Conversations In Cannabis: Al Harrington – Founder Of Viola
We discuss a range of topics with the former NBA veteran turned ganja-entrepreneur
Every so often you get the privilege of meeting with someone in the cannabis industry who truly makes an impact that’s beyond just creating an incredible brand or product. Someone whose true passion is to rise up others to their own level of achievement, not for the purpose of enriching themselves, but rather to enrich an entire community that has been unjustly impacted by the war on drugs.
In my opinion, these are the true heroes of cannabis. Al Harrington is such a person.
Many know Al Harrington as a veteran NBA player but for almost a decade now his focus has shifted entirely from the basketball court to the emerging cannabis industry. First by founding Viola, a California-based cannabis brand named after Al’s Grandmother, then by expanding his brand into multiple states and during all of that also becoming one of the leading voices for social equity in the cannabis space.
I sat down with Al to discuss everything from how he got into the cannabis industry to where he hopes to take his brand in the future.
This is one episode you don’t want to miss!
- 00:34 – First Experience With Cannabis
- 02:49 – How To Talk About Cannabis With Apprehensive People
- 05:48 – Cannabis In The NBA
- 07:47 – Advice To Athletes Regarding Opportunities In Cannabis
- 09:54 – Advice To People Of Color Looking To Get Into Cannabis
- 11:56 – Thoughts On Social Equity Programs
- 14:08 – Partnership With Ball Family Farms
- 16:00 – Favorite Strain And Way To Consume
- 17:14 – What’s Next For Al And Viola
- 18:30 – The One Person He Wants Most To Get Into Cannabis
The written interview has been edited for duration & readability. The full interview is available in audio format above.
Nick Gaulin – MRR:
“Just to get us started, why don’t you give us a little bit of an origin story with cannabis. Do you remember what your first experience with cannabis was like and what set you off on your cannabis journey?”
Al Harrington – Viola:
“Yeah, my first cannabis experience was as a youth. I saw people getting stopped and frisked by the police for even thinking that they would have any drugs on them, but definitely cannabis. I even remember in the eighth grade when two kids in my homeroom class got pulled out of class for having weed in their lockers when they were checking lockers one time. So growing up I was completely afraid of the plant and did not want to be a part of it.
As I became a professional athlete, that was when I first started to see the way they perceived the plant differently. The way that I thought cannabis affected people, I thought it was a gateway drug. I thought that if you use cannabis then you’re going to end up smoking crack or things like that. But when I got to the NBA I had teammates that frequently used cannabis and were some of the best players on my team at the time. They were perfecting their craft while using the plant. That’s when I first started to take my guard down and feel like cannabis isn’t as bad as they kept telling me.
Then it all came together for me in 2011, when, after trying for two days I was finally able to convince my 79-year-old grandmother to try cannabis for her glaucoma in order to help manage the pain that she’s having in her eyes to let her be able to see. Literally, an hour and a half later, I went to go check on her and she was downstairs crying. She was actually reading the Bible and told me it was the first time that she had read her Bible in over three years. So that’s what really set me off on my cannabis crusade. Since then, we have definitely found purpose in what we’re doing which is uplifting, empowering, educating, and creating opportunities for people of color. That’s why we are here. We are today operating in four States and we’ll be six by the first quarter of next year and we’re going to keep expanding from there.”
“What was that conversation like trying to convince your grandmother to use cannabis for her glaucoma? And, more importantly for other people who are trying to convince maybe their grandparents or those maybe apprehensive about using cannabis for the first time, how can people help ease others into maybe being willing to give cannabis a try?”
“Now compared to then it’s totally different, right? I was just going off of literally a couple of articles that I read in the newspaper in Colorado at the time and I was giving her the wrong information. I’m telling her things like cannabis will cure her Glaucoma. You know what I’m saying? She finally asked me what cannabis was and I told her it was marijuana, weed, and she’s like ‘Reefer’? She’s like, ‘Boy I’m not smokin’ no reefer have you lost your mind?’
When you just think about that mindset, of course she was just completely against it. She was born in 1931 so she grew up with cannabis was being demonized all around her, especially growing up in the South. So for me, it was God at work. I’m very religious and she’s very religious, and you know, I just feel like that for her to be in pain, complaining about her eyes and her being open-minded enough to actually try cannabis… it was like I said, it was somebody else at work. You don’t understand when you think about that situation and for her to try it without seeing a doctor or getting the prescription, or anything like that, and for it to help her that fast and have her sitting in her room crying, it just spoke volumes.
I think that we as people just have to understand that cannabis is an alternative way of medicating. Right? I just feel like a lot of the drugs that they prescribed to us are obviously very harmful. And a lot of time it flat out doesn’t work. There is a percentage of the people that it actually works for, and the thing with cannabis is that this is an all-natural alternative for people to give a try. And that’s what I pushed for, you know, the different elements that you may deal with, you know, you should just see cannabis as something that you could use instead of using the harmful pharmaceutical drugs that they obviously push on us all the time.
