WEBBERVILLE, Mich. Calvin Johnson enters Room 1, the brightly lit Orange Flower Room, and begins to get excited. In front of him are 180 marijuana plants, all in three or four rows, divided into identical trays and segmented for optimal growth.
Dressed in a mask, black gown and fangs, the retired Detroit Lions catcher walks the hallways, examining every plant and looking at a variety of flowers. Johnson, who was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame last weekend, looks a little different from an NFL player. He is thinner, with gray highlights at the front of his hair.
Alongside his current business partner, former attack leader Rob Sims, Johnson inspects the plants in one of the six flower rooms, satisfied with the progress made.
“We’re getting better with each race,” said Johnson, who is especially pleased with the density of each color he sees. “Nice little jungle there.”
“It gets better,” Mr. Sims replied.
This is what they have been hoping for all along, what they have been working on for the past two years after they decided to get into the cannabis industry. So far, 15 states plus Washington have fully legalized cannabis, according to ballotpedia.org, while many others have allowed its use for medical purposes or removed its use from the criminal law.
Misunderstanding. Filmmaker specified.Johnson (left) and former Lions guard Rob Sims (right) have joined forces again – this time in the cannabis industry, producing their own marijuana. They opened two dispensaries in Michigan. Rob Sims
Johnson and Sims moved from a life in soccer, where so much was predetermined and arranged, to a start-up world where everything is built from the ground up. They founded Primitive, a cannabis company that they hope will improve the quality of life for pain patients, eliminate some of the negative connotations surrounding marijuana and, of course, benefit from their second careers.
“Our vision is to try to change the stigma around cannabis,” Sims said. “We don’t call it bud. We call it medicine.
On the fifth or sixth day of the week, Sims and Johnson leave their home in the suburbs of Detroit and head to Primitive Farm in Webberville, Michigan, to lead their 15-person team, review their product and make sure their business is operating at the production level they expect.
Together they earned more than $130 million in their NFL careers. They don’t need to work. They want to work. It has become their profession, they have “vaguely” invested over $1 million to build their business.
“It’s our life’s work right now,” Mr. Sims said. “We’ve done a lot to make it possible.”
Johnson and Sims had no intention of starting here. Johnson first tried marijuana during a college break at Georgia Tech. Halfway through his NFL career, he discovered what drugs were available.
Toward the end of his career, Johnson took cannabis after every game and sometimes during the week to “reduce the daily urge to get up in the morning because it was just very inflamed at the end of the day. It was part of his weekly routine to be able to play again the following Sunday.
In the locker room during their nine seasons in the NFL, Johnson and Sims, who have never been penalized for marijuana use during their league tenure, saw the full potential of what cannabis can do for pain management. They see it as a safer alternative to painkillers.
“There are a lot of untold stories about this, and frankly, the player has to face the pain anyway. There’s a safer way,” Sims said. “There’s an alternative that can help the guys that’s safe, you know what I mean? It’s not something you can throw away and lose a lot of.
“What do you do when you’re done playing and you need painkillers and you can’t get them as easily as you can while playing? What do you do? What is the answer to this question?
Last season, the NFL relaxed its marijuana policy by eliminating suspensions, shortening the testing period to two weeks at boot camp and increasing the amount of THC needed to test positive. Sims called this a victory for the players, who now have another way to deal with pain.
Error. The film does not specified.show Johnson inspecting crops at his marijuana farm and Sims’ farm in Webberville, Mich. Michael Rothstein
The pain doesn’t end when his football career ends. In 2016, when he retired, Johnson almost gave up Dancing with the Stars because of pain and swollen ankles. In California, where medical marijuana was already legal, one of Johnson’s friends at Georgia Tech offered him a small brown jar with a gold cap, with the subject line.
“I used it every day for a dance show,” Mr. Johnson said. “I still have a few at home, but I literally went through that dance show. Literally.”
Johnson, who said the themed editions are his favorites, is sold. He uses it on his fingers – beaten and dislocated after years of playing soccer – and rubs it on his joints before golf matches.
