Q&A: Al Harrington on Sha’Carri Richardson, cannabis company, more

Q&A: Al Harrington on Sha’Carri Richardson, cannabis company, more

I sat down with former NBA player and founder of Viola Extracts, Al Harrington, whose company is one of the nation’s leading producers and licensed wholesalers of premium-quality cannabis products.

We had an in-depth discussion about the Sha’Carri Richardson suspension and the lack of compassion that has been shown for her. Richardson is guilty of coping, not doping. She is not a cheater; she made the rash decision to use marijuana to manage her pain while dealing with the trauma of learning that her mother had died (from a reporter, no less). Surprisingly, this news was met with callousness and a lack of compassion from social media, talking heads and many fans across the globe. I know it’s a cold world, but it was still shocking.

Harrington pointed out the fact that Richardson won the trials in a state where marijuana is actually legal. He advocated for the Olympic committee to re-evaluate their “outdated” rules, especially as many countries around the world are now accepting cannabis in some form within their countries. Harrington made the case that marijuana is not a performance enhancer and therefore shouldn’t be on the banned list in any sport. 

He also highlighted the contradiction of addictive opiates being passed out like candy in professional sports while marijuana is banned. He talked about how he was given the anti-inflammatory Celebrex and instructed to take two in the morning and one at night for most of his career. Years later, the FDA asked Pfizer to pull Celebrex from U.S. pharmacies because of the risk of heart, stomach and skin problems it caused clearly outweighed the benefits. He also discussed the benefits from a medicinal standpoint of the plant not only for athletes, but everyday people dealing with anxiety, depression and pain. In addition, he told a heart-warming story about his grandmother (whom the company is named after) and how it has helped her glaucoma. 

While we are not advocating for anyone to break the rules, certain situations like Sha’Carri Richardson's should at least evoke a sense of compassion and objectivity that would cause at least a re-evaluation of the rule itself. Here's a transcript of the conversation:

Etan: Al Harrington, how are you doing, sir?

Al Harrington: ​I'm good. How are you doing, brother?

Etan: ​I'm good. I'm good. And you know, always great catching up with you. I see you all over the place doing everything with Viola and advocating and getting bids and you know what I mean? Everything that's doing, how's everything going?

Al Harrington: ​Good, bro. You know, like you said, it's just a lot going on. You know, obviously, you know, operating and building the brand and also, you know, fundraising all that across the board. So, you know, just a constant everyday grind, but you know, I'm having fun doing it, bro.

Etan: ​That's great. That's great. I wanted to talk to you and get your opinion on this. And it's been in the news these last few days and that's Sha'Carri Richardson, and you know, it's interesting. I can give people a quick update, if they don't know: The United States anti-doping agency announced that Sha'Carri Richardson has accepted a one-month suspension.

Etan: ​She tested positive for marijuana and in accepting the penalty you know, Richmond's results from the US Olympic trials have been disqualified and she forfeits any medals points, prizes, anything of that. So, she made a statement and I'm going to read this statement now. She said: "I apologize. As much as I'm disappointed, I know that when I step on the track, I represent not only myself, I represent a community that has shown great support. Great love. I apologize for that. I didn't know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time."

And she was talking about losing her mother. And so, she went on to say, we all have different struggles. We all have different things we deal with, but to put on a face and have to go out in front of the world and put on a face and hide your pain...

Etan: ​Who are you? Who am I to tell you how to cope when you're dealing with the pain you're dealing with, a struggle that you never experienced before, or that you never thought you'd have to deal with? Who am I to tell you how to cope and who am I to tell you you're wrong for hurting now? For me, that got me, you know what I mean? It really did. It got me thinking and it got me, you know? I know people want to jump to saying, "Well, rules are rules. She broke the rules, and it ends there," but you got to be able to show some kind of compassion. You know, when people are dealing with serious situations, you know, like losing their mother and they're finding ways to cope, and this is a conversation that we've had a lot. So, what is your take on everything and how it unfolded and the ways and how it speaks to the bigger issue of how people in society have coped with things and been punished for it?

Al Harrington: ​Yeah, I think it's to your point, right? You know, obviously we want, we don't want to sit here as role models and fathers, you know what I'm saying? You know, trying to say that, you know, when it's, when things get really tough that you can go do something that you're not supposed to do, you know what I'm saying? Understand that rules are rules, right. But I think that what this opportunity has done has been able to shine a light on rules being outdated and right, rules being silly. You know, when we think about the Olympics and different things like that, you know, things that are on those ban lists are usually performance enhancement drugs or whatever you want to call supplements or whatever. And I think that, you know, over time, you know, the cannabis plant has been stigmatized in so many different ways, but performance enhancement has never been one of them.

