I remember the first time my grandma tried cannabis. She was 80 years old. We were sitting in my garage in Denver back in 2011. I just about fell out of my chair when she said she’d try it. She was 100% serious.
But the story is even crazier when I tell you about who my grandma is. She’s a sweet little southern Christian lady named Viola who stills calls me Baby Doll. You know what? I’m not mad at that nickname. We’ve always been close.
And the other thing is, she’s always been scared of marijuana. She grew up believing what the government said about marijuana — about how it was as dangerous as other Schedule I drugs likes ecstasy and heroin. You know, all that stuff we all heard about how it made you a criminal, a bad person … a thug.
So back in 2011, it was me and my grandma — the woman who still carries a Bible with her when she travels — hanging out in the garage I had turned into a den. And we were just sitting there talking when she dropped it on me: She had been struggling with chronic pain for a long time.
It was a day I’ll never forget. My grandma had never told me about her pain before. She started telling me about the constant throbbing behind her eyes. It was getting worse, to the point where it was affecting her vision. It was tough for me to see her like that.
“Is that you, Baby Doll? I can barely see you there.” She’d say stuff like that. It was hard.
She told me that her doctors prescribed her painkillers and other medicine. They weren’t helping, and they were making her lethargic and depressed. She was miserable. It had been going on for years.
Marijuana was already legal in Colorado, but I didn’t mess with it yet. I was still in the league and the NBA tested for it. But even more than that, I still had antiquated views about it. I viewed it the way I saw it as a kid, as a scary drug and nothing more than that.
But on her second day staying with me, she shocked me by agreeing to try it. You have to remember, this is a God-fearing old lady from the South who never touched a drug in her life. She didn’t drink alcohol. She didn’t even like going out to restaurants. My grandma, man … old school to the core. But she was desperate for an alternative.
Nothing’s been the same for her since she tried it.
The day after she had cannabis for the first time, she called my mom to tell her all about it. My mom actually recorded the conversation because she was so shocked. On the recording, you can hear my grandma saying how her the whole world felt “brighter.” She was calling it a miracle. “I can read my Bible again!” she was saying. Since then, my grandma has continued taking cannabis and she’s found the right dose for her symptoms. She’s in far less pain, and it’s pretty incredible to see.
Now you know a little about my grandma. She’s a cool one.
So lemme ask you, is my grandma doing something wrong? According to federal laws, she is. She’s committing a crime.
Is that where we’re at? Are we really trying to put grandmas in prison for using marijuana to treat pain?
I’m gonna tell you what I think is the most important statistic about marijuana.
First we’re gonna have to go all the way back to the ’80s. Back to Orange, New Jersey, where I grew up and lived until I was in high school. You know how some people are always being like, “You don’t know where I come from?” Orange is the kind of place where people say that. If you know, you just know.
To picture where I lived, envision a huge U-shaped apartment complex. There must have been hundreds of apartments in that complex. In the middle of the U, there was this big field of grass where me and the other kids played football, kickball and baseball when we were 10, 11, 12 years old. Almost every day, after we were done playing, everyone would go over to the little convenience store on the corner of Tremont and Scotland. I’d usually get a quarter water and bag of chips. Maybe some Now and Laters. Run me about 65 cents total. In the back of the store they had arcade games — Street Fighter and NBA Jam. If we had any money left over, we’d play those games. Otherwise we’d be outside chillin with all the other kids.
I came up during the War on Drugs. I didn’t know what it was called. But I knew what I saw. Almost every week, at some time or another, a police car would roll up to the corner. If there was a group of young black men standing on a corner, it was only a matter of time. That was just normal for us. We’d be chilling outside and the police would get out and make everyone empty their pockets. They’d search us, make us stand against the wall, the whole routine. “Who got drugs? Show me the drugs.” But me and my friends never had any. I never messed with marijuana when I was a kid. I knew my mom would kill me if that ever happened. But no lie, I never got used to those searches. I was like 12 years old, man — that shit was scary. Sirens are going off and you’re being searched by dudes with guns. It’s crazy — I always felt like I was doing something wrong even though I wasn’t.
