At the end of 2011, Al Harrington’s 79-year-old grandmother Viola came to visit. When the Denver Nuggets star discovered that she was taking multiple medications for glaucoma, diabetes, and high blood pressure, he told her that he’d recently read about treating glaucoma with cannabis, and asked if she’d consider it. This was Colorado, after all — where medical marijuana had been legal since 2000. 

Viola wasn’t interested in smoking “reefer,” Harrington says — but he talked her into it when she confessed that her eyes were hurting so badly she was having trouble seeing: “I said, ‘Well if you’re taking all this medication and it’s not working, I think you should give reefer a try.” Harrington procured some medical bud, helped her vaporize it in his garage, and then went to take a pre-game nap. When he checked in on her an hour and a half later, he found her in tears. She was reading her Bible, Harrington says — the first time she’d been able to do so in over three years.

Last December, the NBA announced that it would not test players for marijuana use during the 2020 to 2021 season. Earlier last year, the NFL announced that it would issue players fines instead of suspensions for testing positive for weed, and Major League Baseball removed cannabis from its “drugs of abuse” list. Harrington was way ahead of the curve. After playing 16 seasons of pro basketball, he founded Viola Brands in 2011. It’s now a multi-state operation, with business in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Michigan, and a recently announced expansion into Oklahoma, where the medical market is booming. 

The company experienced some operational challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, but demand for Viola products fueled the business, Harrington says. “We experienced a big shift in our customers’ purchasing behaviors that required us to put more efforts towards delivery, but we’ve been successful in handling those dynamics and were even able to accelerate our expansion pipeline.”

Harrington, 41, is determined to break down the stigmas surrounding cannabis consumption. “Changing the narrative of the way this plant has been demonized is something I’m very passionate about,” he says. He felt differently about cannabis growing up in Orange, New Jersey. Harrington’s mother, who raised him on her own after his father died when he was eight, cautioned him to stay far away from marijuana, equating it to hard drugs like crack and heroin. It was the height of the Just Say No era, when police raids and disproportionate sentencing schemes for drug convictions terrorized urban communities of color. Stop-and-frisk arrests regularly landed young Black and brown men in jail for minuscule amounts of weed. 

Things have changed a great deal since then, with New Jersey legalizing recreational cannabis this month. It’s an exciting time in Harrington’s hometown. “From growing up and seeing two guys in my locker room at school go to jail for having a dime bag of weed on them, to it now being fully legalized, it’s really great to see how far we’ve progressed,” he says, adding that Viola Brands will advocate for people affected by cannabis arrests and convictions as the Garden State begins the legalization process.

In 1998, when Harrington was 18, he was drafted by the NBA, joining the Indiana Pacers. He was surprised to learn that some of his teammates smoked weed. It didn’t seem to affect their game adversely, and he began to reconsider the notion of cannabis as a hardcore drug. After moving to Colorado in 2010 to play for the Denver Nuggets, Harrington was intrigued by the state’s rapidly evolving cannabis industry. “Anytime I picked up the newspaper, there was always something about the benefits of cannabis and how the industry was evolving,” he says.

When Harrington saw marijuana provide his grandmother with such relief, he knew he’d found his next move. “That inspired me to take an in-depth journey into cannabis,” he says. “We’re pioneering something.” His foresight and instincts as a businessman are paying off: the legal weed industry generated $18 billion in sales in 2020. Plenty of celebrities have launched cannabis companies — Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, even Martha Stewart has a CBD line — but Harrington is adamant that Viola is not a celebrity brand. “It’s not a money grab,” he says. “We want to talk about impacting people affected by the War on Drugs.” 

African Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession. While both groups use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of Black people for drug charges is almost six times higher than their white counterparts. Harrington is determined to give back to minority communities. “We don’t want to be sitting here, making all this money with people still suffering,” he says. 

Harrington has always wanted to make a difference; he founded an eponymous charity in 2007 with the objective of providing essential items to families in need. Viola was launched as a socially driven brand, he says: “We had to figure out in what ways or partnerships we can give back in a meaningful way.”

He enjoys smoking now, and has cultivated a deep appreciation for weed since his Colorado days, where he recalls sitting in a grow room for hours. “There’s something special about sitting in those rooms, and the way they smell,” he says. “Having respect for the plant, and realizing how detail-oriented you have to be when dealing with a grow — it’s truly amazing.” He emphasizes the consideration taken in growing, manufacturing, and packaging Viola Brands flower, pre-rolls, and concentrates. “One of the things that we want to focus on is our process, so people understand the care that we put into these products for our patients.”

That conscientiousness translated to a philanthropic initiative called Viola Cares, which aims to help formerly incarcerated people transition back into society, working with the non-profit advocacy group Root & Rebound.

“Our goal is to dismantle the collateral consequences that come with having a criminal record,” says Eliana Green, an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Root & Rebound. The group takes a three-pronged approach by providing legal services, working to change drug policy, and public education. “Once we get good laws passed, in order for people to benefit from them, they have to know what their rights are,” says Green. Through the Viola Cares partnership, Root & Rebound created a toolkit designed specifically for people imprisoned for marijuana offenses, titled “A New Leaf: A ‘How-To Guide’ for Successful Reentry After A Cannabis Conviction.”

“It’s a compact know-your-rights guide,” says Green. “We have an employment chapter, where we give people the lay of the land of the cannabis industry. There’s a chapter on probation, parole, housing, all the types of things you might need.” There’s also a chapter to assist people with drug convictions in cleaning up criminal records. The toolkit is available to download for free on the Root & Rebound website; the non-profit also offers virtual clinics to those with a conviction history.

In addition to restoring rights to people with cannabis convictions, Harrington wants to increase minority ownership in the weed industry. A lack of access to capital and systematic economic racism have excluded minorities from entering the legal market; a 2017 survey found that less than a fifth of the people involved at an ownership or stake-holder level were people of color, with African Americans making up just 4.3 percent. Harrington has said he intends to create 100 Black millionaires through Viola Cares by fully funding social equity applicants into cannabis businesses, and helping underground brands go legit. 

“Some black-market brands have a massive following, but they just don’t have the wherewithal to get licensed, as they can’t get through the regulations,” he says. He wants to use Viola’s licenses and resources to get those brands into the legal market. “That’s where ownership comes from, where it’s not a job. It’s their own brand.”

Viola Cares recently enlisted rapper T.I. as a social justice ambassador, to lead initiatives to make the cannabis industry more equitable and inclusive while spreading the word about Viola’s core values. (When asked about the sexual assault allegations, and a resulting defamation lawsuit recently filed against T.I. and his wife Tameka Harris, a representative for Viola said, “At this time, we don’t feel it’s appropriate to comment on any allegations.)

Harrington continues working to raise awareness of the company and its mission. He was recently joined on Instagram Live by Senator Chuck Schumer to discuss Schumer’s push to decriminalize marijuana under federal law. Harrington may have political aspirations himself, but he’s in no rush. “I’m still young,” he says. “If I run for president, I’d run at like 65. So I got 25 years to decide.”