Al Harrington: ​When we think about what she did, like yes, you know, sometimes people have to make a sacrifice. Some people have to fall on the sword, and you know, this is what she has to do with this 30-day suspension. But what we wanted to do is bring it to light that, you know, most professional sports has now, you know, either took cannabis off their list or they're no longer testing for it. You know, within our country, there's so many different states where recreational use is allowed. So, the same way that you can go and buy a pack of cigarettes, or you could go buy a bottle of alcohol is the same way that you can now go and buy cannabis. Right? So why is it still being policed or why is this stigma still behind this plant? You know what I'm saying?

Al Harrington: ​So, we also understand that with the Olympics is obviously a worldwide committee, right? In sport. Right? So, we understand that there's other countries that chime meaning and different things like that. But you know, what I'm advocating for is for them to now start to look just the way all these other professional sports have looked at cannabis and now you started doing your research and realize that it's really silly. You know, because like I said before, I'm like, you know, she won the trials was in Portland, Oregon... You can do meth, cocaine, any of those things in the state of Oregon with no penalties. But then, you know, when you think about it, you know, that night or the two nights before she could have just been having trouble sleeping, you know what I'm saying?

Al Harrington: ​We come to find out, obviously, she was dealing with a real-life issue right of losing someone in a way that she found out, you know, thank God she didn't do something way worse than smoke a joint. You know, we really think about it and the fact that, you know, we talk about the compassion side of it is that she still decided to go out and represent her country. And she won, you know what I'm saying? She wanted to fashion that it was for women and all these different things. And when we talk about in this country, how we want to uplift women and different things like that, it's just crazy that we would put her on this pedestal and try to rip her down. 

Al Harrington: ​ And when you think about it, once again, the cannabis plant is what's going to pull her down? Something that the entire country, at least our country and most countries abroad too, are now accepting some form of cannabis within those countries. It's just silly man. The Olympic committee needs to really go back in and review cannabis again and just take it off the list. Because once again, it's not performance enhancing. And if these people are struggling with depression, anxiety, etc., it's way safer than the alternative things that they have access to: the pills, alcohol, all these other things. So that's what I'm really focused on. And hopefully trying to use this moment to create change from that level.

Etan: It’s interesting seeing the reactions of people and when you change hats, so now you put on the father hat, right? And I'm talking to my kids and I'm showing them the reactions of people. I just finished telling my son this, the harsh reality is nobody cares what you're going through. That's a tough reality. I looked at her talking about how she found out that she lost her mother and I just felt compassion, like it pulled at my heartstrings, but then looking at the comments of other people and they're like, who cares what she's going through. The rules are the rules. She broke the rules, she got to get punished. And it's such a heartless reaction. 

​Yes, I understand that the rules are the rules, but shouldn’t you be able to look at athletes as humans? And that's something that we've been talking about the past I'd say few months. Naomi Osaka, they were no longer looking at her as a human, so forget what you're going through. Got to talk to the media. Don't even matter. So, if she says, "Okay, well now I’m going to try to self-medicate in order to be able to talk to the media, what you want me to do?" They’ll penalize her for that. But it's like, where does the compassion come into the equation?

Al Harrington: ​It's tough right, because you would think, people of color, especially Black people, I think we are the most compassionate creatures on earth, right? Just because of what we've been through. The actual physical power that we do have, but one thing that has been definitely eye-opening for me on my social media is that most of the people that are saying the rules are the rules and she should have known better are people that look like us. A lot of us are saying, like to me, like "What kind of example are you setting as a celebrity?" And it made me definitely kind of step back and kind of look at it and just make sure I'm not like bugging. I guess compassion has been shown to her. You know, I see like Nike decided to support her and continue to keep her contract in place because I think for sure, four or five years ago, she would have definitely lost her endorsement deals over something like this. 

Al Harrington: But the Olympics come around every four years. It's not like how we play, like we got 82 games, we get suspended five games, we still got 70-something games left. So, I totally get it. You know what I'm saying? But I think that, you know, like I said, I just think that this is the opportunity where we just need cannabis to take another look and we just need athletes to have access to it because there's too much information that is available now about the power and the benefits of the plant. ​From a medicinal standpoint, you think about the other alternative ways that they want to treat us. You know, these are the things that are highly addictive. These are the things that really are drugs. These are the things that if we take four or five, six pills because we are really going through it that we might not wake up. You know, we are doing five, six, seven, eight, 20 joints, and God is going to bless us to wake up the next day for sure.

You know, so that's what I'm advocating for, literally, seriously, bro. Let's change the stigmas, enough is enough already, man. Cannabis has been used to destroy the Black community. You know what I'm saying? You know, most people say, well, all communities, but basically ours. Because when you think about all the people incarcerated, once again, Black people never owned grows and we will never own transportation companies.

