Retired NBA Vets are making legal marijuana the new pick and roll
The blunt reality behind the big business of Mary Jane
Viola Harrington couldn’t take it anymore. Even the backbone of a family has a breaking point. She was in pain. And it was hard for her to see.
Her story, part of a recently released campaign in support of Proposition 64, which would legalize marijuana in California for recreational use — and is expected to win in a landslide vote Nov. 8 — revolves around the pressure on Harrington’s eyes, a painful condition brought on by glaucoma. Her grandson is former NBA forward Al Harrington — and when he saw her nearly weeping from pain at his kitchen table, he made an unorthodox suggestion — at least unorthodox for a grandson and his grandmother. Perhaps she should try getting high.
Al Harrington, 30 at the time and in his first season with the Denver Nuggets, had heard the talk around the city. It was 2011, and Colorado was moving toward legalization of marijuana. The state’s medical program was already happening.
“Boy, I ain’t smokin’ no marijuana!” That’s what Viola Harrington shot back.
“She just went in,” said Al Harrington with a laugh. “So I’m like, ‘Aight, Grandma.’ Whatever.”
The next day Grandma Harrington was back at the kitchen table, her face again buried in her hands. The pain was nearly nauseating. Her grandson had done the research. There was a strain of cannabis called “Vietnam Kush” that reportedly helped with vision issues. Al Harrington explained the benefits. Viola Harrington expressed her concerns.
But eventually, she agreed. Al Harrington had a friend vaporize the kush. Viola Harrington smoked it in her grandson’s garage. Afterward, he walked her back to her room and let her lie down. An hour-and-a-half later, he checked on her. “I haven’t,” she said, “been able to read the words in my Bible in over three years.” Her tears of joy became his. Her eye pain, according to Al Harrington and his grandmother, greatly subsided. From that moment, he began an even deeper dive into the medical benefits of marijuana.
The following year was Al Harrington’s second and most impressive season with the Nuggets. He posted 14.2 points and 6.1 rebounds a night on what was then the highest scoring team in the NBA. Harrington tore his meniscus at the end of the regular season, leaving his playoff availability in jeopardy. He fought through the pain and helped the Nuggets nearly escape with a first round upset of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets lost in seven games.
“This is not going to change the presence of marijuana in your community or all of a sudden lead to an industry. That industry is here already.” — John Hudak
Following the playoff exit, he had surgery, and the effects of it left him “sick as a dog.” Due to a staph infection, his leg had to be “cleaned out” three times over the course of a week. Following another clean-out of his leg in Vail, Colorado, later that summer, Al Harrington was being introduced to cannabinoids (CBDs). Sick of Vicodin and other pain meds he’d ingested over the course of his career, Al Harrington — like his grandmother a year earlier — figured, “Why not?” He gave the black oil pill a shot. It’s a popular CBD that reportedly helps with pain relief and reduces inflammation.
“I felt good,” said Al Harrington. “When you’re playing, you obviously can’t jump out there and say you’re doing all that type of stuff. But I’m living proof that you can manage pain without all the pharmaceuticals. You do have an alternative method to take care of yourself. And, to me, [it’s] a more natural way.”
Al Harrington is far from alone.
Marijuana is legal in some form in 25 states plus Washington, D.C. Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and D.C. have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Projections forecast that the infant industry could be valued at $44 billion by 2020 — a figure in the neighborhood of Panama and Serbia’s entire gross domestic products. Per the Marijuana Business Factbook 2016, recreational and medicinal sales, coupled with tangential products and services, could potentially place the industry’s annual revenue eye to eye with Fortune 500 conglomerates such as FedEx and Lockheed Martin.
Simply put, the United States loves its loud.
