“We’re trying to get a billion-dollar exit,” Al Harrington tells me. This is not a crazy thing for the 6’9” former NBA journeyman to say; the hottest thing in the league these days, especially if you play for the Golden State Warriors, as Harrington once did, is to have a chunk of a tech startup. But Harrington’s billion won’t come from anything quite so disruptive. No, if Harrington has his way, he’ll get rich from something slightly more organic. Because Al Harrington is looking to become the league’s first marijuana mogul.
That’s why he’s taken me here: the Koreatown Medical Marijuana Collective, a charmingly ramshackle dispensary on Melrose in West Hollywood. They’ll be the sole California distributor of Harrington’s vapes, from Viola Extracts, and his CBD products (made from the non-psychoactive part of the plant), from Harrington Wellness. But this is just the start. He thinks the NFL will allow cannabis in one therapeutic form or another inside of three years, and the NBA inside five. And legal pot, broadly, is said to be a $40 billion industry. Harrington wants a chunk of that business. (Harrington sends me home with one of his vape cartridges. I’m no expert, but I’d pay a billion, maybe a billion-two, for the recipe.)
He’s here with a whole group of like-minded businesspeople, a half-dozen folks with cannabis concerns in Antigua, Canada, and, in the case of his former teammate Brad Miller, the same Oregon, California, and Michigan locations as Harrington. (Stephen Jackson, Harrington’s teammate in Indiana and Oakland, is here, too, ripping a joint on the sidewalk next to Harrington’s drop-top Rolls Royce, and declining a request to shout out a passerby’s YouTube channel.)
This is a goofy, tourist-friendly corner of Los Angeles, overpriced vintage shops jostling for space with pot dispensaries, and embellished-jean boutiques, but it’s familiar ground for Harrington. “That place is never busy,” he says, pointing in surprise at the bustling Village Idiot bar across the street. We head over anyway, leaving the Rolls under the care of Janice, the dispensary’s sweetheart owner. (Harrington calls her Mama Bear, and she gives us Girl Scout Cookies.) We grab a table for eight. Harrington orders a kale caesar, and tells me about his love affair with a different kind of greenery.
GQ: It's a cliche that athletes have a tough time figuring out a post-retirement second act. It doesn't seem like it’s been a very difficult transition for you.
Al Harrington: You know what, man? That’s what made it so easy. I feel like I could have fought to play another year, maybe two. But I had this, and it was so promising. It's like doing something I love, literally, every day. It's like waking up to work out: it's that same type of passion. So the transition for me was so smooth. I'm sometimes envied by my friends. They're like, Damn, you figured that shit out so fast. But it really fell in my hands. God put me in this direction. Because the way I grew up, smoking weed was just so unacceptable, it wasn't even nothing to joke about.
Was that a family thing?
It was a family thing, it was a Christian thing, it was everything across the board. And I believed it! I was like, I ain't smoking no weed. I had teammates—Stephen Jackson—guys that were smoking weed during my career, but I wasn’t touching it. But it's been amazing. I feel like it almost saved my life. Literally, bro. I found something that I feel the same way about as basketball.
Can you run me through the origin story?
How I got into the business was my grandmother, when I was playing for the [Denver] Nuggets. I think it went legal [in Colorado] in ‘09, and I was there ‘10 to ‘12. I'm one of those guys that loves to read the newspaper after games, just to see if somebody's talking shit, so I was reading about all the beneficial things about cannabis, and how it was helping sick people.
My grandmother had come [to Denver], and she had put all this medicine up on the counter. And I'm just like, Grandma, damn, what's all that medicine for? She was like, I have glaucoma, I got diabetes, I got this, I got that. That's what I gotta take. I asked how she felt, and she said terrible. I still had never smoked weed a day in my life, but I'm like, Grandma, you know, they talk about medical marijuana can help this, that, and the other. And she was like, What is that? And I was like, You know, marijuana, weed. She was like, "Reefer? I ain't smoking no reefer, boy, you better get outta my face!" Alright, grandma.
So the next day, I come home, she's sitting in my kitchen, same spot, in pain again. So I said, Grandma, look: I don't really know if it's going to work or not. But just give it a try. And I really wanted to see my grandma high, you know what I'm saying? Just to see what would happen! And she said yes. I went upstairs, and I woke up from my nap an hour and a half later to go check on her. I crack the door and she turns to look over her shoulder, and she's crying tears. I said, "Grandma, are you ok?" And she said, "I'm healed. You know I haven't been able to read the words in my Bible for over three years?" I saw cannabis give her that much relief.
The fact that she could almost see clearly again, it changed my life. I started reading up on it, seeing how it helps kids with epilepsy and different issues: anxiety, cancer, HIV patients, quality of life. I've even read some stories where people have been cured from cannabis. So I decided to get in, man, and once I found my footing and realized what I wanted to do, I started a brand called Viola Extracts. Our company makes nothing but extracts right now. We’re about to get into the flower business—we're gonna have flower and prerolls. We already sell vape carts and stuff like that. We're gonna start selling edibles.
