punch. After Harrington’s third question, Stern said: “I’m now at the point where, personally, I think [marijuana] probably should be removed from the ban list.”
He continued: “I think there is universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”