Former Denver Nugget Al Harrington Pushing Professional Sports Toward Pot

Al Harrington played in Denver from 2010 to 2012.
Al Harrington played in Denver from 2010 to 2012. Flickr creative commons/Keith Allison
Affectionately nicknamed “Big Al” for his 6’9” frame and ability to hit long-range jumpers, Al Harrington endeared himself to Nuggets fans despite only playing for the team for two seasons. Little did those fans know that Denver’s progressive attitude toward cannabis was laying a foundation for a longstanding relationship between Harrington and Colorado.

The sixteen-year NBA veteran hasn’t been in the league since 2014, but in the past few years he’s made moves that no amount of gym time can prepare you for. Harrington founded Viola, an award-winning cannabis concentrates company named after his grandmother, in Colorado in 2014, later expanding it to Oregon and California; just last month, he joined Denver dispensary owner and cannabis activist Wanda James to advocate against a police raid on a legal pot grow in a warehouse he owned in Detroit. Harrington has also pushed for cannabis policy reform in professional sports, even getting former NBA commissioner David Stern to admit in an interview that cannabis doesn’t belong on NBA’s banned-substance list.

Despite advocating for and owning a business devoted to a federally illegal substance, Harrington is still playing for Ice Cube’s BIG3 basketball league. To learn more about his adopted cannabis roots in Colorado and how professional sports currently views cannabis, Westword contacted Harrington for a chat.

Westword: How did you become interested in the cannabis industry?

Al Harrington: When I was playing in Denver, I’d read the newspaper after games. And every day when I’d pick up the paper, there was always something about cannabis and its medical process. I was educating myself without really knowing I was even educating myself.

You’ve been very vocal about naming your company after your grandmother, Viola. How did she impact your jump into legal cannabis?

I convinced my grandma to fly to Denver and watch me play one year. When she was here, I remember being like, “Damn, Grandma, why are you taking so many pills?” She was dealing with diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma — so I told her she should try cannabis.

She asked me what cannabis was, and I told her that it was marijuana, like weed. She said “Reefer?! Man, I aint smoking no reefer! It ruined your uncles’ lives, cousins’ lives,” and all that stuff. But one day, she said her eyes hurt so bad that she could barely see. Her current medication was so hit-or-miss, so I finally convinced her. She was hesitant at first, but she was in so much pain that she would try anything.

I called and asked my friend to get some from a medical dispensary at the time, and he brought home some Vietnam Kush. I gave it to her to vaporize, and then took a nap. When I woke up around ninety minutes later, I checked on my grandma to see how she was feeling. When I peeked my head in and asked if she was okay, she was crying. She said it was the first time she’d been able to read her Bible in three years. That was the first time I saw cannabis work as medicine. Since then, I’ve seen how it can help epileptic seizures, anxiety and tons of quality-of-life issues.

click to enlarge Viola's THCA crystals can reach upwards of 95 percent THC. - COURTESY OF VIOLA EXTRACTS
Viola's THCA crystals can reach upwards of 95 percent THC.
Courtesy of Viola Extracts
When former NBA commissioner David Stern told you that cannabis should be removed from NBA’s banned-substance list, did you really believe him? It’s easy to say things like that in retirement.

I did believe him. I met with him three times before we even did that interview, and we had several phone conversations about the endocannabinoid system, cannabis’s medicinal benefits and how it can help players. Him and people from his generation just weren’t educated about it; that’s what I really took from it. It’s all about education now, even for someone at his stage in life, as he’s going through a hip replacement. I was just trying to show him that cannabis could help him recover through that injury, and I started giving him stats and reasons why. It’s being proven now that it can be an alternative treatment for pain.

Your current basketball employer, Ice Cube’s three-on-three league the BIG3, just took cannabidoil (CBD) off its banned-substance list. Were you a part of those conversations? How did that come about?

I spearheaded it, actually. I was the first one to bring the issue to [BIG3 co-CEO] Jeff Kwatinetz, and I’d been talking with Cube about it, too. A lot of the players last year kept asking me to bring more CBD cream. Seriously, I just kept hearing, “Al, you got any of that cream with you?” I was supplying half the league with cream last year. They’re using this instead of anti-inflammatory pills and things, and most of them like it more. I had to send Jeff and Cube a bunch of articles, and we had like four or five meetings. But we made it happen.

I feel like it’s so desensitized at this point. When I go to business meetings about real estate, financing, whatever, and I bring up cannabis, all the attention comes to me. They’re interested and want to learn about it, but without that stigma hanging over it. This industry is going to be one of those unicorns.

The public is well aware that a portion of NBA players and other professional athletes use cannabis for medical and recreational purposes. Do you think that portion of players using cannabis is fairly represented?

I think all types of professional athletes use cannabis, be it for medicinal or recreational purposes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We deal with a lot of stress. They just see us on the court, but we deal with issues with all sorts of things: family, friends — it could even be a contract year, which can carry a huge load of stress for players. A lot of us turn to alcohol use as a result of these issues, and it’s not healthy.

Alcohol dehydrates the body and can get you into trouble. Smoking aside, cannabis doesn’t really do any of those things. I think ten, fifteen years from now, cannabis use will be so accepted that people won’t understand why we looked at it the way we do right now.

How far away is a major sports league like the NBA, NFL or MLB from allowing cannabis use?

In four or five years, when the new collective bargaining is up, the NBA can revisit that. I’m going to continue educating the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) about it. At least half of the players in the league right now want it to be allowed. I think for the NFL guys, they really need it for neuro-protective reasons. NBA players don’t take those hits, obviously, but we deal with other pains and other issues.

I think those leagues are still waiting on more clinical testing results before making that jump. But I think if you polled every sports owner if they’d rather their player go to the club after leaving the arena, get drunk, stand on a couch, get loud and maybe get in a fight — or go home, eat an edible and just sit on their own couch, the owners would rather have their players eating edibles.

Send suggestions for future interview subjects to
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell