After the NBA, Al Harrington is exploring the weed business : The Limits with Jay Williams One of Al Harrington's biggest takeaways from his sixteen-year run in the NBA? Never let a rookie take your spot. The former power forward constantly found ways to evolve the game to outsmart new competitors — and, in his words, "provide a new offering."

In his post-game career, he's used that mindset to build the cannabis company Viola, which sells high-quality forms of marijuana. But Viola's mission isn't solely to sell product. Instead, Al wants to ensure that Viola gives Black and brown entrepreneurs significant opportunity in the legal, multi-billion dollar cannabis industry.

Al recognizes how decades of the American War on Drugs have ravaged Black and brown communities with disproportionate mass incarceration rates for marijuana-related offenses. He wants to offset that lasting harm by finding seats for entrepreneurs of color at the table.

Al sat down with Jay to discuss the stigmas he has overcome as a Black former NBA player building a cannabis company, the challenges he's facing bringing up Black entrepreneurs in the space, and why Viola is the LVMH of weed. Plus, he talks about his preferred strain of cannabis, and what to ask for in a dispensary.

EXPLICIT CONTENT WARNING: This episode contains discussion of drug use and is only appropriate for adult audiences.

Former NBA player Al Harrington on overcoming stigma and building a cannabis company

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


NPR's doing this annual survey to better understand how listeners like you spend time with podcasts. Please help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey at We would really love and appreciate your help and support for NPR podcasts. That's Thank you very much.

AL HARRINGTON: At the end of the day, there's so much information out there. Like, for you to still be considering it a drug, a harsh drug, and all that kind of stuff is just really idiotic.

WILLIAMS: Welcome to THE LIMITS. I'm Jay Williams. And that was my guest today, Al Harrington, talking about marijuana. But let me get back to that in a second. You see, as one of New Jersey's all-time greats, Al is a legend, but he's also a local basketball hero to me. I grew up in a small town called Plainfield, N.J. But Al went to a high school in Elizabeth, N.J., called St. Pat's (ph), only about 15 minutes away from me. You see, I grew up going to Al's games, studying him, viewing all of his tactics on and off the court because I knew that one day he was going to have a chance to play with the best in the world. And he was because in the year 1998, he was drafted directly out of high school, and at the age of 18, got a chance to play for Larry Bird and Reggie Miller's all-time Indiana Pacers. He played 16 seasons in the league, but his game matured and evolved year by year to him turning into one of the bigs that revolutionized the way the game is played from size and shooting.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Harrington over Bell, just did beat the shot clock.

WILLIAMS: Now, look, I could talk about Al's game forever. Trust me; I studied it, like I said before. But today's conversation - It's not about basketball, at least not completely. It's about what he opened up with - marijuana.

Let me break this down to you. Since 2011, Al has managed and operated a cannabis company called Viola - dope name, huh? They make high-quality product, and their goal is to open up the legalized industry to Black entrepreneurs, some of whom were once targeted and profiled by police for marijuana-related reasons. Check out what he had to say.

HARRINGTON: People from our community have seen so much harm and, like, you know, they've used that - they've used cannabis to lock us up for more than pretty much any other thing in our community.

WILLIAMS: If you're a Black person in America, it isn't easy to just start selling marijuana legally. First of all, there's the red tape around getting a cannabis license. Trust me; I have been through the process, and I got denied. But there's also years of blatantly racist policies that have led to the disproportionate mass incarceration of millions of Black and brown people on weed-related offenses. These policies go back several decades. Let me break this whole thing down for you. I'm going to take you back, way back to the 1930s following the end of prohibition in the U.S. The first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, branded marijuana a dangerous drug that incited violence, despite copious scientific evidence to the contrary. He also racialized its use, going after people of color and the jazz age icons of the time. Once that seed was planted, the American war on drugs became embedded into nearly every modern presidency. When campaigning in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan said this.


RONALD REAGAN: Marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.

WILLIAMS: Check this out. His administration's policies on mandatory minimum prison sentences for marijuana ravaged Black and brown communities. And we're still seeing those effects today. The ACLU reports that as of 2018, Black people are 3.64 more times likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates, a number that has remained largely unchanged even after cannabis has become increasingly legal around the country. Now, why am I telling you all this? Jay, why are you giving me all these stats? Because, frankly, I believe that people have the right to use marijuana legally and responsibly. You see, after my accident, I became addicted to a much more dangerous drug, a painkiller called OxyContin. And cannabis actually helped me deal with the anxiety and the pain in a much more healthier way. I also believe it's about damn time that Black entrepreneurs get a sizable stake in the legal cannabis industry - estimated in 2020 to be worth $20 billion, by the way. And that number is expected to grow tenfold in the next decade. And like I said, that's Al's greater mission with his company, Viola. He's making a space for Black entrepreneurs to get multiple seats - multiple seats - at the table. And he's overcoming the stigma of weed through the education and understanding of local communities. Here's my conversation with Al Harrington.