In Orange, it was mostly marijuana they were looking for. I’m sure there was hard stuff there, but it seemed like it was mostly weed. It was the ghetto — and the ghetto means cheap weed. So people would come from all around to get it.
Sometimes, kids got picked up. Sometimes you didn’t hear from them after that. Today I’m 37 years old and sometimes I still wonder what happened to some of those kids. Maybe they made it out all right. But c’mon, if you’re from the hood, you’ve heard too many stories of the opposite — lives changed forever, relationships changed forever, black men who can’t get jobs because they’ve got a non-violent marijuana offense on their record.Advertisement
I moved from Orange to a nice neighborhood for high school. Then I went to the league right after that. For the first time in my life I was meeting people from all walks of life. Some guys from nice upbringings, some from places like Orange. Most of them had gone to college.
Talking to them, I heard about another side to the War on Drugs. The way some dudes were describing it, marijuana was everywhere in the suburbs and at colleges. But police weren’t really caring too much about it. I was hearing about people selling weed like it was nothing — never getting caught. I was hearing how everyone casually smoked weed in college like it was just another class. Basically, I was hearing how police in some communities weren’t really policing marijuana the same way I was used to.
Alright, now I’m gonna finally tell you that statistic. I came across it a couple years back:
The rate of marijuana use is relatively similar across racial lines. But black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for it.
Think about that for a second. In other words, yo … everyone uses marijuana at the same rate but not everyone is punished the same.
Enforcing marijuana laws costs the country about $3.6 billion a year, but it hasn’t stopped the use of marijuana, or decreased the availability of it.
More important, people’s entire lives have been altered for using or selling something that’s legal today in multiple states. Today, the cannabis industry makes billions of dollars and there are still people in other parts of the country, mostly minorities if we’re being real about the stats, who are incarcerated for the same substance.
Maybe I didn’t know the definition of the War on Drugs when I was 12 years old, but now I do. It wasn’t a war on drugs. It was a war on certain people who used drugs. And that’s a fact.
I encountered pain early in my career. Then I encountered the pills that they tell you will help. I was lucky I never got hooked.
After my second year in the league, I had to have back surgery. It was my first time knowing real, sustained pain. The inflammation in my back, and then later in my knees, was a battle I fought my whole career. The doctors gave me Vicodin and other strong painkillers for the month or two right after surgery, when the pain was really bad. But then I stopped. I really didn’t enjoy the way I felt. I was having all kinds of side effects — stomach aches, feeling woozy. It was terrible.
But I count myself as lucky, not strong. It was a window into the world of opiates. Painkillers do what the name says. They kill the pain. But it’s temporary … and then you need more just to mask the same pain. Maybe you saw this stat: This year 64,000 people in America died from overdoses on opioids. When I read that, my first thought was about how much of the addiction starts with a real injury, like the one I had with my back. And then spirals out of control from there. That’s why I count myself as lucky.
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The most common thing I got prescribed was something called Celebrex, for inflammation. I played 16 years in my career, and damn near my whole career I was taking some type of pill for inflammation. I took two Celebrex in the morning and one at night for inflammation, just to be able to practice or play or get through the day. I probably still have bottles of Celebrex in some drawer in my house. Looking back, who knows what effect that’ll have on me long term. But nobody really talks about the side effects or the long-term issues. You’re supposed to just pop a pill and let it do its thing. You’ve seen those commercials on TV where the narrator is always sounding super happy as she lists 43 side effects? “It’ll cure this — but your eyeballs will fall out!” … “You’ll feel happier but there’s a chance of sudden death!” It’s crazy, man. We’ve gotten to a place where side effects are like some kind of background noise. I challenge you to tell me how many overdose cases there have been from cannabis. I’ll wait.
As I said, I was never into marijuana when I was in the league, but I tried everything the doctors could prescribe. After my career, when I was around 32, after seeing what cannabis did for my grandma, I tried out cannabidiol, which is the non-psychoactive form of it — you get the anti-inflammatory effects and the pain relief without the THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets you high. I took the cannabidiol (CBD) as a cream or oil that could be rubbed on topically.
