NBA star Al Harrington picked Detroit for Viola’s only dispensary. Its future is unknown.

Detroit Free Press

Just over four years ago, Detroit Police officers, along with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection federal agents, raided former NBA player Al Harrington’s medical marijuana grow facility on Detroit’s riverfront, just west of downtown.

They seized about $1 million worth of cannabis and arrested six Viola employees, one of whom was Harrington’s aunt.

Two months later, a judge threw out the case (Viola’s licensing paperwork was in order), but the damage was done: millions of dollars gone, the building damaged, the employees’ mugshots permanently online. Yet, Harrington chose to rebuild in that same location.

“Those six people that got locked up, I’m seeing their commitment to us and to the brand and (I didn’t want) to quit on them,” Harrington — who played for 16 seasons in the NBA, the majority of that time with the Indiana Pacers — said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “Also, I didn’t want to just quit on this market because I felt like we have a big impact being able to hire from the Black community. I felt that was really important.”

The raid shaped his view on the industry and reinforced his decision to open the company’s only dispensary in Detroit in the first place.

“It opened my eyes to what people have been dealing with in the industry for a long time,” he said. “To be honest, if I didn’t have the resources to go get an attorney, we would have lost the case. It really took money to prove everything out.”

Harrington realized the significant advantages granted to those entering the cannabis industry with an education, money and business acumen needed to navigate a complex and ever-changing industry that is still illegal at the federal level.

But the disproportionate impact the War on Drugs — a movement started by the U.S. government in the 1970s to combat illegal drugs — had on Black people and people of color is something he experienced at an early age.

“I grew up in the neighborhoods,” he said. “I have family members that are still locked up for drug charges.”

It wasn’t until later in life that Harrington discovered cannabis. When he was living in Colorado, he wanted to find a way to help ease the pain of his grandmother, who suffered from glaucoma, a degenerative eye disease.

Soon after, in 2011, he founded a cannabis company that’s named after his grandmother Viola. After opening a cultivation and processing facility in Colorado and a cannabis farm in Oregon, Harrington wanted to open a dispensary. Arizona and Michigan were the two options on the table.

A visit to Michigan to look at some location options sealed the deal. Driving through some neighborhoods, Harrington thought, “This is where we’re going to have a big impact. We could do a lot of good here.”

Everything had been smooth sailing for him up until that point, Harrington said. What could go wrong?

Police raid threatened Viola’s existence

One of the first calls Harrington made when the Viola team started to build out the cultivation facility and dispensary in Detroit was to his aunt, Cotea Jones, who was living in Georgia at the time. Harrington needed someone on the ground in Detroit whom he could trust.

“I was so humbled and grateful that he trusted me to come out here and be the person for him,” Jones said. “He gave me a second chance at life.”

But one day in May, she was working at the facility and talking with Travis, the lead cultivator. He looked at the video cameras and saw the police. She pulled out the paperwork to show that they were licensed to grow marijuana, but soon a gun was pointed at her and she was told to drop everything, Jones recalls.

What gave her some comfort in jail was knowing that she wasn’t alone: Their attorneys came and met with her and the other employees every day.

“Just to know that we wasn’t alone, just to know that they were on the outside and they were working on our behalf, every hour on the hour every day,” was comforting, Jones said.

A few years and millions of dollars later, Viola is back up and running. But now, the company’s operations in Detroit face a new threat: Declining medical cannabis sales — and uncertainty of whether and when Viola would be able to get a license to sell recreational cannabis — threaten the company’s mission and its existence here.

Detroit’s license lag

One of Viola’s main tenets is to create 100 Black millionaires within the cannabis industry, but it will be hard for Detroit cannabis entrepreneurs to be included in that goal if recreational sales licenses aren’t handed out soon, Harrington said.

The city of Detroit faces two lawsuits over its ordinance.

Harrington would like to see everyone get a license and let the market sort itself out, instead of the current ordinance that limits the number of recreational sales licenses to 100 and sets aside half for so-called equity applicants — which include longtime Detroiters and people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.

To help those whose lives have been negatively impacted by the prohibition of marijuana and enforcement of marijuana laws, he wants the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan to create a fund for these individuals to ensure they succeed once they get a license, by helping them to identify real estate and pairing them with investors, for example. The city and the state are “going to benefit from it more than anybody,” he said, when tax revenues inevitably increase.

“They realize that it’s flawed, right?” Harrington said. “People of color don’t have the same money that others have.”

Minority entrepreneurs in the industry want to see Harrington win, too, Erin Hackney, an executive at Viola, said.

“They know that if Al wins, we all win,” he said. “He’s constantly looking at how he can help uplift minority (owned) companies.”

More: Ryba’s, a brand synonymous with Mackinac Island, offers cannabis-infused fudge

More: Sides don’t agree on Detroit marijuana license ordinance — but they’re both frustrated

‘My hands are still tied’

It’s unclear how recreational licensing will shake out in Detroit. Harrington can’t personally fund every Black marijuana business in the city.

But he can continue to grow the Viola brand, mimicking the loyalty he sees in what he calls the “traditional” (illegal) market, where customers sometimes pay more for cannabis than they would in the legal market because they trust who they’re getting it from and know their money is staying in the community, he said.

Splashy collaborations with celebrities like former NBA star and Detroit Pistons player Allen Iverson create buzz around the brand.

He’ll also continue to partner with people to offer expungement clinics, helping to create awareness around chances for more people to get their records expunged. Harrington also is looking to expand the brand with more retail stores and cultivation facilities in other states including Missouri, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.

As for Detroit, Harrington wants to be hiring city residents, training them so they can eventually launch their own cannabis businesses.

Instead, he and his team, when it comes to Detroit, are mostly thinking and talking with other business owners about how they can survive without a recreational license, and what a better ordinance might look like.

Viola will be in Detroit as long as it can be, Harrington said.

“My hands are still tied,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because it’s a beautiful city. It’s the biggest city in the state. And this is the one that’s not participating in this industry?”

Contact Adrienne Roberts:

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