WILLIAMS: So for people who don't know who my guy is on the other end here - let me just tell a quick story, Al. I remember being in eighth grade, and the year is 1998 - '97-'98. And I'm born and raised in Plainfield, N.J. And all this talk - all I keep hearing about is St. Pat's High School, St. Patrick's High School in Elizabeth, N.J. And I remember going over to check out a game, and I remember seeing you play. And I remember thinking to myself, damn. Like, this is - I have a long way to go. Like, I have a very - if I want to achieve the level of playing the NBA, I got a long way to go. And it's just crazy that I find myself, you know, 30 years later doing an interview with you, obviously, after you have set an incredible career in the league, now what you're doing with your business and Viola. And I just want to say congratulations, and thank you for setting the bar really high because it gave me something to chase after. And I just wanted to kick it off by saying that to you, brother.

HARRINGTON: No, brother, that means a lot, man. You know, obviously, with us being from Jersey, you know, obviously we stick together. And, you know, I've always been a huge fan of yours. You know what I'm saying? You know, a lot of people - obviously, they do know because, you know, your body of work definitely spoke for - obviously from high school being an All-American to being an All-American at Duke. And, you know, you would have definitely been, I feel like, a Hall of Famer, you know, if things would have been different. You know what I'm saying? But, you know - so hearing that from someone like you means a lot, bro. So I appreciate that.

WILLIAMS: Well, thank God I had situations like the Roadrunners where you and Dante Jones would pick on me sometimes. And, you know, that was cool. That was fun, though. I was the little guy, man.

HARRINGTON: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: So, Al, look. Before we get into Viola and the whole cannabis industry, I want to tell you a little bit of background about my mom. So my mom has gone through two kidney transplants, congestive heart failure. She's had diverticulitis. I mean, literally, man, she's been through the gauntlet. And, you know, when you go through a kidney transplant, there's so much red tape you have to go through in order to qualify for it. And the amount of prescription medication that they have you take on a day-to-day basis so your body doesn't reject the outside organ, the alien organ that actually isn't yours and accepts it - it's phenomenal - I mean, 24 pills a day, Al, 24 pills a day.

So we started having conversations, and a lot of her projected fears were about the incarceration rates and a lot of those things. And I'm like, Mom, this is going to help you relax as it relates to your anxiety. It's going to take a lot of swelling out of your body. And for me, when I was 17, Al, when I had my first hit of a joint - and probably late to the game on it - but, I mean - right? - I was just stuck on the couch...


WILLIAMS: ...For three hours. I just wanted...


WILLIAMS: ...To chill out and watch movies and, like - and be in my zone. Like, when was the first time that you actually smoked marijuana, man? What was that feeling like for you the first time it happened?

HARRINGTON: So the very first time I smoked marijuana was with Golden State Warriors.

WILLIAMS: So you were in the league.

HARRINGTON: I was in the league. It was the last game of the season. So what happened was, you know, we had just had the We Believe season the year before. We beat Dallas - eighth seed beat the first - probably be the one seed in a seven-game series. Next year, we come back. We confident. We like, we about to win the championship. We almost traded for KG that year. It was, like, a lot. We had a lot going on. We ended up bringing C-Webb in. And when we bought C-Webb in, it was like a transition of, like, trying to get him accustomed. And I think we lost, like, four or five games in a row trying to, you know, incorporate him into the team.

So long story short, we get down to the end of the year. And we needed the Clippers to beat the Denver Nuggets, and then all we had to do was beat Phoenix the next day, and we would have got in, right? And we have been kicking Phoenix behind all that year, right? So we felt confident that we could beat Phoenix then 'cause Monta Ellis was - I will never forget that year. Like, the way he was abusing Steve Nash - he just abused him every time we saw him. Like, when he was aiming the ball, we got out the way.

WILLIAMS: Al, he was Steph before Steph, Al.

HARRINGTON: Yeah, right.

WILLIAMS: He was Steph before Steph, man. It's wild.

HARRINGTON: We just got out the way and let him go, you know? So we're sitting here at the restaurant, and we're watching the game. And the Clippers was the Clippers at the time, and, of course, they lose. So we know that our season is over. We won 48 games. We're all upset. So we go back to the room, and they like - you know, we had been drinking, so they, like - they smoking. They like, Al, you smoking tonight, man. The season over, man. You going to smoke with us one time. So I'm like, all right, cool.

So I hit it, and same thing, bro. Like, I just - I went - we was supposed to go out. I didn't go out. I went to my room, and I was so paranoid, bro. I was in my head the whole night, bro. I'm thinking, like, I hear, like, sirens. I'm thinking the police coming to the hotel, like, 'cause they smell the weed. I'm just, like, completely bugging out. And I will never forget, like, the next day when I saw them, I was like, yo, young. Smokers (ph) feel like that? I'm like, I'm cool. Y'all ain't got to worry about including me in no more sessions. You know what I'm saying?

So that was my very first time smoking, man. And obviously, it changed. I obviously tried it again. And, you know it's kind of what you were saying about your mom, too, about - once again about stigma. And I think that that's why it's so important that we accept the legal the legalization of cannabis - right? - because there's also still that black market world - right? - where plants are being grown any old kind of way - right? - and just being delivered to the market. And people sometimes smoking it are having issues, right?

