Ricky Williams, as he stood in front of technologists and investors at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, was the living embodiment of society’s changing views on cannabis. Even with a storied football career that included a Heisman Trophy, a Dolphin’s franchise running record, an NFL rushing title and a pro-bowl appearance, Williams is generally remembered for one thing: failing his drug tests. His story was one of squandered potential and missed opportunities.
How things have changed. Now, Ricky Williams is an entrepreneur, a finalist on 'The Celebrity Apprentice' and an articulate spokesman for the up-and-coming cannabis industry. He seemed comfortable and happy with this role as he acted as emcee for Canopy San Diego, a cannabis technology accelerator program, and their portfolio of companies. He spoke candidly about his early marijuana use in college, a mirror image of many player’s pharmaceutical addictions as he first used it as a stimulant and then discovered its pain-relieving benefits.
During his introduction he made connections to cannabis use and diversity. Not racial diversity, as one might expect for a black man speaking to a room full of techies -- which isn't the most heterogenous demographic.
He spoke rather of diversity of thought. His cannabis use changed the way he thought about the game that made him rich and famous. It made him realize that there is more to life than football; his brain could be used as more than just a helmeted battering ram.
Diversity of thought is, after all, the diversity that sprouts innovation. It brings together ideas from different disciplines and finds new uses for established tools. That sums up what the Canopy accelerator program is trying to achieve. They have brought together entrepreneurs who aim to apply their expertise to the cannabis industry. The program not only infuses capital and gives these companies a place to operate, but also provides them with mentors and a supportive network.
The companies that Canopy SD supports are diverse themselves. None deal with cannabis directly. Instead, they are technology solutions that aim to “sell picks and shovels to the miners” of our generation's gold rush. They range from point-of-sale software, to a solar power innovation, to a media network, to a beneficial plant fungus. While the niches that the companies service are varied, the teams all have two things in common: extensive pedigrees and well practiced pitches.
What was striking about the event was how commonplace it was. It, like every other accelerator program’s demonstration I have been to, had hard-working businesspeople pitching their ideas to interested investors. The only difference is that they all openly talked about marijuana consumption. The “lazy stoner” archetype was nowhere to be seen. In its place was a community passionate about a new industry and excited to be first movers.
The narrow lens that society has used for nearly a century to view the cannabis plant has shattered. Many are now taking the wider view and seeing the plant as a substitute for many synthetic drugs and even alcohol. The negative stigma is fading as we rethink our relationship with a plant that has been so adjacent to our evolution that we actually developed a physiological system to process it (the endocannabinoid system).
Now, Ricky Williams is not seen as a waste of talent or a burnout. He is applauded as an athlete who decided that his quality of life and lifestyle were more important than a career in the highest level of sport. Off the field, he is using his energy and celebrity to break though dated paradigms, much like he broke though defensive lines on it.