An NBA star's cannabis brand comes to Canada

Warning message

The subscription service is currently unavailable. Please try again later.
Twitter icon
man shooting hoops

For Al Harrington, who played his last NBA game in Toronto in 2014, the partnership offers another reason to return north, though this time with a different purpose.

Aras Azadian, the CEO of Avicanna, a multinational cannabis and biopharmaceutical company, is waiting in line at the passport office when he takes a call from The GrowthOp.

Having recently returned from Mexico, where his passport was stolen, he’s got a day to resolve the situation before heading off again to Brazil.

“It’s part of the process of being CEO,” Azadian says, in a remarkably upbeat tone for someone waiting in line at the passport office.

Maybe it’s because Azadian is used to travelling, at least pre-pandemic. From its Toronto headquarters, Avicanna operates in the U.S., U.K. and Latin America, and has 480,000 square feet of cultivation in Colombia.

But the company is also busy in Canada. In fact, Azadian’s latest project is helping Viola, a cannabis brand founded by 16-year NBA veteran Al Harrington, head north.

Earlier this month the first Viola branded products launched across Canada via the online medical cannabis platform from Shoppers Drug Mart. Viola should also be available in recreational markets in Ontario and New Brunswick within the next few weeks.

Harrington founded the company, named after his grandmother, in 2011. It’s the latest in a number of U.S. brands that have entered Canada in recent months, but it was another deal between Avicanna and Harrington that precipitated the launch.

In February, Avicanna partnered with Harrington Wellness , a CBD company that Harrington founded in 2018.

The products, including topicals, tinctures and capsules, are targeted towards athletes and benefit from Avicanna’s clinical collaborations, including Toronto’s University Health Network and Sunnybrook Hospital. The topical formulations are enrolled in several preclinical studies with Canadian medical institutions to assess their efficacy in treating chronic pain and osteoarthritis.The conversations didn’t end after that deal, though.

“Al and I became friends,” Azadian says. “We realized that we’re quite aligned in terms of being hard-working individuals that are trying to make a real company in this industry.”

About six months after the Harrington Wellness deal was announced, Azadian asked Harrington why Viola, which operates in California, Colorado, Michigan and Oregon, hadn’t come to Canada.

“Honestly, I just don’t trust anyone in Canada to give them the brand,” Azadian recalls Harrington saying.

Avicanna, with its focus on biotech, didn’t seem the right fit at first. But Azadian responded that if Viola launched here, he thought it would find an audience.

“There are hundreds of brands out there but I walk into a dispensary and I don’t see a brand that I feel resonates well with me as a person of colour or from a social equity perspective, or even a minority representation perspective,” Azadian says. “So that was when he’s like, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’”

Shortly after that, Azadian approached the board at Avicanna with the idea. He says he was initially unsure what the response would be.

“‘Look, we’re not deviating away from our vision or our mission as a biopharma company. However, we do have the commercialization infrastructure, we have the network, we have the relationships, we have the credibility within this market, we can launch Viola,’” he told them.

In March the partnership was officially announced and earlier this month the first Viola branded products, disposable vape pens and 510 vape cartridges, launched nationwide. Concentrates, including live resin and THC diamonds, should be available in January.

Dried flower is next up, granted they can find a Canadian producer to work with.

“We’re still trying to figure out who the cultivation partner will be,” Azadian says. “We’re currently analyzing, and we haven’t been generally successful so far, which flower producers can actually meet the quality and standards and the genetic profile that is connected to Viola.”

Once that’s worked out, the plan is to launch pre-rolls and packaged flower.

“We’re focused on sourcing high-quality strains that align with our U.S. products in terpene profiles and cannabinoid percentages,” Harrington tells The GrowthOp.  He adds that the regulatory landscape in Canada has been a new challenge to navigate but the country has been on the company’s radar for “quite some time.”

“Aras and the Avicanna team share a similar mission to ours at Viola when it comes to helping increase minority representation in the cannabis industry,” he says.

Viola’s social equity initiative, dubbed Viola Cares, launched last year in the U.S. It’s focused on increasing minority representation in the cannabis industry through education and incubation programs, among other offerings. Those efforts will now extend to Canada, as well.

“We’re building out a couple of different programs with Viola,” Azadian says, adding that educational initiatives stemming from Avicanna’s research on clinical safety, toxicity and the risks of cannabis will also be included.

For Harrington, who played his last NBA game in Toronto in 2014, the partnership offers another reason to return north, though this time with a different purpose.

“I’ve always loved Canada,” he says. “It feels great to be back and able to share my new passion for cannabis and creating an equitable opportunity for our people.”

e-mail icon Facebook icon Twitter icon LinkedIn icon Reddit icon
Rate this article: 
Article category: 
Regional Marijuana News: