Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Player’s Association and board member of Cresco Labs. (Submitted)

When Michele Roberts walks around her South Harlem neighborhood, the scent of cannabis in the air is unmistakable. 

The 64-year-old executive director of the National Basketball Player’s Association prefers wine to weed and doesn’t partake herself – even though she’s a member of Cresco Labs’ board of directors. Still, she does find comfort in the presence of stinky bud.

“I like to smell it because it means I don’t have Covid,” she mused. “I don’t smoke and never enjoyed it. I also never liked the law.”

My scheduled telephone interview with Roberts occurred on the afternoon of December 4th, just as the league and its labor union she runs agreed to suspend random marijuana testing for the 2020-2021 season. When I mentioned to her that a colleague just shared the breaking news with me via Slack, she quipped, “I know. I did the deal.”

Roberts was named NBPA executive director in 2014, after starting career as a public defender in Washington D.C. and later practicing as a trial lawyer for Akin Group and then Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Sensory validation notwithstanding, her interest in cannabis is multifold. 

From a criminal justice standpoint, Roberts, who grew up in the Melrose Houses low-income housing projects in the South Bronx, lamented that she saw a lot of people go to jail for smoking what many labeled at the time “the devil’s weed”. As a public defender, she believed cannabis did not negatively impact communities the way heroin or legally available alcohol did. 

Recognizing the positive economic impact the normalizing industry can have on minority-owned businesses, Roberts also advocates for more diverse leadership across the budding cannabis industry. 

“I’m hoping that what happened in tech will not happen in cannabis,” she said, referring to the mostly white and mostly male leadership and ownership of digital companies that have dominated the U.S. economy for the last generation. 

“I am a cheerleader of any opportunity for those of us who historically have not been given access to a booming industry.” 

In June, Roberts was appointed to the board of directors of Chicago-based cannabis corporation Cresco Labs. Along with serial corporate director Carol Vallone, Roberts is one of two women on the board, as well as its only African American. This demographic composition is shared with most multi-state cannabis corporations across the United States. 

“I expect more efforts to be inclusive at the board and senior management level,” she said.

Roberts was attracted to the Cresco opportunity after learning more about the company’s Social Equity & Educational Development (SEED) program, which provides expertise and resources to minority-owned businesses seeking licenses to sell and cultivate cannabis. 

While the state of Illinois infamously has yet to award any new licensing due to lawsuits associated with how social equity dispensary applicants were scored, she believes more economic opportunities nationwide will open up under a new presidential administration. She also looks forward to an expansion of civil liberties as it relates to cannabis under a new Attorney General.

Pot before pain-killers, and as an alternative to scotch and vino 

Roberts described her three months living in the NBA bubble, where players competed at a championship level while also being shut out from the rest of the world, as “one of the most stressful moments” of her life. 

“I drank wine, and it was a way for me to relax and go to sleep,” she said.

The NBA’s pot policy was also suspended while players were in Orlando. Reports indicate that players imbibed

Generally speaking, Roberts has no problem with players turning to weed to come down from a three-hour adrenaline rush or to comfort achy muscles.

“I don’t want them using heroin,” she said, “but I have no problem with beer or scotch or a joint.”  

Retired NBA players, including Al Harrington and Larry Hughes, are going a step further by investing in and operating the Viola Brands cannabis company, including new dispensaries in St. Louis. Roberts sees professional athletes as natural cannabis entrepreneurs, given their understanding of the medical and relaxational properties of the plant. She added NFL players, given the violence of the sport, were a little ahead on this issue.  

“Using the plant is a much better alternative than using pills dealing with postgame pain,” former St. Louis Ram Grant Winstrom told Grown In. The former defensive end plans to open a dispensary in Springfield, Missouri in the coming weeks. Winstrom, 44 and a nine-year veteran of the NFL, said he decided to go into business after Missouri voted to legalize medical marijuana sales in 2018. 

“I saw it gaining momentum,” he said, “and over the years I saw way too many teammates becoming addicted to painkillers. The plant has been part of my health and well-being for a while.” 

So long as players don’t come to practice high or drunk, Roberts sees no reason for any league or authority to intervene in the pursuit of healing, relaxation or a good time off hours. 

“In my career, most workplaces were not testing for marijauana,” she said. “The notion of testing struck me as being ridiculous. I’m no more interested if you had a beer two days ago than a joint two years ago.”

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.