And look, I’m not trying to give out medical advice, so I’ll just say this — for me, cannabis changed my experience with pain. It has worked better, with fewer side effects, than anything I’ve gotten from a doctor. To this day, at 37, after 16 years in the NBA and back surgery and all the miles on my body, I’m still playing ball every week in L.A. Meet me out there. Afternoon runs Tuesday and Thursday. You don’t want none of this!
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A few years ago I co-founded a business that produces non-psychoactive cannabis as well as THC-based products. Marijuana changed my life with regard to pain. Now it’s my second calling after basketball. And in a way, it all goes back to that day seven years ago in the garage with my grandma.
Being a minority in the cannabis industry has made me realize how rare it still is. That’s why I’m active in the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA). The MCBA is about improving access and empowerment for minorities in the industry. It basically comes down to this: We’re the communities most hurt by the War on Drugs. Now that marijuana is legal in so many parts of the country, we shouldn’t be left without a seat at the table as the industry takes off.
Alcohol abuse and the NBA. You don’t hear a lot about it, but it’s there. It flies under the radar.
This is just the reality: NBA players are affected by anxiety and stress. We’re like any other people with a full-time job that involves a lot of emotional and physical ups and downs.Advertisement
Many NBA players have a few alcoholic drinks a day. I’ve seen the progression to where they’re having more than a few — just to unwind a little bit or relieve some pain. Pretty soon, it’s easy to be doing that after every game. That takes a serious toll. Pain is just part of sports, though. Athletes are going to seek ways to ease that pain.
I won’t say names, but in my 16 years in the league, I knew of at least 10 or 12 players who had their careers cut short due to alcohol. It either affected them physically or mentally, but one way or another, alcohol shortened their careers. No judgment from me, just facts. We all should be honest. It’s well known how liquor can destroy lives. But we’re still out here demonizing cannabis while alcohol is promoted at sporting events? It all starts with some honesty.
Jeff Sessions, man. I almost left him out of this … because I’m not usually heavy into politics.
But then I thought, We can’t just let these politicians off the hook.
You maybe saw how Sessions, the attorney general, said, just a few days ago, how he plans to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where it’s already legal. Sessions says marijuana is a federal issue.
But I think he’s confused about his own politics.
When it comes to the votes of the people in states where cannabis is legal, Sessions is all about the federal government’s power. But then when it comes to laws that would make it easier for minorities to vote, he’s a states’ rights guy?
Jeff Sessions, man.
Young people need to run for office. That’s my first thought on that subject.
But not only that, I’ve got some advice for y’all: if you want to win, make marijuana legalization one of your main issues. You could win on that issue alone, I really believe that. Because it’s not just about legalization, it’s about addressing racism, policing, the prison system, sentencing laws — all of that. Decriminalizing marijuana is one of those issues that cuts across party lines.
Some politicians are understanding what we need to do. I’m grateful that New Jersey senator Cory Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, a bill modeled on California’s Proposition 64 that ends federal marijuana prohibition and centers on communities most devastated by the War on Drugs. I worked with the Drug Policy Alliance to support Prop 64 here in California. Now I’m continuing my support of Senator Booker’s bill. I hope you’ll read up on it and see why it makes sense on a civil rights level and a common sense level.
It’s my belief that 70-80% of today’s NBA players use marijuana in some form. I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t do any formal polls or anything like that. I just played in the league for 16 years, and that’s my opinion.
Due to the NBA’s ban on cannabis, most of the guys are doing it in the offseason. But I really think the number is that high.
Here’s why I’m telling you that. These guys are NBA superstars. It’s not the last dude on the bench who’s on his couch getting high. These are global icons — leaders, teammates, parents, citizens. These are world-class athletes, man. They’ve got pain and stress and anxiety and all the things any human has. The NBA has never been more skilled or more fun to watch.
So you tell me: Is cannabis ruining these athletes’ lives? Or are our laws and ideas behind the times?
I started with a statistic, so I’ll end with one. It’s a fill-in-the-blank. Each answer is the same.
- An estimated 88,000 people die from _________- related causes annually.
- In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that _________ contributed to more than 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions.
- Consuming ________ increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver and breast.
Hint: the answer is either marijuana or alcohol.
Do I need to even tell you?
Al Harrington Retired NBA Player