The year 2020 has been rough, to say the least. On top of the ongoing pandemic and everything that goes with it, the cannabis community lost a true cannabis hero to cancer in late August.
Clifford ‘Uncle Cliffy’ Robinson passed away on August 29, 2020, after a long battle with lymphoma. Robinson was widely known as a professional basketball player, having played 18 years in the NBA.
During his tenure in the NBA, Uncle Cliffy racked up nearly 20,000 points, was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award recipient in 1993, an All-Star in 1994, and made the NBA’s All-Defensive team multiple times. Often praised for his versatility on the court, Robinson is the only player in NBA history with 1,400 career steals, 1,300 career blocks, and 1,200 three-pointers made.
Cliff was also famous for something else, both on and off the court — cannabis. I served as Clifford Robinson’s communications lead for the last 4.5 years of his amazing life, and if there’s one thing that I can say for sure about my friend, it’s that he loved the cannabis plant.
“I live a cannabis lifestyle, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” I would often hear Robinson say to reporters.
“I played 18 years in the NBA and rarely missed games. I never consumed cannabis before games. I was responsible about it, and I was always ready to give maximum effort for my team. My longevity in the league speaks for itself. You can’t call me a lazy pothead. Cannabis can absolutely be a part of an active lifestyle, and I am living proof of that,” he would explain.
Robinson was punished for his cannabis use more than any other NBA player in the league’s history. He was suspended multiple times by the NBA for violating the league’s cannabis use policy, including once in the NBA playoffs. Not only did that particular playoff suspension cost Robinson a potential championship, but it also resulted in the Nets (now in Brooklyn, formerly in New Jersey) opting not to renew his contract.
“What is the most expensive cannabis that you have ever smoked?” Robinson would often ask people in the cannabis community that we would hang out with at events and in private settings. Inevitably, people would respond with something to the effect of having paid several hundreds of dollars for an ounce of cannabis flower.
“I once smoked a joint that cost over a million dollars!” Cliff would reply, referring to the Nets contract that was not extended due to Robinson violating the league’s cannabis policy. Cliff smoked part of one joint which resulted in the failed drug test. It was obviously an unfortunate incident in Cliff’s life, yet he made the best out of the situation like he always did.
Clifford Robinson was not just a victim of cannabis prohibition on the court. Robinson was also harmed by prohibition off the court, which is a big reason why he was such a passionate advocate for cannabis reform.
One incident, which is discussed via Cliff’s appearance in Fab 5 Freddy’s outstanding Netflix documentary The Grass is Greener, occurred when Clifford Robinson was a teenager. He was arrested for a gram of cannabis, charged, and convicted, and it almost derailed his basketball career before his career even began.
The arrest occurred prior to Robinson going to the University of Connecticut where Robinson would eventually lead the men’s basketball team to an NIT championship in 1988. Robinson’s number ‘00’ was retired by the basketball program, and he is a member of UConn’s All-Century Team. All of that, in addition to Cliff’s NBA career, almost did not happen because of cannabis prohibition.
A particularly disturbing experience for Cliff came in July 1997 when the Clifford Robinson was a free agent and was the victim of a widely broadcast racial profiling incident. The saga started when Robinson was seen getting into his vehicle with his brothers and friends on the way to play in a paintball tournament. A neighbor assumed that the men, all of whom were Black, had assault rifles and were going to commit crimes, and called the cops.
Local and national media quickly picked up the story and made it sound as if Clifford Robinson, who was known at the time to be driving the vehicle and named in media reports, was going to commit murder and/or armed robbery. Cliff received zero benefit of the doubt in the situation, which was shameful on so many levels.
Eventually, Robinson’s vehicle was subjected to a paramilitary-style blockade and raid in downtown Portland, Oregon. With news cameras rolling and numerous assault rifles pointed at his head, Robinson still had no idea at the time why he was being detained.