The trend-turned-full-fledged tidal wave of support has been aided, in part, via its commonplace in pop culture. Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Method Man and Redman and Seth Rogen have created weed-centered cult classics — 1995’s Friday, 1998’s Half Baked, 2001’s How High and 2008’s Pineapple Express, respectively. Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic, perhaps the most influential rap album of all time, is an homage to marijuana, and the LP’s very title is one of Mary Jane’s most recognizable nicknames. Artists such as Snoop Dogg, Bob Marley and Willie Nelson’s careers are as tied to the plant as much as their own discographies. And there’s no greater celebratory day in cannabis culture than April 20, affectionately known as “4:20.”
Yet, the history of the policing of marijuana is ugly, debilitating and from its very inception, racially motivated. What J. Edgar Hoover was to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panthers, Harry Anslinger (1892-1975) was to marijuana. A former railroad cop, Prohibition agent and law-and-order evangelist, Anslinger was named America’s first drug czar in 1930, a year into the Great Depression. He quickly began using race as a trump card in his quest to outlaw marijuana — a plant many, including the men in Congress, knew little about.
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” Anslinger said. “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races … most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and many others.”
By 1937, Anslinger’s obsession culminated on Capitol Hill: congressional hearings on the Taxation of Marijuana. One observer described the proceedings as “near comic examples of dereliction of legislative responsibility.” Dr. William Woodward, lobbyist for the American Medical Association (AMA), opposed Anslinger’s rhetoric. He concluded the AMA had no evidence marijuana was a dangerous substance. So there was no reason to tax it. He also noted that Anslinger’s primary form of evidence — newspaper clippings citing the plant’s dangers — had originated from Anslinger himself.
“When you’re playing, you obviously can’t jump out there and say you’re doing all that type of stuff. But I’m living proof that you can manage pain without all the pharmaceuticals.” — Al Harrington
Nevertheless, several Congressman moved to forward the bill. The impact of this decision and the bigotry that helped bring it to life has reverberated for decades.
In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon commissioned his friend and former Pennsylvania governor Raymond P. Shafer to produce a report detailing marijuana’s evil grip on society. By then, the stigma surrounding the plant was pervasive. Except Shafer determined that weed wasn’t an appetizer for violence, rape, or murder. “You cannot publish this,” Nixon allegedly told Shafer, fearing it would intercept his “war on drugs” campaign. Shafer published it anyway. Nixon trashed the report. This is a cycle that pretty much repeated itself with each presidential administration.
Two-and-a-half years after Nixon’s death in April 1994, marijuana scored a landmark victory. On Nov. 5, 1996, California passed Prop 215, better known as the Medical Use of Marijuana Initiative or Compassionate Use Act.
Around the same time, John Salley had taken his talents overseas to play in Greece. The since retired four-time NBA champion — who won titles with three teams (Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Lakers) in three different decades — doesn’t mind expressing his feelings about marijuana legalization. To Salley, marijuana is safer than many vices that are legal. “I’ve never heard of a D-U-High,” he said with a laugh. Though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell have been arrested for just such a charge, a recently released 2016 study tends to side with Salley.
He’s in favor of legalizing weed, especially if doing so benefits athletes.
“If you’re a football player,” said the former NBA forward/center, “you should be allowed to smoke weed or ingest some sort of THC and CBD because of what you do. If Le’Veon Bell is Le’Veon Bell and he smokes weed, don’t stop what he’s doing.
“I didn’t smoke marijuana until I was 36. I was one of those guys,” Salley said. He was a year removed from his final season in the NBA, a championship campaign with the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Lakers. During his time playing ball, Salley, like so many, was conditioned to believe marijuana was bad for the body and would affect his ability to play. “And then I did the research.”
Since then — and like Harrington, Clifford Robinson and NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson — Salley (as he has embraced veganism) has embraced what marijuana can do for the body. The only man to play with Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and O’Neal and Bryant has a phrase he leans on: The business to be in is the business of the future. He’s a shareholder, along with Snoop Dogg, in the Canadian cannabis company Tweed. Business appears to be booming north of the border, too. Canopy Growth Corp, Tweed’s parent company, saw its market value skyrocket 17 percent after announcing it would be selling three varieties of marijuana under the Leafs by Snoop brand. Shares rose 84 percent, giving the company its third consecutive year with a positive gain.
