“It’s clearly a very important time—a time of change for black and brown communities,” comments Al Harrington, founder of the premium cannabis brand Viola and former 16-season NBA star. “People are fed up. People are speaking up. And people are using their voices to invoke change to our society. At Viola, we’ve always been dedicated to supporting the minority voice with action to create change within our communities.”
Al, whose professional basketball career spanned two continents and the better part of two decades, has transitioned his focus into the alternative health and cannabis industries. He has also founded two other companies, Harrington Wellness and Butter Baby, his CBD and edible brands, respectively.
As a professional basketball player, Al struggled with personal health issues that resulted in a plethora of prescriptions, all of which left him drowsy and unable to be at the top of his game. When he introduced cannabis, he noticed the changes it could have. And then, when his grandmother, Viola, whom the company is named after, struggled with severe glaucoma, Al stepped in and got her to try the plant, something that improved her quality of life drastically.
This moment would put him on a path to found one of the more prominent Black-led cannabis companies that now operates in six state-legal cannabis markets. And, as a person of color, he’s had a unique insight into the evolution of cannabis and its relation to the role of race in society. Now, in the midst of more unrest regarding police brutality, profiling, and violence, Al speaks out about his personal experiences as a Black man in and out of the industry, as well as his commitment to helping underserved minority communities.
From Basketball to Cannabis
As mentioned, Al was introduced to cannabis as a means of helping with chronic issues like knee problems and staph infections, but that wasn’t his first interaction with the plant. He’d seen his peers use it even as a child, and had avoided it recreationally due to the threat of legal issues and negative perceptions surrounding its use.
“Growing up in Jersey, I saw friends getting arrested for having weed on them, and I didn’t want any part of that,” reflects Al. “But as I got older, and when I first started using CBD oil for the treatment of basketball-related injuries, I immediately noticed the positive effects of the plant, and my perception changed. Once I started using cannabis, the thing that surprised me the most was how certain prescription drugs were being used and abused for the treatment of pain, but this plant with all of its medicinal values and effects, was perceived so negatively.”
As he began to see the positive impact of the plant on his own body and quality of life, his focus turned to his grandmother, Viola, who suffered from severe glaucoma, so bad that she could barely see. “I remember the day like it was yesterday and I remember seeing my grandmother in so much pain,” says Al.
“I also remember how absolutely opposed she was to trying marijuana. People of her generation didn’t smoke weed. It was just not a thought. It wasn’t an option. It wasn’t a remedy. It was a gateway drug. But once she tried it, and her pain subsided in her eyes, and she was able to read her bible for the first time in who knows how long, she cried and I knew the power of cannabis was undeniable and that generational barrier was broken forever.”
Entering the Industry
As many know, state-legal cannabis industries are quickly expanding as more states move to legalize, and Viola has set up operations in six of these states, primarily in the western half of the country. But decades-old drug laws and prior drug convictions have limited the accessibility to this burgeoning industry for many others, particularly for people of color who have been disproportionately affected by the enforcement of these laws. Al recognizes the challenges that being Black presented, and now he is working to make the market more accessible and more diverse.
“Entering the legal cannabis industry as a Black man was difficult then, even more difficult than it is today,” remarks Al of his efforts to start Viola in a predominantly white industry. “As a public figure, that certainly gave me an advantage when establishing Viola, but I was never blind to the fact that others would not be so lucky. The barriers in the legal cannabis industry were so impossible to break down—that we immediately knew what the mission of Viola needed to be. To level the playing field and create a fully black led legal cannabis company—one that champions people of color and helps increase minority entrepreneurship in this industry.”
Viola’s Support of Underserved Minority Communities
Harrington’s words are echoed by his brands’ efforts to educate minority communities, establish and support expungement programs, and help those previously incarcerated to get back on their feet and contribute to society. And Al acknowledges that their successes in these efforts are largely due to Black leadership, starting with the highest executive levels and continuing throughout the staff and partners.
“At Viola, we pride ourselves on being a Black-led company at the executive level and beyond. We want people of color to feel like when they walk through our doors, they’re being brought into something larger than your average cannabis company and that their contribution matters to a larger cause. While we are positively impacting minority communities who have struggled with the war on drugs, we also work to ensure that our staff and strategic partners also reflect our mission of positively affecting people of color. It is my goal to make 100 Black millionaires via my cannabis businesses.”
