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Al Harrington’s vow to make Viola a ‘household name’ in a booming cannabis industry

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NBA Legend & Viola Co-Founder Al Harrington joins A Time For Change to discuss breaking ground in the booming cannabis industry, the benefits of marijuana, and empowering the Black community to gain ownership in the marijuana business.

Video transcript


SIBILE MARCELLUS: Welcome to "A Time for Change." I'm Sibile Marcellus here with Marquise Francis. Jay-Z, Lil' Kim, Killer Mike-- those are just a few of the celebrities and people of color who have invested in the booming cannabis market. Just 25 years after California became the very first state in the US to legalize medical marijuana, marijuana, either legal or medical, is legal in nearly every state. It is a $20 billion industry, and it's growing.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: And there's a lot of money to be made for sure. And for some, a lot of wrongs to be righted. Here to talk more about this is NBA legend Al Harrington, who launched his own cannabis company called Viola in 2011. Al, thank you for joining us this afternoon. How are you doing?

AL HARRINGTON: I'm good, man. Thanks for having me.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: Great. So once again, 10 years ago, you were really a pioneer in this space. I mean, weed wasn't really so popular as it is today. So why did you start this company? And why did you actually name it after your grandmother?

AL HARRINGTON: Well, she was the inspiration. You know, I was able to convince her to come see me play in Denver, Colorado about 11 years ago now. And, you know, at that time, cannabis was just becoming medicinally available, you know, to patients in the state. So when I was constantly reading the newspaper, I was always reading about all the benefits of cannabis.

And when she got there, she was taking all this medication. And she started telling me all the reasons, you know, all the elements she was dealing with. And the one that stuck out was glaucoma because I had read articles about how cannabis cured glaucoma patients at that time. So I had to try it. And it took me two days to convince her.

But when she finally tried it, she experienced instant relief. And, you know, the first thing she did was she went downstairs, and she read her Bible. I actually walked in on her reading the Bible, and she was crying. She said that was the first time she had read the words in the Bible in over three years. So that's what inspired me to learn more about cannabis and ultimately is the reason why we named the company after her.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Al, the total addressable market for marijuana is projected to be $100 billion by 2030. How would you be able to capitalize on that with your business?

AL HARRINGTON: Well, obviously, you know, hopefully that, you know, our brand will be, you know, by that time a household name, a brand that is available throughout the entire country. You know, right now, we are in six states, soon to be nine. It'll be nine probably by the end of 2022. We also are launching in Canada. So we're just trying to make our brand readily available throughout the entire country. And, you know, also using our brand as a platform to, you know, uplifting and build and help bring other brands that are in the gray market to the legal market so they can participate in this $100 billion industry.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: And in that vein and bringing other industries to the market, only 3% of cannabis-owned companies are actually Black-owned. What are you doing and what can be done to actually increase this number?

AL HARRINGTON: Well, I think the first thing we have to do is we have to start with education, right? And that's the one thing that I've realized is that, you know, even people from our community, because I've talked to a lot of people outside of our community and people that have actually made it out of our community and talked to them about this opportunity, and I always say it's almost like they have PTSD because they've seen so many negative effects from cannabis that they don't understand that this opportunity is enormous, right?

So one of the things we're doing is we're starting-- we started a Harrington Institute, which is a platform that is laying the foundation of education for people to understand all the different ways that you can actually participate in the space. You don't have to only cultivate. You don't only have to own retail. You have testing facilities. You can have media companies. There's so many other ways that you can participate in this booming industry.

And, you know, I just feel like that, you know, historically, you know, people of color have, you know, founded so many different industries. And, you know, we have no ownership, and that's something that we're fighting against and we don't want to see happen. So I think education is the first thing. And, you know, like I said, with the Viola brand and, you know, with our platform, we feel like we could uplift other entrepreneurs that maybe need one or two little things that can actually take their brands to the next level.

And that's what we're really focused on, is trying to help as many people as we can really participate in a major level, right? To your point, like, you know, it's not only about just creating jobs. But we want to come from the standpoint of ownership and make sure that our people have a seat at the table, because 85% of drug arrests in the Black community has always been cannabis related. So, essentially, this industry has been founded on our backs. And we just feel like 3% is not the proper representation for our people.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Al, fewer than 10% of US adults say marijuana should not be legal at all, which means a majority of Americans think that it should be. So does that mean that we can expect more cannabis companies to be created? Or are the barriers, both legal and regulatory, too high for many people?

