Athletes of all kinds are helping to change how the rest of us view and interact with cannabis. Their collective contribution has been key to abolishing the stigma toward cannabis users while normalizing its use and consumption. Light years from the stereotypical stoner of the 1970s, elite athletes are pushing the envelope and some are opening new markets and business opportunities for cannabis entrepreneurs and companies.
NFL and NBA icons Calvin Johnson, Al Harrington, Ben Wallace, Ricky Williams, and Rob Sims attended the recent Benzinga Cannabis Capital Conference in Chicago where they sat on a panel moderated by High Times VP of content, Jon Cappetta.
They talked about their cannabis companies and their personal experiences. Across the board, their search for non-addictive and effective pain relief compelled them to embrace cannabis.
Calvin Johnson who made and broke countless records during his nine seasons with the Detroit Lions holds the NFL record for most receiving yards in a season (1,964) is a 2021 NFL Hall-of-Famer and co-founder of Primitiv.
Johnson started the Primitiv Group with his former Lions teammate Rob Simms.
“I saw what opioids did to my family members, and cannabis was the only other thing that could relieve some of the pain,” said Johnson who explained the origin of the brand name.
“Cannabis was that only thing that could really relieve some of the pain, some of those sleepless nights. I guess you could say it was a God-given gift, I mean the plan is primitive in nature. That's where we got our name 'Primitiv' because people have been using it as a healing agent from the beginning of time.”
A Heisman Trophy winner with 11 years in the NFL and among the best running backs in college football history, Ricky Williams founded Highsman, which sells “premium quality cannabis" along with weed-related apparel and accessories, initially in California, Oregon and Nevada.
“Highsman is about an appreciation for greatness. There is a passionate and dedicated team behind the brand, and together we want to help all people inspire greatness in themselves,” Williams said.
Recalling the first time he tried weed in college, he told the packed room at Chicago's Palmer House Hotel how it became part of his “self-care routine.”
“In college coaches will use drug tests to get rid of guys. It was a big taboo. If the coach knows you smoke, typically he's gonna to give you a hard time. It wasn't until my senior year...I was having a really bad week and my roommate smoked, so he was like ‘you need to chill.’ So he slid his bong over. That night, I started to visualize myself actually doing better and in the next two weeks I had over 300 yards rushing and that's when I kind of knew there was something here," Williams said. "Then I got to the NFL and it became part of my self-care routine.”
Ben Wallace's amazing career: four-time NBA all-star, five-time all-defense first team, four-time defensive player of the year, and the only undefeated and undrafted player in the history of the Association to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame. Following retirement, he founded the Detroit-based cannabis brand, which he aptly named 'Undrafted.'
“Marijuana has been one of those things where we've been losing a lot of our brothers to incarceration,” said Wallace, adding that the industry is also serving as a catalyst for the black and brown community. “It’s working and preserving health and life and also doing a great job with bringing the brotherhood back together.”
For some, a lifesaver. “Cannabis has been a lifesaver. It works, and it works fast — and it doesn’t last long.”
NBA star Al Harrington who played fully 16 seasons is among the biggest advocates for cannabis legalization in sports. He founded Viola, a multi-state brand named after his grandmother, which has a footprint in California, Colorado, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington. The company generated about $20 million in revenue in 2021. Harrington's RePlay CBD line is now sold on Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and in Walmart (NYSE: WMT).
Harrington told the story of his grandmother, which had more than a few panel attendees close to tears. Viola was suffering from severe glaucoma. Harrington cautiously convinced her to allow him to create a setup similar to a hot box, in that she'd never smoked. She inhaled in the cannabis smoke for several minutes and then he went to the kitchen to make lunch.
“I went back and checked on her and she was looking down at her Bible. When she heard me in the room, she looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I’m healed.' It was the first time in three years that she had been able to read the words in her Bible."
Harrington described his first experience with cannabis and how CBD helped him to deal with pain from multiple surgeries. “I had botched knee surgery. I thought it was going to kill me. I was in the hospital for like two weeks, on so much medication, it just made me miserable,” Harrington said. He tried CBD on a friend's recommendation, after which he underwent four or five surgeries and never went back to pharmaceutical drugs.
Harrington's Rookie Days
Harrington told a story of being sent to a store by one of the older players only to realize that the "store" was a place where four or five veteran players were hanging out smoking weed. At first he was shocked but soon came to a realization.
“I realized that I had been being lied to all that time. Because I was taught that if you smoke weed you're unproductive, essentially a ‘couch potato,’ but these guys were like playing at the top of the game,” Harrington said.
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