Retired NFL players Calvin Johnson and Rob Sims want to treat CTE and pain with marijuana—and help from Harvard

January 19, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC
Retired NFL players Calvin Johnson and Rob Sims have teamed up for a new venture in the cannabis industry. COURTESY OF TK

If anyone knows pain, it’s football players. Between them retired Detroit Lions Calvin Johnson and Rob Sims have suffered: concussions, torn muscles, and, in Johnson’s case, a finger that’s permanently grinding “bone on bone”—that will hurt for the remainder of their lives. Now, the former teammates have united for a new venture in the cannabis industry called Primative to sell recreational and medicinal products in Michigan, with some production and research help coming from a partnership with Harvard Medical School.

“I just always thought there was an alternative to the opioids and pills, something that came from a more simpler, primitive time,” Sims tells Fortune. “That’s where the name came about.”

The business itself came from the duo’s work in Michigan real estate. Since retiring five years ago after nine seasons as an offensive lineman for the Seahawks and Lions, Sims invested in a title company and residential properties, with Johnson joining him later. As they grew their portfolio and Michigan moved towards its eventual 2018 legalization of recreational marijuana use, they saw opportunities to invest in the cannabis market, first from a real estate perspective then as their own growers and retailers. After overcoming some hurdles in the licensing process, they were officially allowed to proceed with the Detroit-based business in early 2019, with dispensaries in Lansing and Niles coming in 2020. As Sims says, “Every single facet of this business is going to be a little difficult because you’re building a new industry. It’s been a labor of love, but we’re here now.”

To hear them talk about it, Johnson and Sims aren’t just investors in a booming industry, they’re true believers in the health benefits of cannabis. After Johnson retired unexpectedly at 30 years old in 2016, when he was arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver, he blamed injuries and made headlines in 2019 when he revealed that he smoked marijuana after every game to deal with his pain rather than rely on powerful, readily available painkillers.

“In the locker room, it was easy to get this stuff when we first got into the league. Halfway through my career, they kind of shut that down because of the oncoming epidemic,” he says. “I saw, from a young age, family or close friends that used some kind of opioid, whether it’s for pain or whatnot. You become addicted to these things and you’re spending all kinds of money to get it. You just don’t see the same kind of issue from cannabis.”

Sims saw the same problems, particularly after he tore his pectoral muscle in 2008. “I remember getting out of surgery and them handing me a prescription for I can’t remember how many Vicodin. It was a generous amount,” he says. “I just thought that there’s gotta be a better solution to me having this temptation of having these opioids, being able to take them whenever I want and get more when I need them—I can get this alternative medicine it doesn’t hurt me, kill me, or make me addicted to it. People with pain need to be able to medicate differently with something that’s safe and natural.” (Per the NFL, marijuana and all its synthetic types are considered drugs of abuse and prohibited, whereas opioids are banned if used illegally, but permissible if they’re prescribed.)

Now, Johnson says “I might enjoy some flower every now and again,” but mostly he uses a CBD cream for his pain management. Sims opts for CBD tinctures for his aches and as a sleep aid, while his wife uses various cannabis products to help with her Crohn’s symptoms. His late father and father-in-law, both former NFL players, also benefitted from cannabis, and Sims said knowing that it’s worked for all of them is the motivating factor behind their business.

Primative’s efforts to become a major player in the medical marijuana sector got a huge boost in August 2019 when they announced a partnership with Harvard University’s Phytomedicines and Medical Cannabis Institute to study the plant’s health benefits. One area of the study will be its effects in treating chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE, the brain disease caused by concussions and other head injuries that’s become a major health issue among former football players.

“We just started formulating the new study,” says Sims. “In people that deal with pain or CTE or other neurocognitive diseases, we know that cannabis in some way helps, but taking it a step farther, we want to know why it helps. From a research perspective, we haven’t gotten to a point where we can make claims about what we can do with cannabis or CBD. We can make claims from personal experiences. I know a ton of the older players, including my father and father in law, that have some of these have some of these issues and we’ve seen what a CBD regimen can do for them. That’s the importance of the study.”

The study also benefits Primative in two ways. First, Harvard is providing quality assurance on the company’s marijuana, which is a huge boon to a fledgling operation with one in-house cultivator. Secondly, if the University develops any new medications using Primative’s plants, Johnson and Sims will own the patent on them. 

“Whenever the time comes that we want to go the route of coming up with that FDA drug or nutraceutical, we can take that to trial and come up with a legitimate product that can go to market,” Johnson says. Adds Sims, “Personally, we’re in it for the long haul to find treatments and cures. We try not to focus necessarily on the money, although that’s a big, big part of the business. Really, for us, it’s forming these collaborations to help us really broaden the opportunities that we’ve been awarded.”

To that end, they’re also helping Harvard organize a “player’s care” event to educate other athletes about cannabis, the business world, and what the university is doing. As ambassadors for Harvard, they’ve traveled to Jamaica to meet with officials there about the country’s marijuana industry. They also plan to use Primative and their celebrity status to help people who’ve previously been shut out of the industry and penalized for growing or possessing marijuana. 

“We want to be able to help the guy that’s been cultivating these plants for the past 10 years here in Michigan and doesn’t feel like he has a place here in the new industry. We want to figure out a way to make sure he has that opportunity,” says Sims. “You’re hearing the same things when you go to Jamaica and California. Social equity is definitely something, especially being men of color, that we look forward to being able to explore.”

For now, they’re focused on improving the product they grow in their 12,000 sq ft facility, which can mimic the conditions of any altitude or climate for optimal plant growth. They control the entire process, start to finish, and aren’t capitalizing on their fame with gimmicky products like strains branded with Johnson’s nickname, Megatron. At least not yet.

“Most of the time the guys are just slapping their name on some labeling,” Johnson says. “But there is a way to come up with our own formulations, grafting. It’s taking two strains that you really like and combining them. When we get our building dialed in where we want it, that will happen.”

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