Black Lives Matter, Blackout Tuesday, and Helping People of Color
Al and the entire team at Viola have committed to helping to lift up these communities, amplify their voices, and provide the cannabis industry with resources to help people of color, regardless of where they may be from. And efforts like Blackout Tuesday have sought to call attention to the voices so often silenced.
“Blackout Tuesday was an important stepping stone in the larger BLM movement that is happening right now,” observes Al. “We participated at Viola by being present in the moment on June 2nd. Our company, together with many people around the world, took a step back to reflect. Many of our biggest supporters, friends and partners are notable Black figures within the music industry —the original organizers of this movement, so we of course showed our support that day as we are all in this together. Viola is leading the way in the BLM movement as we are able to walk the walk. We are a Black-owned and led business supporting minority communities across the board.”
No matter what your status is in life, whether you’re a professional athlete turned public figure and cannabis founder, or simply a cannabis consumer that cares about the issues facing people of color, we can all do our part to stand up and speak up when we see racism and discrimination in our own lives.
“My advice is to take action/speak up when you see discrimination happening, educate yourself, listen, stay informed on current issues and support Black causes/businesses,” recommends Al. “We need to repair deep wounds that have been hurting Black people in this country for hundreds of years and not just put band-aids over them. We need to heal and come out stronger for our kids and next generations to come.”
People like Al Harrington are making a difference in their communities and the cannabis industry at large by showcasing the power of Black-led businesses and how we can collectively work towards equality by dedicating our resources to helping those that are often overlooked and underrepresented in the legal cannabis industry.
The Difficulties for People of Color Obtaining Funding in the Weed World
Let’s be real, the cannabis industry is not as friendly and diverse as it claims to be to people of color. As an $11 billion industry monopolized by men and huge corporations, it’s not surprising that less than a fifth of marijuana business owners identify as racial minorities. Why aren’t there more POC opening dispensaries or starting marijuana businesses? A number of factors add to the lack of funding opportunities available for POC such as cannabis remaining a schedule one drug and federally illegal, a growing racial wealth gap, past convictions, and a lack of skills or expertise in the industry. But the biggest issue facing POC breaking into the marijuana industry is money. POC don’t have enough of it and don’t have generational wealth on their side as a source of financial support. These factors make it especially difficult for POC to get a marijuana business off the ground considering the mountain of costs associated with starting a new business.
In order to grow and sell cannabis legally, an application must be filed to attain a license which can cost up to $120,000. After adding business insurance, security, legal fees, taxes, marketing and rent , opening and running a cannabis business can cost millions of dollars, which is why POC more often seek investors or banks for financial support. However, as marijuana remains a schedule one drug under the Controlled Substances Act and federally illegal, banks and investors are hesitant to jump into this market. Both banks and investors that choose to do business with a marijuana business run the risk of being criminally prosecuted for “aiding and abetting” a federal crime as well as money laundering.
A growing wealth gap between POC and our white counterparts is an added factor that contributes to the challenges of funding for minority business owners in the cannabis space. The wealth gap measures the difference between the median wealth of blacks versus the median wealth of whites. Wealth can be calculated by adding up total assets such as cash, retirement accounts, home, etc., then subtracting liabilities which can include credit card debt, student loans, and a mortgage among others. The total is going to yield net worth—arguably one of the best indicators of financial health. As of 2016, the average net worth of white families was almost 10 times more than of black and Latino families. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “More than one in four black households have zero or negative net worth, compared to less than one in ten white families without wealth.” Without money to fund a costly cannabis business, POC are falling behind in the marijuana industry and opportunities to make a profit as the wealth gap continues to widen.
The legalization of cannabis has not stopped unjust and disparate policing of cannabis users, which has impacted the chances of the legal participation for POC in this market. According to the ACLU, “Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession;” this distressing statistic puts POC at a disadvantage for participation in the industry. In many states where cannabis is now legal, past convictions from a participant and the participant’s spouse, may disqualify them from applying for a cannabis business license, making participation in this market extremely difficult for communities who were targeted and affected most by the war on drugs.