Until 2018, the recreational use of cannabis was not legal in Michigan. Both focused on other things, with Sims retiring after the 2014 season and Johnson after 2015.
They invested in real estate. Johnson was a franchisee of Auntie Anne’s Pretzel Shop and mentored receivers preparing for the NFL draft – including future Pro Bowler and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Chris Godwin. Johnson ran his youth camp, helped establish it, and occasionally attended various team practices to pass on his knowledge to future generations.
With their company, Locker Room Consulting, Johnson and Sims developed a plan to help athletes transition from college and professional sports to the real world by helping them determine what interests them. When cannabis was legalized in Michigan, Sims and Johnson wanted to get in on the action.
“I’ve been quiet for a long time in other partnerships in other states, so I want to get involved from the ground up, you know?” said Johnson. “I really want to get involved. That’s what I believe in. I know that because I’ve used it. It helps me with the inflammation. It helps me with the pain. So I thought, “Okay, let’s go to science.”
Johnson and Sims didn’t just borrow their names. They became entrepreneurs managing all aspects of the startup’s life, including an initial license denial in December 2018 due to an unpaid parking ticket in Georgia for Johnson and real estate problems for Sims.
These problems resolved, they reapplied, received their license in February 2019 and started their own business. The two men speak to each other several times a day and work several days a week, either at their facility in Webberville or at the nearby First Dispensary in Niles, Michigan.
Cannabis is a growing industry. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that two-thirds of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized. Johnson and Sims’ entry into the industry is another benefit to the growing cannabis industry. According to figures from Headset.io, which tracks the cannabis industry, medical and recreational sales are expected to reach $18.2 billion in 2020, rising to $23.9 billion in 2021.
As they entered the room, Sims and Johnson said their families had questions – partly because of the connotations they wanted to address.
“It’s a big stigma,” Mr. Johnson said. “My mother, Mrs. Johnson, didn’t like it. I can’t say my father was a big fan. But now they couldn’t see it, but they could see the timing, just from what I showed them and what Britney [Johnson’s wife] told them about it. I don’t talk about it much, but I like to show them.
“I prefer to show them in person. I show them on FaceTime and give them a tour of the facility, but they don’t really see it until it’s there and I can show them what we do and what they’re like. “Okay, it’s not a hobby. It’s real. It’s a business.”
Misunderstanding. Name Not specified.Sims is excited about the opportunities the cannabis industry presents for him and the Johnson company, as well as the community at large. Michael Rothstein
Johnson talks about it in one of the many rooms of his indefinable two-story building in Webberville Office Park, 70 miles northwest of Detroit. On this October day, his address is scrawled in black letters on a large white billboard. The stencil shows a faded image of ML Chartier, the building’s former tenants who have moved in next door. Johnson and Sims have since improved their signage, one of the many small things that make it possible to start a business from scratch.
They are here because it is a “green space,” an area designated by the State of Michigan for cannabis cultivation. This building, which uses every inch of space, is the first phase of what they have been working on for the past two years.
And their names – not just as representatives, but as entrepreneurs in the field – can help the industry.
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“Athletes like these guys come in and become the face of the cannabis business, being the face of the cannabis movement is very rewarding,” said Andrew DeAngelo, a consultant to the global cannabis industry and co-founder of Harborside, one of the oldest clinics in California. “Because there’s another positive pop culture archetype about cannabis. It’s very helpful for the history of cannabis, the branding of cannabis as a plant, as a remedy in the community.
“I’m glad such people are coming.”
As the company moved from idea to construction to production, Sims and Johnson pursued another plan: to ensure that the cannabis they harvested would finally be ready for consumption.
DOCTOR. WILFRED NGWA has studied all over the world and has spent the past decade at Harvard looking for ways to improve the quality of care for cancer patients.
In 2019, he co-hosted the Global Health Catalyst Summit at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. One of the goals of the summit is to bring together people from different sectors and companies to see if they can work toward a common vision to address inequities in the future of global health. One of the guests was Dr. Tommy Shavers, co-founder of NESTRE Health and Performance, a neuroplasticity company that has partnered with Johnson and Sims. One of the people Shavers invited to the conference was Johnson.
