By Kirsten West Savali

Former NBA player Al Harrington may have made a name for himself on the basketball court, but he’s now using his platform to raise awareness about the critical need to legalize, decriminalize and destigmatize marijuana.

An outspoken supporter of California’s Proposition 64, a potentially pivotal and transformative piece of legislation, Harrington began his work where his heart is—with his grandmother.

“What made me change my opinion of the cannabis plant was because of my grandmother’s story,” Harrington says in an exclusive interview with The Root. “My grandmother suffered from glaucoma and she also has diabetes. I got her to try it pretty much on a whim, just from me seeing things on TV and different things like that, and people talking about the relief that it gives.

“It worked out for her better than I expected,” Harrington continues. “So, at that point, I started reading up even more on the plant and how it was helping so many people. Some people even credited black-oil cannabis with curing their cancer.”

Although Harrington had witnessed marijuana enrich his grandmother’s life, it took a serious illness for him to experience the health benefits of the plant for himself.

“In 2011 I was sending my grandmother cannabis that she needed just to give her relief, and the next year I ended up with a meniscus tear that led to a staph infection,” Harrington says. “When I had my fourth surgery, I was in Vail, Colo., and my cousin introduced me to cannabinoids, and from that point forward, I’ve never taken another Vicodin or anti-inflammatory pill.

“Whenever you say marijuana, I think everybody thinks of a blunt or a joint rolled up, someone sitting down smoking,” Harrington continues. “But because of the market, in some of these states, like Colorado, there are so many different ways that you can consume it. You can consume it through edibles. You can consume it through pill form, just like how pharmaceuticals do it. You have creams. It’s important that people understand it and get that stigma off of marijuana.”

Al Harrington sits with his grandmother on the front porch of her home in Fayetteville, N.C.

That stigma, exacerbated and maintained by the so-called war on drugs, has led to detrimental and long-lasting effects on the most vulnerable and marginalized black and Latinx communities in the United States. Police departments are addicted to drug money, and the prison-industrial complex leeches onto black and brown bodies for its survival. As previously reported by The Root, blacks and Latinos are still being unfairly targeted and arrested on marijuana-related charges—even though whites are more likely to sell drugs—and many former felons are prohibited from participating in the nation’s fastest-growing economy.

California’s Proposition 64 has the potential to mitigate some of this damage. As the Drug Policy Alliance explains:

Regulating marijuana through the smart policies of Prop. 64 will bring this booming and unregulated market under the rule of law to protect the most vulnerable in the state. Moving marijuana purchases into a system with strict packaging, labeling and advertising standards protects consumers and youth. Statewide regulations mandating environmental regulation, enforcement and restoration [protect] the state’s natural resources. And reducing and eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana offenses [reduce] the detrimental impact of discriminatory criminalization.

New tax revenue from the retail sales of marijuana, estimated to be up to one billion dollars each year, will be allocated to pay for the enforcement of the new law and will fund [substance-use] treatment for youth, environmental restoration, research on implementation and medical marijuana, local governments and [re-entry] programs in communities harmed by the war on drugs.

As the critical Nov. 8 vote looms closer, Harrington has become increasingly more vocal in his advocacy.

“On so many levels, the system just needs to be looked at and redone; marijuana is just one aspect,” Harrington says. “I’ve been in the marijuana-industry space for the last five years, and I’ve seen that it’s a predominately white space. And minorities, we’re the ones that are locked up behind it. And not only are we locked up, when we do get home, we have felonies and we can’t even work, can’t even get a job.

“So, once marijuana is decriminalized, a lot of things need to change, and the reason why I’m fighting for Prop. 64 is because decriminalization and legalization needs to happen first,” Harrington continues. “It’s really sad that our little brothers and little sisters are locked up while people are making billions of dollars off of their backs.”

Harrington also believes that black and Latino communities should have the opportunity to participate in this growing, yet still racially discriminatory, economy.

“There should be something set up that they should have an opportunity to work in the space,” he says. “These are nonviolent, victimless crimes. Some of these kids were caught with less than an ounce of marijuana. It doesn’t add up. Especially now that so much money is being generated. Let them come home and make a way for themselves and allow them to really change their lives for the better.”

Filmmaker and drug-policy advocate dream hampton, who directed and produced a video of Harrington sharing his story, agrees. As hampton tells The Root, “I don’t love everything about Prop. 64. I’ll never love any contract with the state, and this proposal had to negotiate with and make concessions to law enforcement. But the most radical thing about Prop. 64, in my mind, is something I’ve been publicly advocating for years—and that’s the economic-equity angle.

“I made this video with Al because he’s one of the biggest black entrepreneurs in the aboveground marijuana industry,” hampton says. “That’s great for him, but we’ve been having conversations about how that can be good for more people. How ending the prohibition can both bring people home from jail and provide economic opportunity.”

Harrington says that he plans to become a larger presence in the cannabis industry but is still weighing his options on what exactly his role will be.

“I’m looking at different opportunities,” he says. “There are so many ways to be in the business without even touching the plant, but I do eventually want to cultivate and manufacture. And I’d like to be able to hire people that are coming home, who have been locked up because of this nonsense.

“Right now, though,” Harrington continues, “my focus is on raising awareness and telling my story, my grandmother’s story, just so people can give marijuana an opportunity.”

The Root