AL HARRINGTON: Well, it depends, right? To answer your first question, yes, the industry is-- I mean, it's so competitive in cannabis now, right? Every and anybody is trying to create brands and trying to figure out how to get into the space. Now, the other issue for people of color is, how do we actually get in, right? Because it's so, so expensive. The one thing I'll say is every single-- I've been in the game 10 years, about to be 11 years. Every single year, it's become more and more expensive to be able to participate.

And when you think about people of color, right, we don't have a lot of resources. We don't have a million and a half dollars readily available from friends and families to be able to go out and create these opportunities. So those are some of the barriers, you know, the education side of it.

Then there's also the financial side of it and being able to do good deals so that you don't get taken advantage of from predatory investors and different things like that, because I feel like the purpose of social equity is to create an equitable opportunity for us to be able to change the trajectory of not only our lives but the people in our community. And until we are set up properly and have the proper resources around us, that won't happen.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: And now you talked about the education, you talked about the finances needed, but also, there's the politics involved. And I know you've worked with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. You were on an Instagram Live with him earlier this yea and other folks like Cory Booker. How important is it to actually talk to these politicians and let them also understand where you're coming from and the need for politicians to get on board as well?

AL HARRINGTON: It's very important because, I mean, they're the gatekeepers, right? They're the ones that are writing the laws. And, you know, a lot of times, what I've learned in the past is that politicians, a lot of times, aren't entrepreneurs, right? They aren't on the ground to really understand what it really takes and what's really going on. So that's why, you know, me being able to use my platform to actually have these conversations is so important because it's almost like I have to speak for the people that don't have a voice, right?

And, you know, until they understand that, they won't be able to properly put the rules and regulations in place for us to be able to participate and for it to be a level playing field. And that's the issue that we're dealing with right now, is I always say is, you know, the way that a lot of these programs are rolling out is-- I'll put in basketball terms. It's like playing against the Los Angeles Lakers and giving them a 30-point head start. It's like, how-- there's no way in heck that we'll be able to compete or be able to win a game. And essentially, we want to win, too, right?

So I think to be able to talk to those guys and these women and these politicians is just so important because they have to really understand, like, what's really going on from the entrepreneurial level, you know, in these industries so that they can make the proper decisions.

SIBILE MARCELLUS: Al, Justin Bieber made a lot of headlines for entering the marijuana business. I'm sure you saw those. Does having a superstar like him and like you make it more accessible for more people to enter this business?

AL HARRINGTON: Yeah, I mean, I'm not sure it makes it more accessible, right? I think it just it continues to raise the awareness around the business in that, you know, the stigma had been so bad. Like, you know, I think, you know, Marquise, in the beginning, you mentioned, like, when I first started 10 years ago, like, you know, when I would mention it, like, people would walk out of the room. Like, I literally-- my financial advisor literally dropped me as a client because he just felt that he was going to end up having to help me launder money, right?

So I think that having bigger superstars coming to this space is definitely getting people to realize that, yes, you know, we are moving in the right direction. I will not be locked up for the rest of my life if I'm associated with cannabis. And I think it's overall good, you know, good for the industry, the more and more people with big names come out, and especially when they could actually explain why, right? You know, a lot of people, it seems like that they're just coming in, trying to take advantage of this opportunity to make money.

And, you know, I haven't got a chance to talk to Biebs about why he actually started his brand, but, you know, for me, the people that I really like to gravitate towards are the people that are users and that are using it for medicinal benefits or because of family members, because I think those stories are the stories that really break down the barriers that will eventually get everybody to the point where they feel like, you know, this is medicine. This is really good for the planet, for everyone.

MARQUISE FRANCIS: And it's not just Justin Bieber jumping into the space. I know you even recently said as many as 85% of the NBA is using marijuana. And so it seems as though professional sports leagues also need to get on board in this growing industry. So Al Harrington, NBA legend and CEO of Viola, thank you so much for joining us today.

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