The two men meeting on Instagram Live on Jan. 27 certainly made for an odd couple: One of them was Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, the U.S. Senate Majority leader. The other was Al Harrington, the former NBA player-turned-cannabis entrepreneur. The two got together on Instagram Live online in a ten-minute segment made available to their respective followers.
“A lot of people would be surprised that I’m got the Senate majority leader sitting here to talk about marijuana,” Harrington told his viewers, stating the obvious. But the reason for the call wasn’t so surprising after all. “I wanted to talk to you,” Harrington said to Schumer, “about why you care about this issue.”
“This issue” of course was federal legalization of cannabis, something both men are pushing for, on a social equity rationale that even these participants from such different backgrounds share.
Schumer, a New York State Democrat, is one of the nation’s most powerful political leaders, especially since the November election put the Democrats back into power. On Feb. 1, Schumer and fellow senators Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, announced their intention to release a draft discussion outlining how best to legalize and regulate cannabis and cannabis commerce in the United States.
Harrington, meanwhile, in 2013 co-founded Viola Brands, a Los Angeles-based company which has 100 employees in four states, soon to expand to six. In a recent interview Harrington, the company’s CEO, said he expects $35 million in revenues this year. He expressed special enthusiasm about his nonprofit Viola Cares. That organization works to facilitate social equity licenses and training for low-income and formerly incarcerated African Americans and Latinos starting their own cannabis businesses. A big reason for Harrington’s activism: These mentees are the people most victimized by the war on drugs’ disproportionately high arrest rates for nonviolent marijuana offenses.
That issue similarly motivates Schumer’s support for legalization, the majority leader repeated during the call with Harrington. The bill soon to emerge, he said, will focus on decriminalization; the right of states to choose their own path when it comes to cannabis legalization; expungement of offenders’ previous nonviolent records; and various forms of relief for the damage those records have caused minority communities.
“It shouldn’t be that someone should carry this burden around his or her whole life” – in terms of obtaining jobs and housing – “when marijuana should not have been a criminal offense to begin with,” Schumer said on the call.
He listed his own reasons for legalization. “Number one, I believe in freedom,” he said. “Let people do what they want. It became pretty apparent years ago that all these horror stories [saying] that if the states legalized, the crime rate would go up [didn’t happen]. It didn’t go up.”
A second false argument Schumer listed: “‘Legalize marijuana and everyone will become a big druggie’ – that didn’t happen, either.” Also on the list: “the havoc created in the minority community” by what those arrests did to young men’s lives.
“The time has come and there’s a lot of logic,” the senator continued. “The fact that the federal government said that it’s as big a crime to have marijuana as to have heroin is ridiculous. Everybody knew that. I decided I was the first leader, Democrat or Republican, to say ‘let’s decriminalize’…I’m glad I did.”
The connection between Schumer and Harrington deepened when the senator expressed support for putting cannabis profits back into minority entrepreneurial efforts: “I don’t want to see these big tobacco companies coming in and shoving everybody out,” he said.
Schumer also put to rest Harrington’s concerns about what the Food and Drug Administration might do, regulation-wise, should Schumer’s bill pass. “We want our legislation to be very easy,” the senator said, “and, look, we don’t need the FDA putting in all kinds of stuff.” Schumer did say there would be money included to develop a breathalyzer for marijuana similar to the used for alcohol, to discourage DWI.
Schumer added that the bill’s aims have both Democratic and Republican support and he urged Harrington and other supporters to “email, tweet, do whatever you do to contact your senators, Congressmen” to drum up more support. He invited Harrington to stay in touch and help shape any bills to come.
Later, the senator released a statement saying he’d enjoyed the conversation and calling Harrington “an amazing advocate.” Harrington said, “It’s important for leaders in the space to have great working relationships with those who will inevitably create the framework for it.”
As the call itself wound down, Schumer, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., couldn’t help a bit of basketball banter with Harrington, an Orange, N.J. , native who played his sport for 16 years, with teams like the Indiana Pacers, the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors.
Schumer asked for help with his jump shot. and joked about his high school team’s motto: “We may be small, but we’re slow.” He said he’s continued to play all these years since high school. “I used to go around Brooklyn, my home borough, when I was a congressman, and play choose-up games,” Schumer said. “But when I became a senator, I couldn’t do it because everyone knew who I was and then they wouldn’t guard me.”
At that point, those lower-level politicians would try to curry favor, Schumer said, calling out comments like “Great play, Senator! You sure got around me!