But when you talk about legal cannabis, it's tested. You know what I'm saying? All these things, all these steps are in there to make sure, like, that the product that is being delivered to these - to our customers is healthy and safe for them to be able to consume. And I think that's a huge thing. And then, you know, even within the kids from our community, a lot of times, like, people don't understand. Like, why does Jay want to smoke and just sit on the couch and zone out, right? But people don't understand because, you know, one of the things I always say - like, we never go to doctors, right? Like, even as an athlete, you know, we got physicals every year. I have to catch myself all the time like, Al, we'll get a physical, 'cause I'm scared of the doctor still. Like, I just feel like it's always bad news. You know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: That's facts.

HARRINGTON: We deal with s***, bro. Like, we deal with stuff all the time, man. And I always say, like, that cannabis is what allows him to relax and kind of get away from what he's dealing with at that time or allows him to cope. You understand what I'm saying? - because it's either that, it's alcohol, it's pills, or it's way more dangerous things. You understand what I'm saying? And when you look at those - that whole list of things, I think cannabis will be right on top as something that you would prefer for people that you love. You know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: You know, one thing we could see changing since marijuana has been legalized is that your everyday corner guy has now become a distributor for a legitimized, multibillion-dollar business, right? And it feels to me, a big part of your mission is to put ownership in their hands. So tell me, Al, how have you been able to build a foundation for your business? Where did that come from, and how did it originate?

HARRINGTON: That's a great question, you know? And I tell people this all the time - like, you know, obviously, when I first started 11 years ago, like, you know, right - you know, in the league, always like, you know, do summer internship programs with this company and this person and this billionaire and all that kind of stuff. And I did a lot of that stuff, right? So I had unbelievable relationships. And when I became more open to - about what I was doing, I would definitely reach out to them and ask for advice. And they had nothing for me, right? They were like, I actually wouldn't do that (laughter). I would actually shut down the business and do something else before you, you know, lose everything that you, you know, you built, you know, throughout your career.

So for me, it pushed me, like, to the people in the community - right? - the people that I've known that, you know, definitely have been able to build, you know, their fortunes and stuff off of, you know, hustling, essentially, is what we call it from where we from - right? - with this hustling. And when I would reach out to them and I would ask them for advice around like - why were they so successful? Why was it so consistent - why you've had a 20-year run since I've known you? And then what they always told me was that your product sells itself. It was like, if you got good product, it will sell itself.

And that's why, you know, our company really focuses on quality - you know what I'm saying? - and purpose, right? And I've seen that because we've been able to do that. That's why a company like mine, who is still considered small - like, we may be the largest black-owned, you know, MSO in the country, but our business is still small - considered to a lot of our competitors, right? But we've also, you know, been able to be around for 11 years, and a lot of people can't say that. I know people that bought in and came into the industry with 50, 100, $200 million, and literally out of business in 24 months, you know what I'm saying? But I think that, because we stayed true to that - to making sure that we had quality product and we stayed true to our purpose, which is about uplifting, educating, and empowering people of color, I feel like our community and other communities are definitely supporting what we're doing because I think that they feel like what we're doing is really organic. And, like I said, the product is really good.

WILLIAMS: Al, I am so curious - what specific moments in your career in the league do you think shaped your mentality as a businessman today?

HARRINGTON: Honestly, you know, I think what shaped my whole career was kind of something that I did, right? And it was when I first walked in the locker room when I was playing for the Pacers and seeing, like, Reggie Miller and Dale Davis, Jalen Rose and all those guys - right? - heroes of mine, right? But seeing those guys, the first thing I thought was, you know - you know how we are from Jersey. We cocky and just - we confident. I'm like, I'm better than all of them, right?


HARRINGTON: I'm like, I'm hands-down better than them, bro. Like, I got to play. Like, this is crazy. And, you know, I got into training camp, and I quickly learned that I was not better than them, right? But because of that - you know, talking to, like, guys like Chris Mullin and Reggie as well, and, you know, Mark Jackson - they really started to, like, talk to me about, like, what it took to survive and to be a pro and to make it. And it was all about hard work, and it was about being the first one in the gym and the last one to leave, you know what I'm saying? Like, really taking your craft very seriously - like, always trying to add something to your game every single year.

And after that, for me, the one thing that - going into every summer, I would just think, like, OK, we about to draft a new player, right? I don't know what position yet, but if he a three or a four, he's probably going to walk in that locker room and look around and say, Al Harrington? Oh, I'm better than him. I'm going to get those minutes. So that was something that, for me, just it always - I just always remembered that. And I was just like, I'm never going to let a young guy or somebody come and take my spot. I don't care where they coming from. I don't care. And I feel like that's something that is the reason why you look at my game - it evolved, right? I went from a guy that couldn't really shoot well to becoming a knockdown shooter. You know, I at first couldn't - you know, learning how to post and really, you know, get my postgame off in the league. Every year, I feel like I added to my game, and I take that into the business world.

