The Viola team broke ground on their downtown St. Louis dispensary on Thursday. Viola, otherwise known as VMO or Viola Missouri, is led by NBA stars Al Harrington and Larry Hughes.
Of the 11 vertical (cultivation, manufacturing, and dispensary) groups, Viola is the only minority-owned vertically-integrated company in Missouri. The group was also one of the top-scoring applicants across the board.
Harrington has been in the cannabis industry for 10 years, Hughes joins him in his Missouri venture. Their two St. Louis dispensaries – one at 20th and Olive and the other off of Cherokee Street on Iowa – are expected to open in April 2021.
VMO shares the name of Harrington’s first cannabis company Viola Extracts which was founded in Colorado in 2011 and is named after Harrington’s grandmother who used cannabis to treat her glaucoma and diabetes. Over the years, Viola Extracts has become one of the nation’s leading producers and licensed wholesalers of premium quality cannabis products. Viola currently operates in Colorado, Oregon, Michigan, California, and Washington.
“I’ve been on this walk. I’ve been able to assemble this unbelievable team. We’re best in class,” Harrington said. “If you think about the War on Drugs and the way it has impacted our communities, 85 percent of drug arrests are always black-related. Right now, this is a new trillion-dollar industry, and we have no representation. Larry and I are coming together in a way that we can fight that by creating opportunities for people of color to be able to participate in this industry. Generational wealth is at-risk. There are other industries we can mention – rice, sugar, cotton, liquor – where we pioneered those industries and we have no representation, no ownership. We’re here to change that, to represent an opportunity for people of color to participate in this industry in a major way.”
Hughes has built a legacy in his hometown of St. Louis, which will be expanded by his involvement with Viola, from youth outreach to overall community wellness.
“It’s all about your team and the people you put around you in order to push your initiatives further,” Hughes said. “Everything that Al has done and everything he’s done for African-Americans to gain ownership, to have a place, get rid of the taboo that goes along with marijuana use and cannabis use, and really highlight the good and benefits it has on people, on communities, and in life in general.”
Both Harrington and Hughes discussed at the Thursday, November 12, 2020, press conference their determination to ensure generational wealth for African-Americans is secured in cannabis.
The Olive location, at a hefty 4,500 square feet, is directly across the street from the under-construction MLS stadium and from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. The Iowa location will sport a drive-through, something Viola co-founder and director of operations Jamil Taylor says will provide patients a safe way to get medicine during the pandemic. Taylor cited COVID as a real concern for the operation.
Taylor noted partner and local business leader Abe Givins, Viola Missouri’s director of business development, was to be given credit for securing such impressive locations and leading the team’s active community outreach. Givins is also Hughes’ cousin and business manager – and a familiar face across St. Louis and the cannabis industry.
“Right now, there are currently 11 vertically-integrated businesses in Missouri’s cannabis program,” said Taylor, denoting VMO is the only all-black owned vertical. “We’re very proud to be that team and represent St. Louis and Missouri with the utmost respect, with the utmost high standard of our cannabis products. This is a medical program. We’ll be serving patients throughout the Missouri area. Our products will be sold across the entire state of Missouri.”
The team shared that they expect to hire 30-40 jobs for cultivation and processing, and another 15-25 jobs in retail. Over 75 percent of those jobs are expected to be full time. The team expects to ramp up hiring quickly upon becoming operational. Studies show black-owned businesses tend to hire more people of color at all levels.
“This is really a stupendous time in our country for so many reasons, but specifically, the acceptance of cannabis nationally,” said Viola’s Lori Crosley. “There are 34 states now that have included cannabis as part of their wellness and well-being plan for their residents. Missouri is at the forefront.”
Company leadership has public support from local leaders, including Congressman Lacy Clay, Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis), St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer, Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, and Alderman Jeffrey Boyd.
“I’m extremely proud to be here today to celebrate something that is long overdue,” said state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis). “African-Americans have been locked out of the industry. This is what a dream team looks like. We have a truly major accomplishment in the cannabis industry in the state of Missouri. It’s truly a game-changer. We’re talking about creating jobs throughout the City of St. Louis and throughout Missouri, in ways we have never seen before.”
Harrington and Hughes were both drafted in 1998 in the NBA.