Calvin Johnson used the highest stage reserved only for athletes at the pinnacle of his sport to share his passion for cannabis. At his induction ceremony into the NFL Hall of Fame last April, the former Detroit Lions wide receiver—widely regarded as one of the best players ever at his position—spoke of a “primitive” and “healing” plant that helped him survive nine years of grueling physical punishment from some of the world’s hardest-hitting cornerbacks and linebackers. He was talking, openly, about cannabis.
It was a profound moment for NFL history. The world’s most lucrative and popular sports league has long held a hardline anti-cannabis stance. Even now, testing positive for THC during the season lands players an automatic suspension.
The Lions drafted Johnson second overall in the 2007 NFL draft, and he’s since become the league’s top wide receiver. In 2011 he led the league in receiving and was rewarded with an eight-year, $132 million deal that made him the top-paid receiver in the game. He responded in 2012 with 1,964 receiving yards, breaking Jerry Rice’s 17-year-old single-season receiving record. Johnson was paid a $20 million option bonus in 2013.
Inspired by his passion for the plant and personal need for physical healing, Johnson and former Detroit Lions teammate Rob Sims opened a cultivation facility in the nearby town of Webberville, Mich., back in 2019. After COVID-19 stalled the duo’s plans for a retail store, Primitiv dispensary finally launched earlier this year in the small city of Niles, 150 miles southwest of Webberville on Michigan’s border with Indiana.
The project born from their friendship on the gridiron is just getting started. But Johnson, 36, and Sims, 38, have grand plans for both their company and their activism.
According to a National Institutes of Health-supported study, marijuana and hallucinogen use among young adults reached an all-time high in 2021. The proportion of young adults (ages 19-30) who reported past-year marijuana use reached 43% in 2021, an increase from 34% in 2016 and 29% in 2011.
Coupled with the coronavirus pandemic and escalating political and social tension, the surge can also be attributed to marijuana being fully legalized and decriminalized in 19 states plus Washington, D.C., with other states permitting its medicinal usage.
But rather than marketing bitten-ear-shaped edibles like Mike Tyson’s Tyson 2.0 cannabis brand, Primitiv, a member of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, is advocating for favorable policy and regulations that help promote research and disseminate information on the health benefits of cannabis for treating chronic pain or mental or cognitive issues.
“What we’re doing with Primitiv right now, we’re trying to create innovative ways for people to apply the medicine,” says Johnson, who utilized cannabis as part of his weekly routine toward the end of his NFL career. “By doing so, we’re able to attract new users because we’re creating new ways to deliver the medicine or new ways to consume the medicine. It isn’t about attracting people for the recreational uses but more so for the quality of life aspect of it.”
Recreational marijuana has been legal in Michigan since voters greenlit the industry via the 2018 ballot. Johnson and Sims had retired from the NFL just a couple years earlier, and were working together on real estate projects at the time. In cannabis, they saw a new opportunity that aligned with their values.
The pair of former Lions stars admit they self-medicated under the table with cannabis while still playing in the NFL. None of the pharmaceutical drugs administered by team doctors worked as well for their pain.