One of the most recognizable figures in cannabis advocacy speaks his wisdom in a feature from our CANNABIS print issue.
By Jaime Lubin, interview by Ronit Pinto, transcription by Michael Demyan
“We haven’t had a countercultural revolution in almost fifty years. We’re overdue.” Marvin Washington, notable National Football League (NFL) player for eleven years and a legend in the cannabis community, makes this pronouncement over the phone in a conversation that’s covered everything from history to science to spirituality, politics, and racial sociology. One of the main plaintiffs in the highly-publicized case against Jeff Sessions, Washington is an heroic advocate for the plant and a modern-day Renaissance man. Over the past decade, he has invested in six different cannabis enterprises (most prominently the industrial hemp derivative/extraction company Isodiol), supported grassroots organizations such as the Cannabis Cultural Association and Women Grow, and has remained a devoted activist in the fight to get medicinal marijuana removed from the NFL’s “banned substances” list. He has little time to spare for interviews with lifestyle magazines – but in a few short minutes he completely turns our world upside-down.
Washington believes cannabis is a major key to sparking the new revolution that Americans badly need. Society, he explains, had too long a stretch of becoming complacent in its inequality. Now the sharp divisions in our culture are coming to light through the shock of Trump’s election and the Resistance movement, racial protests and violent backlash, and of course the greater push for legalization. As more and more states legitimize the cannabis industry, people of color face the challenge to succeed in vital new leadership positions.
“Cannabis was a seven billion-dollar industry last year,” Washington says. “People of color, we’re [profiting] less than two percent [off of that], all the way from dispensaries, to grows, to real estate… But we’re still getting arrested anywhere from five to twelve times more than our [white] counterparts. When it was illegal all over the country, we participated more than two percent in arrests, incarcerations, fines and what have you. So I want a level playing field. The communities that were disproportionately punished should participate in the upswing. We don’t want to do ‘business as usual’ – we want a better business. I don’t want to see this new industry that’s going to be twenty-five billion dollars by 2025 [keep] people of color just as consumers.”
His own entrepreneurial investments dedicate themselves to providing as many opportunities for diversity as possible. Isodiol and Lenitiv Labs (a cannabis manufacturing company founded by media personality Montel Williams) are two businesses recognized for employing African Americans at every level. In terms of balancing the ratios, it may be just the first tap into the marijuana well, but it’s a promising start. The population has gone thirsty too long.
“For 2018 I’m looking to get into California dispensaries and grow facilities,” he notes. “If we can get three or four dispensaries, you can be damn sure that it’s going to be diverse throughout. If we bring this plan to our communities, we can change and gentrify [ourselves], nobody coming in and moving us out. I want to show people the medicinal and economic benefits of being involved in the biggest emerging market in this country. We’re not going to get another opportunity like this.”
Though clearly committed to empowering people of color, Washington wants to make clear he’s in favor of cannabis changing the game universally. This isn’t another issue to be twisted into biased dichotomies. It’s about saving lives.
“Cannabis is going to heal the planet,” he asserts. “I think we’re going through a period in this country where we’re getting away from the pharmaceuticals and the synthetics and trying to go back to natural things. Now people are starting to see the extent of the damage that’s been done with the [opioid epidemic] and GMOs in foods. I definitely know that for one hundred and fifty years, before the prohibition of the plant, cannabis was the number one dispensed medicine. I believe it can go a long way as an alternative to opiates.”
Nowhere has this been more evident than in recent testimonies and case studies of NFL players. Throughout his career with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos and into his advocacy today, Washington is a firsthand witness to the destruction opiate addictions have wrought on professional athletes. It’s an especially potent example of a problem he describes as “eating at the underbelly of America.”
Athletes get hooked on opioids primarily because of injuries they sustain while on the field. “Even just to practice and play through an injury, because there’s an old saying in the NFL: ‘You can play injured, but you can’t play hurt,’” Washington elucidates. “All NFL players are dealing with some type of injury and medicating themselves through opiates, and they do work. But opiates are not meant to be used over a long period of time, [only] for acute pain for a short period. A typical football player will start using them as soon as training camp opens in July and they’re going to take anti-inflammatories, painkillers and pain blockers all the way up to January. If you extrapolate that over someone who has played for several years and then you want to cut them off cold-turkey when they’re done with the game… It does not work that way. This is why I’m saying, ‘Let’s take something that’s non-toxic, non-addictive, and have this as an alternative to what you’re poisoning your players with.’”
Currently cannabis remains an illegal Schedule 1 drug at the federal level (meaning it’s assumed to have the potential for abuse and “no known medical benefits” – yeah, right) and as such the NFL’s Players Association still lists it among their banned substances. However, Washington is convinced that the organization knows all about the havoc opiate addiction is causing to the players, and predicts it will soon be prescribing them far more beneficial cannabis and CBD products instead.
He’s quick to point out the hypocrisy in today’s status quo: “The NFL has something called ‘therapeutic-use exemption‘ and they let guys with ADD and ADHD use Ritalin and Adderall, which are banned as performance-enhancing drugs. But they [allow this use] because these guys have this medical condition. Why not do the same thing with cannabis? We’re not talking about sending [someone] home with a blunt; we’re talking about sending him home with a tincture, a transdermal patch, 50 milligrams of a vape that has THC and CBD in it… in states where it’s permissible and legal.”
The past year has seen controversy surrounding the NFL particularly hard, with the “Take a Knee” protests initiated by former 49er Colin Kaepernick drawing Donald Trump’s ire and igniting American racial debates anew. With his usual visionary acumen, Washington comments this logically feeds into the national movement of disenfranchised people rising up against injustice.
“These guys are going through the traditions that this country was founded on,” he observes of the protests. “They’re being patriots. It’s constitutionally protected for them to have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. James Baldwin said, ‘To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ If you look at the socially conscious athlete, this was a tradition for African Americans going back to the Sixties with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos, and Dr. Harry Edwards and the Olympic boycott. I think history is going to judge [Kaepernick and the other players] kindly.”
History will also judge cannabis kindly if Washington has anything to say about it. He envisions a future where, in twenty years, the plant and its products will no longer be considered Schedule 1. It will be championed by today’s youth, by then grown into mature adults, and regulated by a more embracing government which will hopefully use it to combat the opioid epidemic’s most catastrophic reach. From there cannabis can go fully corporate, develop its beneficial properties on all fronts, and emerge as the leader in plant-based medicine. If culture does indeed repeat itself, what better to reexamine than holistic, natural healing methods?
“The first ones to mark it aren’t necessarily the ones to carry the torch,” Washington laughs. “Do you see Wright Brothers Airlines around? You don’t but they taught us how to fly. I’m just being a good steward [in cannabis advocacy]; I might not even be remembered and that’s fine by me. But something is happening in this country and I’m excited to see where it’s going to go. Counterculture, awakening revolution is part of our history. I believe it’s time.”
Stay tuned for more stories from our CANNABIS issue and the community!