When Calvin Johnson Jr. and Rob Sims retired from the NFL at ages 30 and 31, respectively, they both had their entire lives still ahead of them.
But the bumps and bruises from playing nine years in the NFL still remained.
Johnson retired after the 2015 season as one of the most decorated players in NFL history, twice leading the league in receiving yards (including an NFL record 1,964 yards in 2012) and once leading the league in catches, along with six Pro Bowl appearances in nine seasons with the Detroit Lions. The No. 2 overall selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, Johnson finished his career with 731 catches for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns in 135 career games.
Sims, meanwhile, also played nine years in the NFL, his last five as Johnson’s teammate with the Lions. A former Ohio State standout in college, Sims was a stalwart of consistency in the NFL, playing 80 consecutive games during his time in Detroit.
But where football left off, healing began. Johnson and Sims are both open about their cannabis use during their playing days, but it wasn’t until retirement that they realized cannabis was more than just a coping medicine.
“I feel like [cannabis] helped me get through a couple of challenging things in my career, as well as keep me on the field,” Sims says. “I was able to play 80 straight games [and] use cannabis almost every day—not on game days—just to help relax my body.”
What’s more, Sims says his wife, Natalie, suffers from an autoimmune disease and uses cannabis to medicate herself.
“I became really passionate about the plant because of those two reasons,” he says. “This opportunity presented itself and we started running with the ball, so to speak. We’re jump-first type of people and then ask questions [later].”
Johnson says his decision to enter the cannabis industry was, like many things in life, a matter of timing.
“Coming towards the end of my career and beginning to look at different business opportunities, cannabis always stuck out,” Johnson says. The 2021 NFL Hall of Fame inductee says the idea of being part of growth in a new industry also attracted him to cannabis.
So in 2021, the duo launched Primitiv—a nod to cannabis’s long history as a healing plant throughout time—in the rapidly maturing Michigan market.
“Cannabis has been here for thousands of years, if not since the beginning of time, and people have been using it as a healer since the beginning of time,” Johnson says. “So literally by nature and definition, we are Primitiv.”
Year founded: 2021
Headquarters: Webberville, Mich. (cultivation and processing), plus one retail location in Niles, Mich.
Facility size: 12,000 square feet total; 4,000 square feet of canopy
No. of employees: 45 (approximately)
Products offered: Flower, prerolls, concentrates
Building a Blueprint
When Johnson and Sims embarked on their cannabis entrepreneurship journey, they didn’t want to simply be another celebrity or athlete brand. Instead, they sought to emphasize the medicinal benefits of the plant that helped them heal, rest and recover as football players.
“We couldn’t really be just a ‘get high’ brand,” Sims says. “That just didn’t work for us.”
With a focus on wellness in mind, Primitiv’s first orders of business were to find real estate in a buzzing Michigan cannabis market. The next step was finding someone to lead the company’s cultivation.
From there, Primitiv slowly but surely built out its operations while seeking like-minded individuals to join the team. In the year-plus since launching in 2021, the company now staffs approximately 45 employees between its cultivation and processing headquarters in Webberville, Mich., and its retail dispensary in Niles, Mich., which opened this past May.
Johnson (left) and Sims pictured in Primitiv’s cultivation room in Webberville, Mich.
Primitiv’s headquarters spans 12,000 square feet, including 4,000 square feet dedicated to cultivation, which Johnson says has room to expand.
The company currently offers flower, prerolls and concentrates at its Primitiv Elevated Wellness location in Niles, where Johnson and Sims say they’re continuing to hire employees.
“In 2023, I expect that [employee] number to be above 50 really quickly,” Sims says, “but I hope it doesn’t grow too fast because the hardest part of the business is people.”
In addition to offering flower, prerolls and concentrates, Primitiv is currently formulating topicals and infused electrolyte powders under its soon-to-launch Primitiv Performance product line.
Primitiv Performance is a collaboration between Primitiv and CYP (Choose Your Protocol), a Michigan-based company focused on developing innovative cannabis products. Johnson and Sims say CYP provides nano-emulsion technology and assists Primitiv with researching, developing and ultimately creating new products in an everchanging market.
The Primitiv Performance product line will include a broad spectrum topical pain relief cream sold in both 1-ounce and 4-ounce jars, as well as four flavors of phytocannabinoid-infused CBD powder drink stick packs available in 25-milligram doses.
“[With] Primitiv Performance, we’re staying authentic to who we are as athletes and building products that we saw growing up and that guys use right now, but we’re just putting our spin on it with cannabis,” Sims says. “We want to market new products and really steer the conversation around wellness and our brand, and we can do that with this partnership. We didn’t necessarily have the technology and the knowhow, but we went out and found people that were like-minded. We believe in teamwork and we’re happy these guys are on our team.”