Johnson spoke about cannabis, how he has minimized his pain and his plans for the industry. He explained why players are concerned about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degeneration of the brain likely caused by repeated head injuries and better known as CTE. Johnson says he doesn’t care if he has it; Sims thinks about it. They both wondered how cannabis might help. Toward the end of the summit, Johnson and Sims began talking with Ngwa about the possibility of working together to find better pain treatment and ETC.
“In that state,” Mr. Sims said. “We had the opportunity to use cannabis, and at the same time we realized that some of the things that bothered us as former players were things that we could explore and find a cure for. I would say the two happened simultaneously”.
Ngwa is working with nanodrones that could help place drugs in a patient’s body in a more targeted way, rather than making them act generically. Dr. Ngwa hopes the technology can even cross the blood-brain barrier – a layer in the head that prevents toxins from causing infections – for more effective drug delivery.
This would eliminate the side effect of increased cannabis levels in general – not everyone likes it, Ngwa said – and could concentrate medicine where it is needed most.
“Tommy, he shared this with Calvin and Rob, they founded this cannabis company so you can provide some of these cannabinoids,” Ngwa said, “First of all to help relieve the pain, and secondly, we have preliminary studies showing that these drugs, when working across the blood-brain barrier in the head, can slow down degeneration during a concussion.
The plan, after Johnson and Sims donated money to the International Cannabis Phytomedical and Medical Institute, a multi-institutional partnership based at Harvard, was to provide concrete evidence that it could work.
The donation of these funds will allow Johnson and Sims to have Ngwa and her team test cannabis to ensure quality. He will profile each strain and product to understand the potency and composition of THC or CBD.
After quality control, Ngwa hopes to use his product in clinical trials under a multi-institutional research agreement that has yet to be finalized. This is not unique to Sims and Johnson, but they hope to work with them to find viable potential applications for cannabis for pain and ETC.
Ngwa said conducting this type of research could help create “a uniform reference or standard for cannabis-based medical products.”
“We need to do studies that show that their cannabis formula can actually do what we want in terms of chemical benefits,” Mr. Ngwa said, “so if someone is using it for pain management, they’re doing it.”
“So we’re doing animal studies and then clinical studies to show that it can take away pain, so, yes, we want to use it, they provide society with cannabis.”
The plan was originally scheduled to start last year. The KOVID-19 pandemic delayed things. Sims and Johnson now plan to send their first samples to Ngwa for testing in the coming months, once the paperwork is completed.
Sims said they will send samples of their rarer flower varieties and, when more ideas are ready, full versions of nasal sprays, nebulizers and other products. Some of their unnamed bulk products are already on sale. Primitive products are expected to hit the shelves of some pharmacies by the end of March and their first dispensary will open in Niles. A second dispensary in Lansing, Michigan, is expected to open this summer.
“There will be different applications,” Sims said. “Anything we find useful for pain or CTE, we want people to be able to experience it in different forms.”
With Ngwa and their partnership with NESTRE to improve brain and mental health, Johnson and Sims hope to transform the cannabis space. Johnson is one of NESTRE’s partners and industry advisors, along with Julius Thomas, Josh McCown and Hugh Jackson.
Mr. Sims himself has attended the NESTRE program and believes that together they can “really find a cure for people.” This is part of Johnson and Sims’ broader vision. They have spent years developing their partnerships and finding their place in the world of cannabis they are passionate about.
Wrong!!! Movie not specified.Johnson sees great health and pain management benefits in the cannabis industry for both the general public and NFL players. Mike Rothstein
They think they’ve found it. Through their own experiences in the NFL and in the business world, they hope to offer something to current and future generations of athletes and people with chronic pain.
It’s something many NFL players suffer from.
“To be able to bring solutions to people who have been and will continue to be in our shoes, to create solutions for those people and for people in general,” Mr. Johnson said. “But certainly if we pay attention to our peers and just look at pain and neuroscience, we can really make a difference and be at the forefront of some of these nanotechnologies.
“To develop some of these products that can help these people, people, veterans, anyone with pain or neurocognitive disease. Anybody.”