Robinson watched as the officers located the paintball guns in his vehicle, proceeded to scratch their heads, and then ransacked his vehicle presumably looking for something, anything that they could point to in order to justify what just happened.
Unfortunately for Cliff, there was a roach from a cannabis joint in the passenger door armrest. Even though the roach was not located in Cliff’s reach (it was a very large Hummer), Cliff was charged with cannabis possession and the story was no longer about a blatant racial profiling incident, and instead the media coverage’s narrative was that ‘here is Clifford Robinson, a known irresponsible pothead, letting down his team and teammates once again.’
Nearly 23 years later the City of Portland admitted that what was reported was not the whole story, and issued a formal apology to Clifford Robinson. The apology was obviously way overdue, but at least it provided Uncle Cliffy with a win and set the record straight.
The cannabis stigma that Cliff had to endure during his NBA career and into retirement was immense. After having poured his life into the Portland Trail Blazers for 8 years, not only did Clifford Robinson not re-sign as a free agent with the Blazers in the summer of 1997, he was never even provided an offer from the team.
To put into perspective how ridiculous that is, Clifford Robinson set a Portland Trail Blazers record by playing in 461 games in a row while he was with the team. That record still stands to this day. Cliff personally told me that he always suspected the July 1997 cannabis charge and media aftermath was to blame given the timing. The month following the racial profiling incident Robinson signed with the Phoenix Suns, much to the dismay of Blazer fans everywhere, including myself.
That cannabis stigma followed Clifford Robinson into retirement. Robinson often explained to me that he was told by NBA leadership that there would be coaching and league appearance opportunities for him after he retired. Those opportunities never materialized. Robinson is still a statistical leader in many categories for the Blazers, and the team’s only Sixth Man of the Year in franchise history, yet his number is not retired alongside some of his teammates. It’s a safe bet that Cliff’s defiant stance on cannabis played a part in that.
Yet, despite the stigma, Cliff endured as he always did whenever life hurdles popped up. Unlike many professional athletes that were caught for cannabis, Cliff never condemned his cannabis use. He knew that he was on the right side of history, and that it was the leagues and the laws that were wrong.
Clifford Robinson was a true pioneer when it came to sports cannabis. Robinson not only advocated for leagues to end cannabis prohibition, he did it in a way that highlighted the fact that prohibition in professional sports is a form of institutional racism. If a Black professional athlete is 3-4 times more likely to be busted for cannabis while away from the team compared to Caucasian teammates, and leagues punish players for cannabis offenses, then Black professional athletes are 3-4 times more likely to be punished by leagues because of cannabis compared to Caucasian athletes. It’s a fact that Robinson always pointed out as justification for ending cannabis prohibition in pro sports, and rightfully so.
Robinson’s cannabis advocacy extended beyond just professional sports. He was very active when it came to civic engagement and supporting cannabis policy reform efforts outside of sports. Clifford Robinson submitted public testimony to the Oregon Legislature in support of an Oregon social cannabis use reform measure. He was also very active in supporting cannabis legalization efforts in Connecticut.
Cliff also actively supported cannabis legalization efforts in Arizona, California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and at the federal level. He was a true cannabis freedom fighter in every way. When Cliff first started the sports cannabis revolution via his announcement of his ‘Uncle Spliffy’ brand, cannabis policy in professional sports looked different than it does today, as did many states’ cannabis laws. The sports cannabis sector, which is huge today, didn’t even exist prior to Cliff creating it. Cliff’s contributions to reform efforts and the cannabis community were significant and his cannabis legacy will endure forever.
Robinson was more than just a basketball player. He was more than just a cannabis advocate. Clifford Robinson lived an amazing, dynamic life. He was the first professional athlete to ever compete on Survivor, and is on a very short list of United States citizens who have traveled to North Korea. He was a father, a son, a grandfather, an uncle, a brother, and to many of us in the cannabis community, a friend. Uncle Cliffy was one of the most genuine and legendary people that the cannabis community has ever known, and he will be greatly missed.