“That’s very interesting because you were also mentioning your first real foray into feeling that cannabis is viable was when you were at the NBA. As you said, you had a lot less information back then when you were trying to convince your grandmother to try it. Now that there’s a lot more information out there, the NBA in particular doesn’t feel obligated to test players, at least for this season.
How often were players around you in the NBA using cannabis for pain management, and now that the NBA is kind of feeling like they should be hands-off with THC in particular, do you feel that maybe players and trainers building athletic health programs are gonna start to incorporate cannabinoids into recovery regimens? What do you see as the future of cannabis and the NBA?”
“Yeah, I think that obviously the first product to break the barrier somewhat will be CBD. I think the players are going to use that for inflammation, recovery, and different things like that, and then eventually THC will come in because, to your point, there’ll be more education around the cannabinoids and realizing that the THC is almost like that magical formula at the end. That it really just takes the medicine to the next level. But it’s going to be an education process.
Then, to answer the first part of your question, none of the players were telling me they were using it for pain management. Right? And I remember like, even back then it was like, even if you were a smoker you were a closet smoker, right? You didn’t… it wasn’t like let’s have a discussion on why I smoke. You know what I’m saying? I wasn’t able to find out exactly why guys did it, but I think a lot of guys did it to just deal with all kinds of stuff like anxiety, just trying to get some sleep at night and relax, kind of get away from it all. When you really think about it, especially if you’re an owner paying someone hundreds of millions of dollars, I think you would much rather have a cannabis regimen over a pill or alcohol regimen. And I think that’s what’s starting to happen slowly but surely, you know? These organizations and these leagues are starting to realize that cannabis is something that they should take a serious look at it for the overall health of the athletes.
“You completed a $16 million series A for your company including former NBA players, including Josh Childress, Kenyon Martin, and some others as part of that funding round. What would be your advice to athletes who are maybe looking to get into cannabis, either through starting their own company or maybe through doing investment like via a private equity fund?
They need to get in now because it’s getting more and more expensive. I just feel like this is something that we owe to ourselves, right? Think about the way, like I said, where our community was destroyed from the persecution of this plant. Especially a lot of the communities that all of these athletes actually really came from. And I just think this is a unique opportunity where generational wealth is at risk if we don’t do it, you know what I’m saying? And I thank God we took it that serious because when you think about cannabis and really look at the overall industry, it’s an industry that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
On top of that, to me, because of the health benefits of it, it’s not like liquor. Liquor is just a straight entertainment thing, right? Of course, cannabis can be used for that, but it also can be used for the medicinal benefits and you could actually use cannabis to create other products. Like hemp creams and different things like that. So there’s just so much opportunity around this plant. And I just think for guys not to be a part of it now, or at least start thinking about out how they can be a part of it, it’s just going to be almost a tragedy.
So many industries have come before this, where black people have been right there at the pioneer level, and now we have no ownership in any of those industries. So I think that this is a chance for us to change that because we have the influence, we have the capital and we just got to come together collectively and figure out how we can all help each other raise up and have very, very substantial ownership and brands in cannabis.
“Now I know social equity is a major part of your cannabis journey. Helping other people and bringing other people on board. You famously said that you wanted to mint 100 new black millionaires within the cannabis industry. Being that you’ve been in the industry for so long and have gone through so much, in your opinion, what are some of the best ways that people of color can kind of get their foot into the door in cannabis in the first place?”
“Like I said, I think one of the main things is, you know, there are some, not a lot, but there are some, you know, people have really good companies, right? And really good brands. And I think it’s all about actually reaching out and trying to build a community around this thing. I just feel like for you to try to come into an industry and almost try to reinvent the wheel when you’ve had someone like myself who has about 10 years experience now, you know, there’s value there. Right? And I think that people should reach out to people like myself and try to figure out what’s the best way to do it.
Then you have those people out here that actually went out there and made it happen on their own. There’s a lot of people that have smaller brands, whether they’re, you know, in the white market, gray market, or black market. But I think that they have relevant brands, especially in the community that they’re from, that they need people like myself that have access to different resources, like licenses and different things like that, that we can bring to the table so that we can create opportunities for them to be able to participate legally or be able to take their business to the next level, be able to give it more visibility and different things like that. So we can help them scale their businesses. And that’s the way that I plan on trying to create these, you know, trying to help elevate these hundred black millionaires. So that they can, like I said, be able to have a seat at the table and be able to participate in the industry that if this does not happen then we going get left behind.”
“When we look at social equity as a whole across the country, obviously there’ve been some places that have done it pretty well. There’ve also been some places where it’s been a little bit rough. Here in Los Angeles where I am, it’s been a little bit of a rough rollout. So in your opinion, what could be done to better help social equity models get properly formed, and is there a place in your opinion that new markets should be modeling after?”
