Sitting behind a desk covered in hemp rolling papers and glass jars full of bud, Al Harrington is explaining that he never thought he’d grow up to be a stoner. As a teenager in New Jersey, the six-foot-nine power forward had his heart set on an NBA career. Back then, before he was leading the line for teams including the Indiana Pacers, the Golden State Warriors and the New York Knicks, his grandmother would constantly remind him that chasing his basketball dream meant staying well away from illegal drugs.
“I remember my grandma kicking my aunts and uncles out of the house for even smelling like weed,” says Harrington, now 40 years old and the founder and CEO of his own Los Angeles–based cannabis brand, Viola. “I was taught it was a gateway drug. I’d see guys strung out on the corner, and they’d tell you that cannabis is what started them down that path. I was smart enough to know I didn’t want no part of that.”
It was a surprise, then, when Harrington made it to the NBA and realized that many of his teammates—70 to 80 percent, by his estimation—were using cannabis in secret. “I saw professional athletes smoking weed and being productive,” he says, raising his eyebrows. “We’re talking about the best players on my team.”
Cannabis remains on the NBA’s list of banned substances, but perceptions surrounding the drug are changing across professional sports. At the end of 2019, the MLB announced that it would be removing cannabis from baseball’s list of “drugs of abuse.” The NHL also no longer classifies cannabis as a banned substance. This March, the NFL followed suit when, as part of a new collective-bargaining agreement, the league agreed to do away with suspensions for football players who test positive for cannabis. Harrington believes the NBA won’t be far behind. “I think they’ll wait to see how it affects the NFL, and I don’t think it will affect the NFL at all,” he says. “The NBA can’t be the only league that doesn’t change their rules. They’ll look kinda crazy.”
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