Like in cannabis - I mean, it's 11 years, and I feel like if I continue to stay the same, then eventually people are going to pass me by. Just like, if the game didn't evolve - you know, the guys that play like this, you know what I'm saying? Like, we'd all be still playing like that. But now we doing quick step-backs, they doing sidesteps, all kind of - it just - it continues to evolve. So that's how I look at my business. Every year, we got to get better. We got to come up with a new offering, and we got to outwork the next person. No matter how much of a lead we think we got, no matter how much we think we're on this pedestal, we got to keep raising the bar. So I would just say, like, you know, just that mindset of just knowing, like, you can never get comfortable because, as soon as you get comfortable, here somebody come taking your spot. And that's how I look at this in the cannabis space. I want to stay in the top spot, and, you know, that's how I - not only do I work, but everybody that works for me.

WILLIAMS: I'm smiling because I know this is not the first time in your career or your life that you had to sell product, right? Because you came out with your own shoe brand, the Protege.

HARRINGTON: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: Dawg, I remember that, man - like yesterday. How was - what was that experience like, Al, and what are some facets of how you had to go to market with that product that are similar to the process in which you had to go to market with Viola?

HARRINGTON: Yeah, man. You know, I've - to your point, I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit. And, you know, to be all the way honest, the person that inspired me to even do that was Stephon Marbury, when he came out with the Starbury, you know, seeing the success that he had and the fact that, you know, he was catering to a niche. And, you know, I think that to your point is, like, if you're going to launch any business, you need to try to figure out like, how, you fixing the problem. Right? And the problem that we have once again in our community is we just don't have a lot, you know, had $250 to buy Jordans, you know what I'm saying? Nothing wrong with Jordan charging that because people that can afford it buy it. But everybody can't afford it, you know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: 'Cause of demand.

HARRINGTON: Everybody can't afford it. So what about the kids that can't afford it? What about the kids that, because there's no Al Harrington attaching himself to a shoe or Stephon Marbury that when they buy this other - we from Jersey, we call them jeepers. You buy jeepers that nobody know and it's like you don't feel good about it. Right? You going to school with velcro shoes on the front. You know what I'm saying? You're like, damn, my man got on Jordans. Like, can't feel good about yourself. You know what I'm saying?

So what I felt like was like, let's make some cool shoes. Let's put NBA players, attach it to it, so that when kids wear those shoes for $35, they feel empowered. Because now when I go to school, yeah, you got on the Jordan, well yeah, these Al Harringtons. Yeah. He in the league, too. These Stephen Jacksons.

WILLIAMS: Exactly.

HARRINGTON: Or Fat Joe wear these, you know what I'm saying? And like, you know, I just feel like everything that I've done, like, is just always in all my businesses always been about the people, you know. And I feel like because it's selfless, it's not about me, you know. I always say I've had all my experiences because I was able to play in the NBA for all the time that I was able to play, right? So I've flown on private planes. I've done the nice vacations. I bought jewelry. I bought cars. Now what? Right? How can I take my life experiences and share with others? You know what I'm saying? And, like, that's how I look at it.

And, like, that's why I stayed with Viola is in purpose. It's all about - that's why we do so many different events and stuff like that to allow people to experience, as we call it, the Viola lifestyle, you know what I'm saying? Which is something that we feel like is all attainable for all of us. You know what I'm saying? In the fact that the same product that I'm offering you, I smoke the same thing. You know what I'm saying? I use the same products, you know what I'm saying? So that's always the connection that I try to have is just trying to make sure that it's always about community first.

WILLIAMS: Never get comfortable, no matter how good you are. Stay ahead of the rookies. Keep it about the people and the community. Damn. Al Harrington's dropping gems left and right, and I'm here for it. After the break, we get into the stigma that marijuana still carries today, including in the league. Al talks about the early days of Viola and how he overcame cannabis stereotypes. This is THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams.


WILLIAMS: Al Harrington is going to tell a story here that I can definitely relate to.

HARRINGTON: You know, one day I was headed to a meeting on Sunset. And I got pulled over. And I was in my Rolls-Royce. And I know if I had on shorts - I had on like shorts that probably was a little too small than I should have been wearing. I was feeling myself that day - and a T-shirt, right?

WILLIAMS: (Laughter) You had on the high thigh shorts?

HARRINGTON: Yeah. Yeah. I was feeling myself, bro, that day. Right? So literally, I get pulled over. And, you know, the cop comes to the window, hand on his gun, asking for license, registration. I give it to him. Then he's like, get out the car. And I'm like, why am I getting out the car? He's like, put your hand out the car. Open the door and get out the car. Get out the car - literally puts me in handcuffs, throws me up against the wall. And I'm like, what the hell? So he literally does all of this because he's saying that I don't have a tag on my car. I had a new, you know, the new car tag thing or whatever on it. And I'm just like, bro, like, what is the problem? You know what I'm saying? And it's just like to the point of like I was just having this conversation with somebody the other day, like, it's crazy as a 42-year-old man, and I feel like I definitely can handle myself in any physical altercation, the fact that whenever I see street, I mean, police lights, that I become a sissy, right? I'm so afraid. And that's crazy. And, like, why do I have to feel like that?

