Q&A: Retired NBA Star Al Harrington Takes the Court in Marijuana Industry

As kids growing up, we’d think professional athletes seem to be the closest earthly thing to superheros we would witness. With their larger-than-life stature and ability to perform seemingly impossible feats of athleticism, athletes having weaknesses is hard to imagine.

But then we grow up and learn that most of them barely hold their bodies together over the course of a long career, and the methods by which they do maintain their health have come under great scrutiny in recent years as society as a whole examines its own therapeutic tendencies.

Former NBA first round pick and 16-year veteran Al Harrington knows all about how injuries can take a toll on the body and prevent an athlete from reaching their true potential. When Marijuana.com asked the 1998 USA Today High School Player of the Year how diligent team doctors were in their education to players about the dangers of opioid painkillers, Harrington told us that wasn’t the case.

“Man, hell no!” Harrington exclaimed. “And a lot of times you don’t even get it from the doctor, you get it from the trainer. You’re just sitting there icing your knee after the game and the trainer walks over next to you, opens your hand, and tosses you a couple of pills. You just take them right there, and if you need more, you get more. I easily have over 500 pills at home right now, just from the recurring cycle of getting them.”

Across all major sports, team doctors are tasked with keeping the team’s players in tip-top shape so they may play the most games possible — sometimes to the detriment of the athlete. An athlete’s competitive nature and the threat of losing their lucrative job create heightened pressure to accept sometimes misguided “medical care” and get back to work. However, now we see that simply masking pain with opioids and other temporary treatments only helps the stakeholders: team owners, television networks, and fans oblivious to the problem.

Marijuana.com spoke with former NFL star Ricky Williams in late 2016 about the overprescribing of opioid painkillers to players recovering from injuries.

“Side effects varied from cramping to painful constipation. Secondarily, other players and I became dependent on it. If we didn’t have it daily, practice was a nightmare because we were in so much pain. The Toradol prevented us from realizing it. In my experience, marijuana doesn’t mask the pain like Toradol does. When I played, I smoked marijuana to manage the pain, which required me to be proactive about taking care of my body. Using Toradol makes it easy to depend on the pill or the shot to feel better.”

When a player’s career is over — the average NBA career lasts less than five years, according to the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) — they no longer have access to the same training and medical staff looking after their every ache and pain, which can lead to self-medication and addiction.

As part of the NBPA 2016 collective bargaining agreement with the league, retired NBA players with at least three years of service time have their medical insurance covered, the first arrangement of its kind among North American professional sports leagues.

“The game has never before been more popular, and all the players in our league today recognize that we’re only in this position because of the hard work and dedication of the men who came before us,” said Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul in a statement from the NBPA. “It’s important that we take care of our entire extended NBA family, and I’m proud of my fellow players for taking this unprecedented step to ensure the health and well-being of our predecessors.”

But health care for players would be far more effective if more therapeutic options were available to athletes to treat their wide range of ailments. Using opioid painkillers as a blanket solution for all of the acute and chronic pain an athlete experiences is merely a stopgap that can cause more harm than good.

When Marijuana.com asked Al Harrington, knowing what he knows now about medical marijuana, how his career may have played out differently had he employed cannabis to treat his pain rather than pharmaceuticals, he said: “If I could have managed my pain in the NBA the way I do now with cannabis without having to worry about testing dirty and being suspended, I definitely could have played a couple more years. And in a lot less pain, which is the key to it all.”

Harrington’s late-stage discovery of the power of cannabis led to him finding his true calling and a lucrative post-NBA career. Harrington runs Viola Brands, a multifaceted marijuana company that creates high-quality products for medical and recreational use. It’s named after his grandmother, who had a cannabis epiphany late in life and proved to Harrington just how powerful the plant could be.

Cannabis Concentrate

Viola Extracts Mandarin Jilly Live Resin

During a visit from Viola, Harrington noticed that his grandmother was taking a large number of pharmaceutical pills to treat the long list of conditions she suffers from, but they weren’t necessarily helping her all that much.

“My grandmother came to see me and and brought this big-ass pill box, so I asked her why she’s taking all this medication,” Harrington said. “She said, ‘Boy, I got diabetes, glaucoma, high blood pressure, this, that, and the third.’ I had just read something about using medical marijuana for glaucoma, but she was resistant to the idea at first.”

Then, Viola tried it.

“When I came back to check on her, she was leaning against the door, her head was down, and she was crying,” he said. “She looked up at me and said, ‘I’m cured.’ She was holding her bible. She said she had not been able to read the lines of her bible in three years. She was crying, I was crying. And that moment is what inspired me to start this business.”

Q. Can you tell me about your marijuana venture?

A. We started in 2011 as caregivers in Colorado. During that time, it was just us taking care of the cultivation space. We had cancer and HIV patients we were growing for. Fast forward to 2014, and they killed the caregiving model in Colorado, leaving us with a 12,000-square-foot building we can now only grow 16 plants in. We quickly had to figure out how to become fully legal. My wife is always complaining about smoke in the house, no matter what I use, so as a smoker and being in the industry, I asked myself how people can consume discreetly. We decided to dedicate the remainder of our grow to producing extracts.

Since then, Viola Extracts has become one of the top three concentrate companies in Colorado. We’ve expanded as a business as well, as we have a 40-acre farm in Oregon now, with six tax ID lots. In the first year, we did 40,000 square feet of canopy. When we max this whole thing out, it’ll be 240,000 square feet of canopy in Oregon. We also have a building in Michigan that’s 48,000 square feet. That space will be vertically integrated so we can cultivate, manufacture, and have a retail location there as well. We should have our licenses in July, so we’re super excited about that. In California, we did a joint venture with a company called Vertical Brands, almost like a licensing deal where they grow our genetics, they extract to our methods, and we just focus on creating amazing packaging and sales.

Q. What type of concentrates do you carry?

A. All of them. Live resin, shatter, butter, sauce, and we just added solventless extraction through water hash. We’re really excited about that product, it’s been flying off the shelves and we can’t make enough of it. We offer another product called Baller Buckets, where we offer 7 grams of live resin in a jar. Colorado has been our gold standard, that’s where we get all of our information, all of our knowledge. As we grow there, we’ll just be bringing those same methods to other states.

Q. What was your experience with cannabis when you were younger, in your playing days?

A. Growing up as a kid, we stayed away from all that stuff, it was a no-no in my house. As a professional, I’ve always had teammates that use. Every team always had at least one player. And a lot of times they were the better players on the team. So, I’ve always known or seen that if you do smoke, it doesn’t make you play any worse, but it still wasn’t for me at the time.

After my grandmother’s experience, I had to get a meniscus surgery and it turned into a staph infection. So I had to get like 17 surgeries over the course of two weeks. It was crazy.

I went to Vail Colorado for one of my last procedures and someone recommended I try THC and CBD for my recovery. I promise you, ever since then I have not touched pharmaceutical drugs and I’ve had three surgeries since. I still play basketball semi-professionally and I manage all my pain through cannabis. I feel like cannabis saved my life.

It’s difficult to deny the immense therapeutic power of medical marijuana when you witness success stories like the ones Al Harrington and his grandmother Viola experienced.

“I just feel like the athletes should have an option,” Harrington said. “I feel like if they get on a regimen that works for them, they can effectively manage their pain and recovery without taking all those drugs.”

“They have these commercials with people skipping in the sun and clam this drug will fix this or that, but then they list all these side effects such as sudden death, internal bleeding, eyeballs falling out. Cannabis is all natural, it comes from the ground. But yet it’s still illegal.”

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