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, one of the main things is I feel that social equity should be more specific, right? I feel like the people that are the most impacted are still not benefiting and I think that that’s an issue. For those people that I’m talking about that obviously need these opportunities and would love these opportunities, the biggest thing is funding. Not even just funding but it’s funding for one, and then it’s also just having more experience in the business so that you can actually really be successful. So being around incubator programs and around education, you know what I mean? The one thing about the industry that’s very tricky is the regulatory environment because it’s constantly changing. It’ll change at the drop of a hat and you’ll be sitting there like, what the heck just happened, you know what I’m saying? So just giving people that experience and understanding and knowing that these things can happen. You know? Not only that but how to run your business, how to look at 280E, tax laws, different things like that, all these things people need to learn almost prior to actually receiving their license so that once they actually have the license, they can be successful with it and actually flourish. To me, that’s what the opportunity is. We want to give people an opportunity to be successful, not the opportunity to fail and I just feel that’s how a lot of these programs are written up, it’s putting us in a position to actually fail.
“You most recently teamed up with Chris Ball of Ball Family Farms on the strain Reign, which you debuted this past weekend. Can you tell us about how that partnership happened and what you feel like the future of that partnership is going to become?”
“So one of my old employees actually introduced me to Chris, I think they had known each other for years. So Chris came to us and he was just starting as was like, look bro your one of the brands, one of the entrepreneurs in this case, that I really look up to, and I just want to figure out how we can work together. And I was like, man, why don’t we just do a collab out the gate. Let’s just like uplift each other brands together and put some fire product out there that we can build a narrative around and let people know in order for this industry, especially for us, for us to be successful, that we have to work together. It took us about a year to put this whole thing together and know the stuff is just selling out, you know, the product is selling out after two days of being on shelves.
So long-term, as I continue to grow my business, I like to focus on the real branding and marketing aspect of it almost becoming somewhat of a CPG company within just the brand. And when I can partner with a guy like Chris, that can actually cultivate for me because that’s one of the things he wanted to focus on, it just makes sense you know what I mean? So that’s what we’re working on. Something long term where we create three strains together that will be in our portfolio, and that he would cultivate for me here in the state of California to start, and then we’re looking at other States that we could potentially partner up on as well.”
“I got to ask, out of all of your years of being in the cannabis space and out of all of your time consuming cannabis, what’s your favorite way to consume cannabis and your favorite strain of all time?”
So I’m an OG guy. I’ve obviously tried a lot of different weed and realize the Sativa’s don’t agree with my heart, my heart goes out off beat. *laughs* But I like OG’s just because I’m the type of guy that’s constantly, always thinking, always running around, always doing things, and being able to sit down and smoke of a good joint that’s a good OG strain. I just like OG’s for the most part. I think my favorite would probably be the SFV OG’s. I really liked those a lot. I actually created my own OG which will be called Jumpshot that we’ll be rolling out fourth quarter this year.
I’m an OG smoker. I think right now, at one point it was concentrates, I used to like to dab a lot. I don’t know if it’s just because that was my first product when I first came out or not but now I’m more of a flower smoker, you know what I’m saying on the daily basis.”
“Being as prevalent as you are and being involved in so many different states, now operating in four and expanding out to six, what’s next for you and Viola?”
“We’re just going to continue to build this brand nationally. We have some strategic partnerships that we will be announcing also probably during this fourth quarter. I also started another company in the space that acquires licenses called Village that we will be announcing that partnership with Viola being a sister company. So, you know, just continue to do things like that.
I also want to stay really focused on educating. We have something that we’re working on, some different curriculums to help ease the transition for people coming into the space that actually have no knowledge, giving them enough knowledge so that they can actually get in and be impactful for some of these organizations that need really good, talented people. We want to try to bridge that gap of bringing in talent from other industries into the cannabis industry where I think it’s going to be really relevant and there are going to be amazing opportunities for these people. So that’s what I’m really focused on is just growing our brand and helping grow an opportunity for others.
“Last question for you. I got to know out of everybody that you’ve smoked weed with in the past who is not currently in the cannabis space yet do you want to see get in the industry?”
“Who do I want to see in the cannabis space? I want to see Obama get into cannabis. *laughs*. Yeah Obama man, he’s one of the coolest personalities of people I’ve ever met and I would love to see him in the industry and me and him we’ll have a session one day and I think that’d be pretty dope.”
“Al Harrington, founder of Viola Cannabis. Thank you again so much for everything, man. I really appreciate it.”
“Thank you man.”
We hope you enjoyed this exclusive interview. Thanks again to Al for his time and thanks to the entire team at Viola for their hard work and dedication to the cannabis industry.
You can find out more about Viola by visiting them online at www.ViolaBrands.com.
If you would like more information regarding his collaboration with Ball Family Farms, that can be found by visiting Ball Family Farms online at www.BallFamilyFarms.com.
Special thanks also goes out to JP Bianchini for the licensed use of his track Upbeat Corporate. You can find out more about JP Bianchini by visiting his website at www.JPBianchini.com
Stay tuned to the next episode on Conversations in Cannabis!