WILLIAMS: Why do we have to feel like that? Being targeted by the police as a Black person in America is always a gut-wrenching fear, no matter how far we've come. Plus, the stigma that marijuana carries for Black men, in particular, in and out of the league definitely made Al cautious when thinking about starting a cannabis company to begin with. But then he saw his grandmother struggle with the pain of glaucoma, who, like my mom, was very hesitant to try marijuana for pain relief. He needed a plan to educate from within, talking about the medical benefits of marijuana with none other than church elders. Here's how Al has battled the limits of marijuana stereotypes in building a successful cannabis company.

I got addicted to Oxycodone and OxyContin. And it really set my life into a dark place for a while after I got hurt with my injury and couldn't play basketball again. I had to learn how to walk and run. And obviously, I always experienced pain in my left leg. I have drop foot. I had a complete knee dislocation, tore every ligament in my knee, severed my pubic symphysis by about 13 inches. And I was trying to find an alternative form for pain management. Now, I had smoked marijuana here and there throughout my short stint in college and the NBA, but I really got into it after I was coming out of my addiction phase because I didn't want to abuse something, but I didn't want to stay addicted to that type of medication. And I found out for me that marijuana was the key in helping me alleviate a lot of my pain, a lot of the swelling in my leg. And even as it related to my - the energy - like, my mentality, I felt happier. And I'm not talking about smoking a whole joint, right? I'm talking about, for me, frankly, taking a hit or two here or there at nighttime to relax, to calm down from some of my anxiety that I have. But it was a godsend. But I was still so afraid to talk about it because of the stereotypes associated with me being a young Black male, a guy that played in the NBA. And you know how media loves to frame people in that scenario where it's like, oh, you're doing weed, right? You're doing drugs.


WILLIAMS: How did you learn how to just navigate that stereotype when you first started getting involved in it?

HARRINGTON: Honestly, I'm going to be - you know, to be 1,000% honest, I was afraid in the beginning too, right? This was something that I was doing. But, you know, I definitely didn't bring it up in every room that I went in to, right? But the more and more I got comfortable with understanding, like, the medicinal benefits of it in that, you know, the stigma behind it was, like, completely false, I felt like the opportunity that was in front of me was that I could be one of the people to change the narrative, you know what I'm saying? And when you think about, like, these are legacy opportunities, right? You know, obviously, you know, basketball is one thing, but when you can talk about like really changing people's lives for the better and really helping, you know, I just think that this is a whole nother lane. You know, I definitely feel like sports definitely heals. You know, every time it seems like our country goes through something, you know, sports is kind of thing that brings it back together.

But I feel the same thing about the cannabis plant. You know, I really feel like the cannabis plant is a natural healer, and it can - it fosters community, right? Because I think about there's so many people that I'm actually friends with now because of sharing a joint. It's amazing to me, you know what I mean? Even some guys that I battled with in the NBA - I always use Paul Pearson as an example, a guy that I really couldn't stand my whole career until I found out that he smokes weed. And the next thing you know, we became best friends, you know what I'm saying? So I just really feel like it does that. And then, you know, for me, where I finally started to take that step was, you know, being an entrepreneur. And when you get done playing, you know, obviously people always kind of want to put you in a box and say, coach, you know what I mean? And, you know, that's something that's very natural, right? Because we are experts.

But, you know, a lot of times, you know, when you, you know, the things that we know about it is like, you know, they don't really value ex-players the way that they should, at least especially when I retired. You know, I think now it's definitely become - it's changing a lot. You see all so many ex-players being hired as head coaches like, you know, shout out to Darvin Ham getting his opportunity. So it's definitely changed, but I remember when I first retired, you know, God bless the day Phil Saunders called and offered me a job in Minnesota as a a player development coach, and he offered me $75,000. And, you know, I'm a guy coming off a $10 million contract. I'm like, coach, that ain't going to pay my rent, you know what I'm saying? So I felt like I had to do something else. And I'm like, I don't - I feel like I, you know, put myself in a position I don't want to work for anybody. Let me work for myself.

So when you think about, you know, the cannabis opportunity and as I was trying to find my way, you know, eventually I would just mention it. You know, we'd be in a real estate meeting or a technology meeting and everybody's like, well, what everybody's working on? And I'm like, well, you know, I'm actually - I got a small cannabis company and I'm doing this. And it was - literally the whole meeting would shift to me and what I'm doing in this space, you know what I'm saying? So it made me become more and more comfortable to start talking about it because so many people was interested in what was actually going on in the industry. And, you know, we're talking about 11 years ago when people were still afraid about going to jail. Now, you look at the industry, it's wide open, it's being openly sold damn near everywhere, and now it's a way easier transition for people to consider.