What’s not positive is that thousands of men and women of color whose lives have been halted, and in some cases, ruined for marijuana possession and/or distribution. Per the American Civil Liberties Union: “Marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.” And it gets worse. In 2014 alone, more than 750,000 arrests in 2014 were marijuana-related. Again, the ACLU: In 2010, blacks in Iowa, Washington, D.C., Minnesota and Illinois were 7.5 to 8.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for weed. Among those incarcerated is a close friend of Salley’s — someone he is actively trying to get released.
Salley’s unsurprised to see black people behind the eight-ball once again. “They made money off of jazz. They made money off of hip-hop. They [make] money off our style of rock-and-roll. They make money off our culture. We’ve always been put into that position.” The bull’s-eye has a familiar burden.
His belief is the American obsession with incarceration is about keeping people of color under some veil of control. “I know it was a target towards our community,” Salley said. He also believes America making a profit from marijuana was always going to happen — and cites Showtime’s Weeds as an example. It’s about a widow who turns to selling weed to maintain her privileged lifestyle. “Too much money is involved,” said Salley. “When it becomes part of pop culture, you become desensitized to it. Once … it becomes big money, they don’t care.”
And legality begets relaxed attitudes. “As people get medical or recreational marijuana in their state they become less terrified of it,” said John Hudak. He’s deputy director for the Center of Effective Public Management, and author of 2016’s Marijuana: A Short History. Hudak sees the California bill as a next step in bringing the marijuana industry out of the shadows and legitimizing weed as another consumer good — a groundbreaking moment in terms of policy reform. “One of the misconceptions is this weird idea that, ‘Oh, my God, if we legalize marijuana, all of a sudden, we’re gonna have marijuana in our community.’ But everyone knows marijuana exists, openly and commonly! I don’t tell people to endorse legalization or oppose it, but what I say is, ‘Listen, this is not going to change the presence of marijuana in your community or all of a sudden lead to an industry. That industry is here already.’ ”
Colin Kaepernick on police and community relations. Althea Gibson breaking the U.S. national championships color barrier in tennis. Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Muhammad Ali on civil and human rights. Curt Flood ushering in the era of free agency. Athletes’ voices have often been vehicles of change. The same could one day be said about marijuana legalization.
“Athletes talk with passion about, ‘Here are all the serious pharmaceuticals that I’m getting doped up on by the team doctor and I’m barred from using this one substance.’ I think it puts it into a really easy to understand perspective,” said Hudak. “These guys just humanize this for most Americans.” Both Salley and Harrington are nostalgic about how they believe marijuana and CBDs would have aided their careers. Taking pills to merely just make it to the court was a common occurrence. There’s often not a full understanding of the long-term negative effects of those pills and injections on the human body.
And the negative effects of skewed law enforcement on the human spirit.
The “war on drugs” preyed on African-Americans with runaway success and crippling results. Criminal records and regulatory costs make it nearly impossible for those same black men and women to cash in. Systemic oppression, lack of financial freedom and mass incarceration are critical ingredients in, for lack of a better word, smoking African-Americans out of the boom they were demonized and stalked for participating in for decades. The federal government continues to see marijuana as illegal, making it impossible to secure a small-business loan from banks. Per Amanda Chicago Lewis, while official statistics do not yet exist on marijuana business ownership, roughly three dozen of an approximately 3,200-3,600 dispensaries are owned by blacks. That’s 1 percent.
Al Harrington is still mapping out plans for his next steps in the industry. But he would like to someday own a shop. The establishment, in his mind, would be operated by those who sat in jail for marijuana possession. “To give them those opportunities would be huge … it would be great [for] the rehabilitation process,” he said. “For bringing them back home.”