Despite the many barriers that face POC trying to break into this industry, we’re starting to see an increase in opportunities aimed at leveling the cannabis playing field. There are a number of organizations, like the Minority Cannabis Business Association dedicated to providing equity programs and resources for alternative funding, holding workshops to help POC develop and strengthen their business skills, and leading movements to expunge cannabis records and decriminalize marijuana and organizing. There is still a lot of work to do in order to make this industry an inclusive and diverse one, but together we can build a market that welcomes diversity instead of pushing it out.
The Human Element | Cruel Consequences
Cruel Consequences: Portraits of Misguided Law1 works with people who have dealt with the consequences of cannabis stigma and criminalization, even in states where it is legal. GRAM spoke with the founder, Tamara Netzel. She takes photos of the people and tells their stories as an antithesis to mugshots and the snippet you would read in the newspaper from the police report. Trenice is one of fifteen stories Tamara currently has, and she is working on more.
After attending a congressional hearing in Washington D.C., Tamara and her friend got an Uber to head home. Under normal circumstances, Tamara gives her business card out and does a whole pitch to almost everyone she meets, but she was tired. Her friend grabbed her business card and did the whole speech to the Uber driver. “He pulled out his cell phone and he dialed Trenice’s phone number, before he could even explain why, he was handing the phone to me, and said ‘You gotta talk to my niece.’ And that’s how I got her story.”
Trenice is a 29 year old DJ who goes by the handle, TriggaTre. She began using cannabis at the suggestion of a friend. At the time, she was addicted to opioids and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. “In three months, she was able to wean herself off the opioids with cannabis,[… and have] zero cravings for nicotine.” Tre also found that the cannabis helped with aggression issues caused by the opioids. “She remembers being shocked by her own ability now for self-control when she was being provoked to fight.” Tre was helping a friend move, and they were stopped by the police when a helmet dislodged from the trailer they were pulling. Due to an outstanding warrant, the entire vehicle was searched and Tre was charged with possession with intent to distribute. Maryland law allows officers to include the weight of the container as part of the total cannabis weight. The cannabis found was being stored in a mason jar. “She spent 3 months in the Montgomery County Jail, including a 23 hour lockdown in solitary confinement.”
Tamara was driven to share the stories of marijuana criminalization after she was introduced to medical cannabis to treat her multiple sclerosis. “I knew I didn’t fit the description of people who are disproportionately targeted for marijuana charges. At that point, I realized I had two choices: I could just be satisfied with my own white privilege, or I could try to use that privilege for good,” she said.
Because it’s marijuana, it’s always up-charged, even in legal states. It’s an abuse of power and an abuse by law enforcement.
“The charge follows you. That’s what Cruel Consequences is about. Whether someone has gone to prison or not or served any jail time at all, a charge will follow you, as all of our stories attest to, our evidence. It never lets you go, because of the stigma. No matter whether the state has legalized or what law reforms in that state have happened, there are still people being criminalized and followed and harassed for the rest of their lives because of one charge. […] Because it’s marijuana, it’s always up-charged, even in legal states. It’s an abuse of power and an abuse by law enforcement,” Tamara says. “It’s a lifetime sentence. That’s what we do as a society. You hear somebody has gone to prison, we don’t worry about it after that. But we don’t think about the people after, if they served any time at all–even if they haven’t.”
“There are these little laws that trap people for life. We’re talking a lot about slavery these days and what the ramifications of slavery are. And honestly, this is a form of slavery; this is racial bias at the heart of marijuana criminalization. What our project is focused on is those collateral consequences is in a sense, it’s like branding human beings for life as criminals. It sets them up for failure: denied employment, denied housing, denied college loans, just because they have a charge. And then society has the audacity to then say to these people, ‘Hey, why can’t you do better in life? Look at you, you can’t even get a job.’ But they don’t realize that they’ve been set up to fail.”
“Where we have worked best is going to civic groups in areas where marijuana law reform and education is scarce,” said Tamara. Cruel Consequences was featured at the Virginia Cannabis Summit hosted by Attorney General Mark Herring and at the Marijuana and the Impact on Communities event held by Commonwealth’s Attorney for Loudon County, Buta Biberaj. “We’re trying to get people to have conversations and have a safe environment to have those conversations. Education is scarce, and the bias and the stigma are very very thick. If you can make people feel comfortable about talking, whether they have a story about marijuana or they don’t have a story about marijuana, and they’re on the other side, if you can get people to talk about it, I think that we can solve some things.”