But I remember when I first started talking to, you know, some of the ex-players or some of my teammates and stuff like that, you know, they were like, no, I'm good. I'm not going to jail. You know, I even lost my financial adviser of my whole career because I decided to go into cannabis. He was like, he's not going to, you know, get arrested helping me embezzle money, you know what I'm saying? So just - and, you know, he was a very old man, so I got his mindset. He couldn't understand, like, what was coming, but I saw it, you know, and I'm happy I did it. You know, it's definitely been a great transition for me. I feel like I found my purpose. I feel like the same kind of attitude and energy I brought to practice and to the games, I kind of bring that same mindset to this. So it's been very fulfilling and like I said, so many people - we hire so many people, we help so many people. So this has just been like a dream come true for me.

WILLIAMS: Do you feel like a part of this strategy is - and I hear you use technical terms - right? - as relates to cannabis - I still hear it called weed on national TV, right? You know what I'm talking about.

HARRINGTON: Right. Right.

WILLIAMS: And there's such a negative connotation with it. Do you find that part of your strategy is to approach it from a technical perspective, this way you teach about the medicinal purposes of marijuana?

HARRINGTON: Yeah, definitely. I mean, we do that. But then, you know, you still have some people that are still going to be like, you know, ignorant to the weed. Because at the end of the day, there's so much information out there. Like, for you to still be considering it a drug, a harsh drug and all that kind of stuff is just really idiotic, right? Pharmaceutical drugs to the point of you talking about addiction, that's dangerous. Those drugs that are made in those labs is what's very dangerous and addictive and the opioids and different things like that. But I get it, man. Like, you know, when I think about just the war on drugs, you know, people from my community have seen so much harm, man. Like, you know, they use that - they use cannabis to lock us up for more than pretty much any other thing in our community, something that we never own. When - what I mean by that is we never own farms. We never own trucking companies to get it there. You know, most of this product comes from California, and how'd it end up in New Jersey? But nobody along that chain ever was affected. It was only the people that were in the communities.

And, you know, you just look at New York as a prime example. Like, since New York has decriminalized cannabis, drug arrest is down 90% in New York. You know what I'm saying? So that just goes to show you right there that, like, they literally use a plant that we use as just as much as our counterparts - the people that have the opposite skin of us, without the melanin - and they were not affected the same way. You know what I'm saying? So obviously, you know, I get why, you know, my grandmother in the beginning, why she couldn't wrap my head around, like, what are you doing? My mom, I get it because my - I have had uncles, I have little cousins that have been locked up for cannabis, you know what I'm saying? So we just seen so much harm. I always see it as, like, our form of PTSD that we have to get past so that we can understand, like, all the benefits of what this plant really can provide for us in our community.

WILLIAMS: Has being in the industry for 11 years now, like you said, has it affected any relationships you've had with people in your life? I'm just curious, like, do you think people perceive you differently, or do you think that's all kind of dissipated now?

HARRINGTON: Yeah, just the most negative one was just my - oh, my business manager. You know, God bless it that he passed last year, but name was Billy Wilcoxson and, you know, older gentleman from Ohio, lived in Lexington, Ky., was on the border, Kentucky and all that kind of stuff, and just obviously super conservative. And he just couldn't wrap his head around what I was doing and the space. He just felt like it was never going to go legal. I was going to end up in jail and probably have him going to jail with me because we were taking the cannabis dollars. But outside of that, man, like, you know, I just think about - it's been such - it's been only a handful of people that have been really negative. I mean, like, one time, an Uber driver in Colorado - somehow we was talking, and I told him what I was doing, and we got into an argument in the car. And he was, like, telling me I'm killing people and I'm hurting people, you know what I'm saying?

So - but outside of that, man, I think that, you know, most people I talk to have definitely, you know, let their guard down. I feel like my grandmother's story, the story of how I got into this space, it opens up a lot of doors because, you know, once again, when I think about the people that I have talked to going into these communities and talking to church leaders - because those are the main people that hold up votes, right? The church control everything - right? - especially in our community. And being able to go in there and talk to the preachers and talk to the elders and talk to the, you know, the women of the church and tell them my grandmother's story because my grandmother, you know, she was one of them, you know, and she still is one of them. You know, she's still alive. But, you know, for her to be at the time 89 years old and being willing enough to - open-minded enough to try cannabis for her glaucoma pain, and literally 2 1/2 hours later, I go and check on her, and she's now - she is reading a - crying and reading her Bible, saying the first time she seen the words in the Bible in over three years, it just - I just - it breaks down barriers, right? And, you know, and she's certified, I always say because if she's not going to heaven, then none of us going there.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

HARRINGTON: We all going to hell for sure. You know what I'm saying? And for her to try it, and now it's part of her daily regimen. You know, when she get up, she has dementia. She now has, you know, bladder cancer, but she still takes her vape pen and her RSO oil every single day. You know what I'm saying? And she has a better quality of life, and I just feel like everybody should have access to that.

WILLIAMS: After the break, Al gets into the importance of one of Viola's central missions - Black ownership in the cannabis industry. Plus, he talks me through his preferred strains of marijuana and what to ask for when you go into the dispensary. This is THE LIMITS from NPR. I'm Jay Williams. Stay with us.