Al Harrington: ​Right. But somehow this plant has reached all of our communities around the entire country. And the only ones that have been being enforced is in our community. That's what we're talking about. That’s why we’re bringing race into this thing, because those big groves and all the programs in the country, California, whatever, we never hear about those being popped for real, and obviously, there's no real true enforcement because a lot of those places is one way in one way out, you know what I'm saying? So there has to be some form of participation for this distribution that's happening into our community. 

Etan: ​It hurts me since I've been, you know, here in D.C. and working with different correctional facilities, youth correctional facilities, and I work with the youths under the age of 18. A lot of times they're in, they have some that are in the same D.C. prison. They're just in the youth section. Like in New York, they don't have Spofford anymore. You just go to Rikers island, and you’re just in the youth section. But I look at what they're in there for, and it's like possession of a little teaspoon of weed. Meanwhile, I'm seeing as weed is being legalized, people get rich off of it — a lot of white people, I'll be honest with you — getting rich off of it, investing in it, lobbying for it. Now laws are being passed. And I'm looking at this and going back to our community where people were saying, well, why are you making it a race issue?

Etan: ​Then I look at these kids that are all locked up, young and old, a lot of grown men locked up for non-violent crimes. Possession of weed? Listed as repeat offenders, but it's possession of a nickel bag, a dime bag and then possession with a little over a dime and they say, if it's above a certain amount, that's intent to distribute. And then you get extended years actually longer than what we just saw Derek Chauvin get for murdering George Floyd. So, when people say, "Why are you making a racial issue?" No, let's connect the dots and show you how was this racial.

Al Harrington: ​To your point, like you can call it a nickel bag of weed. That's personal use, man. Yes. I'm going to jail because I wouldn't just smoke a little bit of weed, like not go to jail for like the night, like years. ​Yes, it is a race issue. As much as people want to try to act like it's not and get around it. And you know, obviously there are stories of white people that have been locked up. We get it, but even those charges, they don't get the same charges we get. So, before people start fighting what we're saying, just do a little bit of research, because we've done it. We're not making this up. So yes, there is a lot of work to be done from that perspective and yes, I think that we have to continue to make it a race thing. I think that's where we were letting them off the hook. If we decide to say, you know, we're not going to talk about the race side, know that's a huge part of it.

Al Harrington: ​And to your point, this industry is being dominated by white males. You know, our opportunity in this space is very, very small. Like my company, we can only have social equity licenses that, you know, allow you to cultivate in 5,000 square feet where our counterparts are building million square foot cultivations. And we might be able to get one store, right? But they have a conglomerate of 30, 40, 50 stores. You understand what I'm saying? So, it's like, even when they act like it's an opportunity, it's really not one. It's more of like a band aid. It's like, okay, let's just check this box. We gave them a couple. We gave them a presence. But no, we want to have a real seat at the table, you know what I'm saying? And you know, we, and as we go through different things like this, this is really important, just like Black Lives Matter.

Al Harrington: ​I just think that there's certain times in history or certain moments that we really have to really make our presence felt and make our voices be heard. And I think this is one of those times, because like I said, this young black queen of ours, she's ours, bro. We got to protect her and we have to support her. I just wished that more athletes would have stood up for her. Because there's a lot of current athletes that are using cannabis in different ways and that's where people have to also grow mentally. Just because I use cannabis doesn't mean I'm smoking. It could be an edible, it could be a tincture. It could be a topical, there are all of these different ways that we can use the plant to medicinally benefit us.

Al Harrington: Many athletes are discovering that we can recover faster, that we can get inflammation out of our body, all these different things that athletes need. Right? That's the reason why you pay your money to come see us and support us. And you want us to be out there and be at the highest level when we go and play, and cannabis is going to allow that. So, we just have to continue to fight for this, man. And I just wished that that for more of our people because we are the show, right? We dominate the Olympics — let's just keep it real — so we need to come together and be like, "Look, we want to change some of these things, if y'all want us to continue to participate."

Etan: ​You mentioned something earlier about changing the stigma of cannabis. And people really have to understand the way that prescription drugs are pushed on athletes, especially football where it’s lined out on the table, and these are opioids. These are not over-the-counter Tylenol we're talking about, we're talking about major legal narcotics that people are struggling right now with, and they pass them out like they're candy.

Al Harrington: ​Talking about marijuana, talking about all the medicinal purposes, it’s just something that should be legalized across the board. It should be actually legalized worldwide, across athletics for sure. And to your point, you know, we are forced to take these opioids. I played a lot of games in my career — and obviously I would be hurt a lot of times more in the offseasons or whatever — but like I played through pain a lot, for seven straight years I took anti-inflammatories, bro, like two in the morning, one at night, an anti-inflammatory called Celebrex. I was popping them like Tic Tacs. And obviously I knew that there were side effects and different things like that. But at the end of the day, just like you, we first-generation money in our family. It's just like, it's just like the NFL guys in every sport, especially for black athletes and athletes of color, we don't have no other opportunity that's going to ever afford us opportunity to make millions of dollars, you know what I'm saying? So we had to put our bodies on the line and we have to sacrifice and we had to play through injury and play through pain and play with all the opioids or whatever so that we can go out and just provide for our family.