And then, from my personal story, I had a botched knee surgery. I had a staph infection, and I thought it was going to kill me. It got in my bloodstream, so I had like seven different cleanouts during that time. And I was introduced to CBD. I promise you: I've had three surgeries since I got introduced to CBD that day in Vail, Colorado, and I have never touched a Vicodin, Oxycontin, anything. For any surgery, any bad times I go through, I treat myself with cannabis. So that has inspired me to start my CBD company, called Harrington Wellness.
And you’re still not a smoker? Maybe an occasional smoker?
I'm a smoker now.
So when were you like, I gotta check this out?
It was a maturation process. Over time, I became more and more comfortable with it. But now, I smoke now more socially. You'll never catch me just in my house, by myself, smoking a joint. It has to be a session for me to want to smoke. But I definitely smoke flower now.
You gotta make sure the stuff you're selling is up to snuff.
You gotta R&D! [laughs] You gotta taste it, you gotta see the effects of different THC levels and stuff like that. So I run part of my R&D department.
So how's business?
Business is great. We’re operational in Colorado. We're on shelves in Oregon; we're about to make a big push there. Michigan, we actually just submitted our license yesterday. We did a huge partnership with this company called Vertical Brands, right here out of Agoura Hills, California. And this partnership that we're doing with them is a JV [joint venture] where we're gonna bring Viola to California, Nevada, and Arizona in 2018.
It seems like you're deeply involved.
It's all I do. We in this shit every day, bro.
Obviously, the perception of cannabis in the world has shifted hugely in the last 10-15 years. How has that shift felt to you?
Every time people ask me what I do and I tell them, no matter what the meeting was about, as soon as I say I'm in the cannabis field, the whole direction of the conversation changes [to that]. And that's when I got open to everybody being so accepting of it. I realized, the more and more I told people about it, nobody ever looked at me different. I'm at my kid's play, and the parents were like, Hey, what's going on? So that's when I realized it was a huge shift.
My mom used to get into arguments with my dad because he used to use every now and then. Now, she's actually medicating her friends through the plant. I think it's like 70% of Americans agree with medical cannabis. We're there. Now it's just the red states that are holding it up. And that's fine! At the end of the day, I think we need more time to continue to improve regulations and things like that before we make it legal nationally. Because if we do it too fast, it'll go backwards.
I really loved your Player's Tribune story, where you point out that it's a social justice issue as much as it is a business one.
Just think about it, man: marijuana is one of the cheaper drugs. Where are the cheaper drugs gonna be at? The ghetto. Every person I know, mentor, friend, anybody I know that's been to college, they tell me about all the drugs they used. Cocaine, weed, heroin, everything. [But] there's no busts on college campuses. Ever. You understand what I'm saying? But if you go to the hood, there's a bust every time. And it's stupid shit: nickel bags! These kids are going away and coming back as felons, and can't work in no industry? They can't get a job at McDonald's, one of the lower-paying jobs in America. So it's a huge social issue. But we're gonna keep fighting. We're gonna let our voice be heard and figure this thing out.
How does it feel when you see someone like Jeff Sessions say he has no interest in legalizing?
It is what it is, man. Everybody's entitled to their opinion. His opinion of it is really ridiculous. I tell people all the time: as a politician, you're supposed to be a servant of the people. The people is telling you they want it, and you're telling them it's not good for them. Who are you? That's not your job. So it's all good. I feel like we need that to get where we're going. We want to continue to knock down barriers, because that's gonna make us colder as an industry in general.
You get drafted in 1998. In 1999, the NBA puts marijuana on the banned substance list. They were really cracking down—they were so concerned about a perceived image problem. And then you get the dress code in 2005. What did it feel like at the time, to have the league in such an antagonistic position?
So after talking to David Stern about it, he said a couple of his superstar players came to him saying they had a concern that players were smoking before games. My thing is this: the league never took dips. There's never been one year where someone can say, from ‘95 to ‘99, the play of the NBA just dropped dramatically. That's never happened! Those are the glory years, with Mike going against everybody. So what was the real issue? I feel like it was bullshit.
All I ask for at this point is testing. Let's find out, does this plant really heal? Is it a real option for players to recover, or treat themselves instead of anti-inflammatories and stuff like that? Until they do that, we're gonna be at a standstill, but I think progress is being made, because the owners are starting to be more open. If a doctor says it, I'll okay it.
Do you think guys were smoking up before games?
I don't think so. Seriously. And I would say the the guys that did were the guys that could handle it! You're not gonna get high as fuck if this is how you're gonna sit during the game. [Harrington assumes the pose of a blitzed stoner.]
And there's a kid on a college campus who's like, “If I get stoned, I'm throwing the frisbee perfect.”
That's what I'm saying! If they did smoke before the game, I'm sure it increased their play. And that happens with cannabis: it affects everybody differently. Everybody at this table can smoke the same strain and have a totally different reaction.
In the past, you've said you thought maybe 70 or 80 percent of players in the league smoke?
That has not changed. For sure. Especially in the summertime, and I don't blame 'em. It's a way to relax. If you drink liquor? Think about the effect that liquor has on you: it dehydrates you, there's nothing healing with it. Would you rather a player get drunk, or go sit at home and eat an edible? That's where the game changes now, because it ain't about smoking. He goes home and pops an edible. There's so many ways to get THC now that it's like, let's open this thing up! Let's really have a real conversation!
This interview has been edited and condensed.