WILLIAMS: Last week on THE LIMITS Plus, my guest, Jon Gray of Ghetto Gastro, had this to say about Black creators, which really stuck with me.


JON GRAY: So often what we do is we create a lot of value, and we don't capture the value. So I think, for me, that's the legacy I want to leave behind - value creation and value capture.

WILLIAMS: Jon is saying that we're so often behind some of the biggest commercial successes, and yet we don't get to take home the bag or get a seat at the actual table. Al Harrington is trying to create proper value capture for Black entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry, especially those who have been in the game and are trying to make their enterprises legal. Here's what Al had to say.

I know before I read an article that you have a plan for - just to create a hundred Black cannabis millionaires. Take me through the steps of how you make that happen, Al.

HARRINGTON: Yeah. So, you know, I always tell people this little story that, you know, I was just on the board of, you know, one of the biggest, you know, retail, you know, considered conglomerates in the States. And, you know, I remember, you know, we'd be on board meetings, and we'd be cutting deals with certain companies and stuff like that. And one of the deals we cut was with a company that they were on our call, our team - our board was considering the LVMH of cannabis. And it was so - it made me laugh because obviously I see all the numbers, right? So I know that, like, this product is, you know, being sold for, like, $2,000, $2,500 a pound, and that's up and down - right? - depending on the product, right? But when you think about the cannabis that's sold in our community - which is sometimes maybe the same product, but just because of the marketing and the bags, how cool we make the bags and you know, all these different things and the merch that we would tie, you know, to the strings and stuff like that - we sell product in our community for $7,500 a pound. So I'm like, that's the LVMH of weed, guys. It's not this stuff that y'all are selling for $2,000. That ain't it. It's our community that has the LVMH of weed. You understand what I'm saying?

So I'm saying all that to say, is like, all those brands, all those companies - you know, they need a bridge to get into the legitimate industry because all these guys, what they - they want the American dream, right? They want to have a bank account. They want to be able to go - they want to have good credit. They want to buy a house. They want to be able to buy cars. They want to be able to live in the open and doing what they're doing. So I just feel like, you know, those - and I'm out there, they're not considered black market brands to me. They're called - they're gray market brands, right? They're just on the cusp, just waiting for the right opportunity so that they can go legal. And, like, that's something that I want to be able to do - you know what I'm saying? - through my network and through my resources and as I continue to do these strategic partnerships around the country with some of these bigger cultivation providers. I would like to be able to bring them along and allow them to get on the shelf, you know, like I said, in a legal way. And, you know, I know personally that these guys - you know, when they do pop-ups on a weekend for merch, that is, like, what Hanes T-shirts are doing. They'll make 200, $250,000 in a weekend, you know what I'm saying? So these guys have real brands and real followings, and all I want to do is be able to elevate that.

WILLIAMS: All right. So take me through the process, Al, because I'm really fascinated by it. I tried to go through this process of applying for a cannabis license in New Jersey and had some pretty powerful people on board and got rejected, right? Now, the people that actually were allowed to have the license - nobody looked like me, which I found to be interesting. But now I live in Connecticut, so it's still in the process of - yep, exactly. If I wanted to be part of the Viola brand - right? - how would I go about that process here in Connecticut? I mean, granite, give me the high-level version. You don't have to get into the nuances...

HARRINGTON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...About all the legislation. But I'm just curious from a starting position.

HARRINGTON: Yeah. So to your point, you know, that's what we do, right? So when we look at, like, going into new states, like, the application process has so many - as you know, there's so many different verticals within it, right? And you cover everything from, like, security, design, community redevelopment, all these different things, right? I've done - like, in Missouri, I used - Larry Hughes is my partner there, him and his best friend Abe. And why we did that was because we wanted to be strategic, right? As we go into these communities, we want to be able to help and rebuild, right? But how do we do that if we're not from here, if we've never experienced nothing there, we don't know nothing about the community? That's why it frustrates me when these companies that, you know, have a social equity component on their license and they get perfect scores - when they don't look like us, how do they know what we need? How do they know how they can have an impact in this state when they've never actually been there? So what we do is I do - I join with local partners - right? - someone like yourself. So with Connecticut coming up, we will be looking for a partner there, you know what I'm saying?

WILLIAMS: I will be calling you.

HARRINGTON: And I'll call my guy, somebody that I'm friends with that I know and I know your spirit. You know what I'm saying? So I know that everything that we are about is aligned with who you are. You understand what I'm saying? So that's how we normally do it. And then that process everywhere is different. You know, some states you have to, you know, go in and be in control of the real estate, which costs a lot of money sometimes. And this is all at-risk capital, as you know. You know what I'm saying? I'm not sure how much you spent on your first license, but I remember the first license we did in New Jersey, we spent over $200,000, and we came in, like, 200th place. You know what I'm saying? But at that point was when I realized what the opportunity was, and I really went and built out a team, and since then, we've won nine licenses. You know what I'm saying? So, you know, putting that strong team together of, you know, strong, influential people that can go have conversations at the highest level - you know, like, with New York, you know, a lot of that legislation - you know, I was there helping, you know, facilitate a lot of that information to those people - you know what I'm saying? - that now when you look at New York, I feel like New York probably has the best approach to social equity in regards to the state.

