As a black man growing up in Orange, New Jersey in the 1980s and witnessing the effects of the War on Drugs in my family and community, I never thought I would get into the cannabis trade. But then again, I never thought I would be in the NBA either.
I started in the cannabis industry over 12 years ago, near the end of my 16 seasons in the NBA, with a mission to show others the healing power of the plant, just as I had shown it to my grandmother Viola, for whom I named my business. Even though marijuana is now legal in 23 states (and it’s not over), I’m constantly reminded of all the people who look like me and who spent year after year in prison for possessing a few grams of weed. As legalization expands, my top priority is to ensure that Black and Brown people have opportunities for generational wealth in our community.
But the lack of banking options available due to the federal ban means that anyone wanting to start and sustain a business in the market needs a generous amount of cash. It takes hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars just to start such a business – money that most people of color don’t have. Therefore, less than 2% legal cannabis businesses in the United States are owned by people who look like me.
This could begin to change if Congress passes the Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and soon expected to come up for a key committee vote, the bill would protect banks and other financial institutions from federal sanctions for working with legal cannabis businesses.
No one can create and sustain a business without access to banks. A business account, credit cards, and access to traditional loans and lines of credit are necessary for daily operations and long-term survival in any industry.
Barriers to these services, along with excessive taxes and local bans, have helped ensure that the California industry illicit market continues to represent the majority of cannabis sales. Even the big players in the legitimate industry are feeling it: some of the biggest operators in California have farmand large multi-state corporations are withdraw from the market left and right.
The few financial institutions willing to extend credit to minority-owned cannabis companies charge insane and unfair interest rates. Not surprising that NAACP called for the “immediate adoption” of the banking security bill. Our communities have historically been targets of predatory lenders, and the cannabis industry is no exception.
Without access to banking services, we must personally ensure the success of our businesses and risk being held liable without bankruptcy protection in the event of bankruptcy, which businesses often do. I have first-hand experience paying high interest to one creditor while paying unreasonable fees to another company just to keep my money, making the chances of success even slimmer.
Passage of this legislation will help Black cannabis professionals thrive in a business that has historically been used against us, provide much-needed relief to the industry nationwide, and allow our businesses to operate like others. And while it won’t completely legalize cannabis, which should be the main goal, it would be a good start.
Al Harrington is a former NBA player and CEO of Los Angeles-based Viola Brands.
Los Angeles Times