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Ex-NBA stars Isiah Thomas, Al Harrington, John Salley talk life as cannabis trailblazers

A trio of former basketball stars are well into their second careers as cannabis entrepreneurs, something the ex-athletes hope will also improve society.

At a Bezinga conference this week, Isiah Thomas, Al Harrington and John Salley explained how their new roles are not just about making money, but inextricably linked to combating social inequality.The three former players are each at varying stages in developing their own cannabis brands.

On Monday, they talked about their plans as pioneers in the nascent industry, and in some cases, it’s also a family affair. Thomas’ son Joshua serves as CMO for their CBD-focused partnership, Vesl Oils; and Salley’s daughter Tyla parlayed her college tuition fund as seed capital for her lifestyle brand, Deuces22.

“We're trailblazing,” Harrington said. “”The industry is just getting started —  it's been around now 10 years — but now we just started cooking.” 

Salley, swore off cannabis during his NBA career, while Thomas still swears off THC. Yet both are newcomers to the space, and they credit Harrington with teaching them the ropes. 

“Every time Al makes a move, we make a move right behind Al,” John Salley said of Deuces22.

“He knows I’m following him,” Joshua Thomas said about the duo’s CBD line, which in its most recent fiscal year which has generated $3 million in revenue — boosted by a 35% surge in e-commerce over the past month.

“We are trying to empower people of color to really take control of an industry. That’s always been hard,” he said.

Gateway drug no more

Washington Wizards' Al Harrington (7) passes the ball as he is defend by Orlando Magic's Tobias Harris (12) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Orlando, Fla., Friday, March 14, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Harrigton became inspired to invest in a Colorado medical cannabis company in 2011, after he witnessed THC restore the eyesight of his 79-year-old grandmother. She reluctantly took his suggestion to try it in place of traditional drugs, to treat pain, diabetes and glaucoma. 

“She said she had so much pain she would try anything,” Harrington said, recalling the time his grandmother came to visit to watch him play in the NBA. Post-treatment, he checked in on her to find her crying tears of joy.

“She said, ‘I’m healed! I haven’t been able to read the words of my bible in over three years,’” Harrington recounted. The experience converted his long-standing perception of marijuana as a gateway drug.

“I’m from Orange New Jersey where I grew up in the War on Drugs and I can remember 8th grade where two of my classmates got locked up for nickel bags in their lockers,” Harrington said.

He dove into research on medical cannabis and its effects on the human endocannabinoid system. It changed his mind to see the plant as having potential to ease suffering for cancer, HIV, and seizure patients.

Today, Harrington’s cannabis brand, Viola, named after his grandmother, is the largest black-owned multistate operator in the country. To get his company off the ground, Harrington raised $60 million, and may eventually reap him more than the $90 million he earned as a professional ball player.

To give back to his community, Harrington has also formed his own non-profit, and partnered with social equity programs in Los Angeles. To date, Viola has committed more than $500,000 to Harrington’s Viola Cares initiative to assist minority cannabis entrepreneurs through phases of business development.

And in a separate partnership with Root & Rebound, Viola offers incarcerated people of color pre-release tools to help overcome employment, legal and educational challenges.

“That's something that I think is really unfair, especially with all the billions of dollars that are now being made” in legal pot, Harrington said. “And you know, they come home, they have felonies...they can't even work in the industry. There is literally no opportunity,” he added.

A business for ‘all colors’

John Salley arrives at the NBA Awards on Monday, June 24, 2019, at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Salley makes it clear that his daughter and CEO Tyler is in charge — and equality, education and access are top priorities.

He echoed a point made by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who questioned on Twitter why people were incarcerated for pot-related offenses when cannabis businesses were essential during the coronavirus lockdowns.

According to Salley, a large number of people in jail for marijuana-related cases “happen to look like us. We bring other people like us to show them that this is also a path...We can start a business. This business can go to all colors.”

The actual percent of inmates convicted and incarcerated in state and federal correctional facilities for marijuana-related offenses is difficult to pinpoint, but according to the ACLU, black Americans were arrested for marijuana possession in 2018 at 3.6 times that of non-blacks.

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, among all drug-related offenders 12.9% of sentenced prisoners under jurisdiction of state correctional authorities in 2017 were black, and 15.9% were white. The number of black offenders behind bars for possession-related drug offenses that year was 3.2%, while 4.5% were white.

Salley explained that the legal cannabis industry’s youth means it isn’t constrained by the established social hierarchies that have led to exclusion of minorities in other industries. The social barriers that have kept people of color from entering companies at top executive levels do not exist in cannabis, he said. 

In addition to their focus on cultivating fully organic marijuana products, Salley and his daughter are providing free educational tools though Duces22 Academy to educate consumers on cannabis and how widely products can differ. The company raised an additional $400,000, combined with Tyla’s college fund, to start with nearly $750,000, and is now seeking investors for a $5 million round.

In Thomas’ mind, social inequalities should be confronted head-on “not only to end racism, to have a discussion about racism, and then to move past that where we are all looked at as living flesh and blood, human beings, as opposed to being looked at by race and color.”

Asked whether they worry that cannabis could tarnish their respective basketball legacies, Thomas said, “I believe in science.” As a former athlete who was initially reluctant to invest in psychoactive marijuana, he added that “it’s natural to gravitate towards the medicinal promise of the plant.”

Salley, however said he wasn’t worried about the criticism. “Isiah used to say to me I am so proud of you, and envious of you, that you can say the things you say on television about cannabis.”

Harrington did fear the stigma, early on, concerned that if not embraced by the masses could close doors to future opportunities.

“With stigma, I think that the biggest thing that we can learn in regards to stigma, and just the way that the masses are starting to look at the plants, is the fact that it was deemed essential during a pandemic,” Harrington added.

Alexis Keenan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and former litigation attorney. Follow Alexis Keenan on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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