Al Harrington, 16-year NBA veteran and co-founder and CEO of Viola Brands, is on the forefront of the fight for social equity in the cannabis industry—a fight that he doesn’t see ending any time soon.
Viola recently partnered with the Cleveland School of Cannabis to launch its own education platform, the Harrington Institute, which aims to create economic opportunities for individuals, especially those in Black communities, who are looking to enter the market.
In early 2020, the company launched a separate social equity initiative, Viola Cares, in partnership with a national non-profit organization, Root & Rebound. The initiative aims to offer education, expungement and incubation programs to help increase diversity in the industry.
“We’re just overall trying to help in any way that we can,” Harrington tells Cannabis Business Times. “There are so many holes in the boat, to try to fix them all is tough. For us, we just try to put ourselves in the position to be an asset to the industry, and especially to people of color, as we try to navigate our future in a space [where] we deserve a seat at the table.”
Here, Harrington provides an update on Viola’s social equity initiatives and discusses what’s working well, what isn’t, and how the industry can come together to support minority-owned businesses in the quest for diversity.
Melissa Schiller: What is Viola currently working on this year to help promote social equity in the space? Last we spoke, the company was launching the Harrington Institute in partnership with the Cleveland School of Cannabis—are there any updates on that or other initiatives that Viola is involved in?
Al Harrington: As you know, [at] the Harrington Institute, we started our first courses in November. They started on Nov. 8. We are in the process right now of going through that curriculum. We’re really excited about the term. There were a lot of people who were very, very interested in getting into the cannabis space and how they can actually participate. I think with the curriculum we have, we’ve laid out a few different courses that give people all kinds of exposure and not just what most people think, that you just have to grow weed to be a part of this thing. There are so many other things that you can do. So, we’re really excited about that partnership with the Cleveland School of Cannabis. They’ve been really engaged. I’m really excited about having our first graduates. Hopefully we inspire the next round of entrepreneurs [and show them] that they can achieve ownership within the space or whatever they’re passionate about doing. We’re just really excited about that.
As far as the push for social equity, it’s a fight that I feel like is going to be a fight forever. When you think about other industries that still have these same issues of diversity, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. Obviously, I was trying to champion it. I realize that this conversation is going to have to be bigger than myself. We’re just trying to be bigger players who continue to step in and try to bring this to the forefront so that we can address it and one day allow social equity to be what it’s supposed to be, which is, to me, an opportunity for people to benefit and have access to generational wealth or just real success in this industry.
For me, I’ll just continue to do what I’ve been doing, trying to figure out how I can strategically work with others in this space so that we can have a bigger impact overall. I think that’s one of the things that I’ll definitely be working on for 2022, trying to get more diversity within the people who are actually trying to help social equity.
MS: Looking back on 2021, what sort of progress has the cannabis industry made with social equity in the past year? What do you see as steps forward or wins in that area?
AH: I think it’s too early for me to say that there’s been any real successes, honestly. I think that the country is still building out a lot of its social equity programs. California still hasn’t done it properly, I think Michigan is trying the same thing—those are the markets where I am.
As far as the push for social equity, it’s a fight that I feel like is going to be a fight forever.
-Al Harrington, Co-Founder & CEO, Viola Brands
You had some bright spots in 2021 with New York, with the way they would like to address social equity and help the social equity applicants have resources so that they can actually be successful if they do win these licenses. We know in a state like New York, those licenses are going to be extremely valuable. It’s not going to be like the California model, where there are 3,000 dispensaries in California and 5,000 cultivators. By being limited, these licenses will definitely have a lot of value.
MS: What challenges still exist for minority-owned cannabis operators?
AH: I think the first thing is education. We have to continue to educate people to understand the opportunity and also how to build it out or what resources will be required to actually be successful. What goes hand-in-hand with that is just resources, capital. The one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been in this space is every single year, it’s gotten more and more expensive to participate. People are also playing behind, and there’s so much capital that’s needed to set up these companies.
You look at a retail dispensary, which you would think is one of the cheaper ways to get into the space because obviously, cultivation is millions and millions of dollars, [and] manufacturing is a million dollars in equipment and different real estate. But with retail, obviously, you go get a lease, you find a place that’s in a green zone, but you’re still going to need a million and a half or two million dollars to build out a proper store and be able to stock it with product and different things like that. It’s tough at the end of the day.
I think we need to figure that piece of it out because true social equity [applicants] just don’t have the resources to go out and compete with their counterparts, with the people that we really need to go out and compete against on a day-to-day basis. You have some of these states where someone like myself, because I played in the NBA, they will consider me not social equity because I made a certain amount of money. And that’s wrong, too, because I’ve definitely suffered from the war on drugs. I’ve had cousins who were just recently released a few months ago from drug charges. I’ve seen it affect my family in a negative way, and why not want someone like myself to have a license? I have the resources to make it successful and go out and hire and bring other people in to incubate, people who look like me in the space.
Just the way they approach different things like that could be a lot better. Like I said, it’s not one thing. It’s so many different things. We could be on this phone all day long talking about it. And this is just my experience, as well. There are other people who maybe see it a different way. I think all of us need to find a way to have a platform to speak on so that it can be addressed properly, and [so] social equity can do what it was set out to do, which is to provide an opportunity and one that we’re supposed to win with. People want to rebuild our communities with this, so hopefully we can get these things funded and continue to push upward.
MS: As far as the industry coming together and starting to address some of these problems, do you see that being led by the states, or do you think there’s a way for social equity to be advanced at the national level? What is the best path forward?
AH: I think it’s going to have to come through legislation. When you think about how much tax revenue is being generated from this, why can’t a portion of those proceeds go to these businesses? Once we build them up, it’s just more revenue that’s coming into the pot. I just think that sometimes, the politicians think too short-sighted. It just continues to drive more business to the black market. The reason they have the black market is because the opportunity is too rich, it’s too expensive.
I think the only way it’s going to work is through the legislation, and that’s going to come from people like myself and other companies telling their story, and hopefully these politicians listen and put some of these things into law, some of these protections that we need to really be able to go out and compete.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.