So, at the end of the day, when you think about all of the sacrifices that we make, all we're asking is just give us access to all the medicine, and if we can find a way to medicate through the cannabis plant, something that is natural — like they’re seeds, they’re little seeds like this that we put in dirt, and this plant grows. That's not a drug, man. It's not. Drugs are made in a lab. Those opioids, they have traces of cocaine, traces of meth, all these different things that are in these opioids that they're giving us. Those are real drugs. Those are the drug dealers. We're not drug dealers, putting a seed into dirt and watching a plant grow. Letting it sit and hang for two weeks and then breaking it down and either smoking it, extracting it for an edible, whatever we choose to do with it. That's not a drug. So, athletes, we know that now. And like I said, I think it's on us now that we just got to fight for it. So, guys have got to speak out. As you know, some of the best players in our league actually use cannabis. I think that if they could speak on it because, like I said, none of these sports would do anything without us, and that's just the truth. So, this is our time to use our voice and stand up. 

Etan: I think it’s also important to keep pushing the contradiction of being able to prescribe these opioids to athletes like it's nothing. It's just mind boggling because I have personally seen, especially when you see the retired athletes, if you've ever gone to any function with the retired NFL players and they can barely walk, like they're our age, but their bodies are like they're 80 years old. And they tell you about how the opioids that they're still on ruined their lives. You listen to their stories and hear everything that they're still addicted to and having struggles with and everything like that was given to them by their trainer and by their team. Those are the ones that gave them all the different legal narcotics and it destroyed their lives. It's just amazing to me. So then, so going back to what we're talking about with Sha'Carri, just seeing the way that she has been treated on social media, you've had a lot of support, but just seeing the other parts where I'm like, "Well, what would you all have rather happened? Which would you rather? That she take an opioid and then you would have been okay with that?"

We’ve seen all these tragic things happen with people who are trying to cope with something or dealing with depression, and they're in a situation where nobody cares, which is the reality of it. And then they have to figure out ways to cope. So, if she would have started drinking, would that have been better for you? That’s legal, right? Nothing in the rules against that, right? It bothers me that so many people don't care, even though I know that's the reality and what I have to tell my kids, that the reality of life is people don't care. But it still bothers me.

Al Harrington: ​Yeah, man, it's a hard, it's a harsh reality. And like you said, I feel like people would have preferred her to show up to the meet drunk. Drinking all night, just drinking her pain away and showed up drunk. But to your point, it's sad, man, because you're right, most people don't care, like 99.9% of the people don't care. And I think that once again, that's why we have to stand up for what we believe in. Because living our lives, trying to please others, it's a dead-end street. I remember when I was young, first coming to the league, I remember the OGs telling me that the world is made to build you up to try to tear you down. So, build you up. Yeah. Love, love, love, love, love. And as soon as you stumble, they’re just waiting for an opportunity to tear you down.

At the end of the day, you gotta do what's best for you and what's gonna make you happy because at the end, that's the only thing that's gonna matter because trying to play for these other people, they're only gonna like you until you can't do something for them anymore. Or when that opportunity comes, where they can be, like, "Aha I knew it, I knew he wasn’t all that." Think about that conversation you have with your son. You probably have had it with him three or four times already. It is a constant thing that we have to continue to deal with. 

Etan: ​People have to understand that, you can identify a rule as being a bad rule. And then it takes an event to be able to bring it to the forefront and to illustrate why it's a bad rule. And then you start getting everyone to push for this rule to be changed, because now you have people discussing every sports topic, you know? ESPN, FS1, all of them, they're discussing it. They're presenting different arguments. It's a topic now. And now people are starting to think about it in ways that they didn't think about it before, because of her situation. And they're starting to see where, "Well, you know, why is this listed with other performance enhancers when it's not a performance enhancer?"

Should this be something that we can use for our athletes to be able to deal with different things instead of just throwing them out there and tell them just perform, you know what I mean? Or just throwing her in front of the media, like Naomi Osaka and say "Look, forget what you're feeling. You just, you just go by the rules and talk to the media." And I think that this situation, which Sha’Carrii and Naomi — and I'm comparing the two because it's showing the human side of athletes and we're really human — like, there is a human being under the person who was breaking all the records and performing at an optimal level.

There's a human being underneath there. And I think that a lot of people forget that.

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