And the government is actually putting up a lot of the money so that these people do have a real chance to actually be successful, because everywhere else is not like that. It's kind of like, OK, we going to give you a license, but if you're a social - if you're a true social equity applicant - which means that you come from a community that was affected - right? - which means the 'hood, you had to have been locked up before, you have to have had jobs where you made less than $50,000 - how are you going to go out and raise millions of dollars to operate a business? How were you even really investible - you understand what I'm saying? - without having certain things around you to be able to do that because all they're doing is giving us these licenses so that we can go and struggle to open it. If we, for some miraculous reason, get it to open, the first issue we have, we're out of business, and now we're selling those licenses to our counterparts for pennies on the dollar. So that's not the purpose. The purpose was for it to be an equitable opportunity for us to be able to have a participation in this generation of wealth and for us to be in charge of rebuilding our own community. You know what I'm saying? And then, you know, when you think about even the zoning - right? - in the Black communities - right? - which they do all the time. All the churches and schools and liquor stores are all around our community. So with zoning, you have to be a thousand feet away from one of those three things, but each one of those things is on every single block in our community. So once again, you don't even allow us to bring the business into our community, where we can control the narrative and can control, to your point, the hiring because, naturally, you hire people that look like - most times you hire people that look like you. You hire people that you feel comfortable with. So that's why, when we get these opportunities, we want them to be within our community. You know what I'm saying? Just the way that the Chinese people have all the liquor stores, with cannabis, we want Black people to own the cannabis stores within our community so we can be in charge of the education and creating the jobs and giving back and different things like that.

WILLIAMS: OK - two-part question here coming along very quickly. And I know there are a ton of blends, but I'm going to keep it simplified out there for our people that don't know all the different strains of marijuana. Are you a sativa or indica guy?

HARRINGTON: I'm an indica guy because...


HARRINGTON: ...For me, I like to relax. You know...


HARRINGTON: ...That's what I use. That's what I use cannabis for, for the most part, is to cope and to deal with some of my bumps and bruises throughout my career. Sativa's too strong. Sativa makes my heart race, and it definitely makes me a little - give me a little bit of paranoia. So once again, I always say, that's the journey, that's the beauty about cannabis because, like, a lot of times it'd be like, I smoked one time and this happened, and I'm never doing it again.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

HARRINGTON: And it's like, no, that's not it. You got to look at it more like when your first time you drank vodka and then you drank tequila, then you drank whiskey. You got to find out which one is for you. You know what I'm saying? So that's kind of the beauty of cannabis. It's kind of that same kind of mindset.

WILLIAMS: All right. So I went to my first dispensary about three years ago in Colorado. I was blown away. I did not know what the hell to ask. I'm gonna be honest with you, Al. I pretty much bought everything. I was like, oh, I'll take that...


WILLIAMS: ...I'll try this; I'll try that. So for a novice that goes...


WILLIAMS: ...Into a dispensary for the first time, what type of questions should I be asking?

HARRINGTON: It depends. Like I said, you know, why are you going in there, right? You just going in just for recreational use, you want to have a good time? So - or are you going in there because you have aches and pains? You going in because you have anxiety? So it usually just depends on, like, you know, what is bringing you in it for the first time, right? But, you know, normally I would say is, like, take it slow, right? You know, if you want to do a edible because you're afraid of smoking, like, ask for edibles that are microdose - right? - so that you get, you know, tested and start with a 2.5 and then a 5, 15, 10, 20, whatever, to get to your point where it gets - puts you in cruise control. You know what I'm saying? So I think just asking questions and just being very open around, like, what you're nervous about - you know what I'm saying? - if you have any nervous effects that might be coming or what you heard in the past, being open with the budtenders about that. And normally they have at least some type of information that they can give you to make, you know, make your purchase and make your experience a lot better.

WILLIAMS: I got to be honest, I almost went down a dark hole with the word microdosing, which could have led to a way different story. But I'm going to stop...


WILLIAMS: ...And I'm going to say, I appreciate you, man. I mean, from knowing you since I've been in seventh grade and watching you and hooping with you and seeing what you're doing with Viola, I got - Al, I got to be honest, man. I'm so proud of you, dude.

HARRINGTON: (Laughter) I love you, bro. Thank you, man.

WILLIAMS: You too, Al.

HARRINGTON: All right.

WILLIAMS: I'd like to give a big shoutout to my big bro, Al Harrington, and his team for making this interview possible. You can find locations where Viola products are sold on And we're back Thursday with a bonus episode for THE LIMITS PLUS subscribers where Al and I ask, how do we talk about marijuana with our kids? Until then, stay positive, and remember, let's keep it moving. THE LIMITS is produced by Karen Kinney, Mano Sundaresan, Leena Sanzgiri, Barton Girdwood, Yolanda Sangweni. Our executive producer is Anya Grundmann. Music by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Danielle Soto, Christina Hardy, Rhudy Correa and Charla Riggi.


Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.