*This week BET rolls out “Smoke: Marijuana + Black America,” narrated and executive-produced by Nasir “Nas” Jones.
The original documentary, examines marijuana’s cultural, social, economic and legal impact on American society and the Black community. Told through the lens of aficionados, policymakers, advocates and innovators in the booming legal cannabis industry. EUR correspondent Fahnia Thomas spoke with former NBA player and cannabis investor Al Harrington about Viola, Harris and Mary Jane.
FT: Why did you want to be a part of “Smoke?”
AH: We don’t have a lot of representation in this cannabis space. There aren’t a lot of places to get information especially from someone like myself that’s an operator in multiple states. I want people to understand my journey and the journey of people of color. It’s a tough place, it’s not easy and we’re not always welcomed into the space.
We have to understand the history of cannabis and how Black people played a part in where we are today as a society. All of our freedoms were taken away and all of our lives were mostly impacted negatively around the cannabis plant. Now there’s this new billion dollar industry we don’t have a real position in. We don’t have a seat at the table and that’s a crime. There’s enough money to go around for everybody. There needs to be more inclusion of people of color. If it wasn’t for the sacrifices we made – our freedoms – we wouldn’t be having these conversations.
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FT: What struggles have you faced and continue to face in the cannabis industry?
AH: It’s been about 10 years since I first started and one of my first challenges was being able to differentiate good advice from bad advice. I had attorneys who told me the wrong things to do and I don’t think they did it on purpose, they just didn’t know. A lot of these rules are up to your interpretation. Also, I was still playing in the NBA when I started [getting into the cannabis industry] and I had keep to myself in a position where I didn’t lose my contract or get locked up. Then, once I started to scale the business I realized how hard it was to fund a business. Some would think with the resources I have it should be easy – like everyone is going to give me money – but that wasn’t the case. When I think about how difficult it was for me to raise money, I could only imagine how difficult it would be for someone who isn’t a celebrity or athlete. How would they ever be able to participate in this industry? It’s so expensive to be a part of it.
FT: Your company Viola launched an incubator program to provide small Black owned businesses resources within the cannabis industry, how can people apply?
AH: Through our website – when they hear the incubator program a lot of people think I’m randomly picking people, it’s not like that. It’s way more difficult. We’re looking for entrepreneurs that are already in the space, have started a business and they need resources to be able to scale it up, like back office support. They can use our platform to elevate their business. Even some people operating in the gray market that have really solid brands but are in states that don’t have their programs fully built out yet, can’t find enough resources – like capital to get a license. So we would say, ‘join us and use my license to be able to get on the right side of the business and grow from there.’ Maybe they have a following and they just need a license or a grow space or access to distillate. Viola would be able to get those resources to them.
FT: “Smoke” features testimonies from other notable individuals like Vice President-Elect Kamala D. Harris, what can you share about her role?
AL: She has a history of locking up people of color and at the end of the day you can’t blame her because she was doing her job. I like that she has grown from her way of thinking…throwing the book at guys for low level drug offenses – and now is trying to figure out how we can expunge these records and give these guys an opportunity to really come back into society and be successful. When you go to jail and you serve your debt to society as they say and you come home it follows you. It could eventually force you back into a life of crime. I know some of the things she is focusing on is expungement, re-entry and changing the way we look at cannabis and the stigma.
“Smoke: Marijuana + Black America” premieres on BET Wednesday, November 18 at 10pm ET/PT.