Given Primitiv’s seemingly rapid growth, both Johnson and Sims are excited about the progress made, but, as Sims mentioned in regards to hiring, are preaching patience along the journey.
Johnson says Primitiv has observed and learned from other companies in the industry, noting that too rapid of growth can be a negative in the long term.
“My buddy had an interview with some of the biggest (cannabis) companies—Tilray, Canopy [Growth]—and he’s asking some of those bigwigs what was their biggest mistake. And the resounding answer that came from all of them was they went too big, too fast,” Johnson says. “It’s been a good lesson reminding us to evaluate [each] situation, see if it fits within what we envision ourselves doing, and then proceed based off of that. Otherwise, we’d be out here like everybody else chasing each and every opportunity that goes by our face.”
NFL and THC
While NFL is an acronym for National Football League, some fans in recent years have dubbed it the “No Fun League” due to its strict rules on player celebrations and on-field etiquette. Another example of the league’s “no fun” attitude is its long history of strict cannabis policy.
Former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, who led the NFL with 1,853 rushing yards in the 2002 season, was suspended for four games in 2004 and fined $650,000 for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy from failed drug tests due to cannabis. He was also suspended the entire 2006 season for the same infraction.
In 2013, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended the first two games of the 2013 season for failed cannabis drug tests—and even still led the league with 1,646 receiving yards that season. Gordon was suspended five different times throughout his career for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, with much of that due to violations for cannabis consumption.
Flower in growth in Primitiv’s Webberville, Mich., cultivation facility.
Johnson, who played from 2007 to 2015, says while cannabis was a relatively taboo topic in locker rooms during his playing days, a cannabis culture was still ubiquitous throughout all 32 teams and more than 1,600 players.
“[NFL] ownership is more conservative leaning, and it would be taboo, especially when we were playing, because you could get suspended [and] you could miss games. If you’re not on the field, you can’t do what you came to the league to do and that’s to provide for your family,” Johnson says. “But it’s definitely a culture. I played in Detroit my whole career, but I imagine if I had stepped into another locker room, it wouldn’t take about a day of time probably to understand the cannabis culture within that locker room. Cannabis was relevant 100 percent in the locker room and still is today across different sports.”
In 2020, the NFL softened its stance on cannabis policy through the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is negotiated between team owners and players once per decade. The new CBA increased the threshold for positive cannabis tests, raising the allowed amount of THC from 35 nanograms to 150; eliminated testing for THC from April 20 (4/20 holiday) to Aug. 9, when team training camps take place; and eliminated suspensions for failed drug tests altogether, opting for monetary fines only.
And in February this year, the NFL awarded $1 million in cannabis research funding to the University of California San Diego and the University of Regina. The studies, according to a press release, will “investigate the effects of cannabinoids on pain management and neuroprotection from concussion in elite football players, respectively.”
While the NFL has long relied on opioids and other medicines to treat players’ health, Johnson says “cannabis was the least of your worries” and is hopeful the seeds of change have already been sown when it comes to cannabis treating athletes’ health.
“I think it’s on the way,” Johnson says, pondering the idea of cannabis being used in NFL trainers’ rooms. “Players should be able to choose how they medicate and that shouldn’t be chosen for them, especially if it’s in a better way than being prescribed opioids.”
Primitiv is among the first cannabis companies founded by NFL alums in recent years, joining Williams’ Highsman brand—a pun on his 1998 Heisman trophy award—which also launched in 2021.
Leading that transition from football to cannabis wasn’t easy, Johnson says, but is something Primitiv takes pride in as an inspiration for others to do the same.
“We were like trailblazers—we weren’t the trailblazers as far as minorities being in the space—but as far as guys coming out the NFL, there weren’t many people doing it,” Johnson says. “I know Rob got calls, I got calls, [saying] we were the encouragement for some guys to actually step over that line and do it or even come out about it. So I take a lot of pride in being able to step out there and knowing it wasn’t easy having to go deal with your family or deal with whatever naysayers are out there, and continue to go after what you believe in and seeing good come from it.”
In addition to championing athletes in the cannabis space, both Johnson and Sims feel a sense of responsibility to champion minorities in an industry where they are sorely lacking. African Americans, while representing 13.6% of the U.S. population, only represent 1.2% to 1.7% of all cannabis company owners, according to the 2021 Leafly Jobs Report.
“We have a duty, and this goes with Black entrepreneurship in general: We have to be able to reach back and help others get here,” Sims says. “We’ve been able to kick the door in, but there’s still a lot of people that are trying to get here, so we’ve got to be able to help them, too. … We’ve got to be able to champion them because they just don’t have that voice, so I take pride in that 100 percent.”
FAST TAKE WITH … Calvin Johnson and Rob Sims, co-founders, Primitiv
Biggest challenge in either launching or maintaining a cultivation operation?
RS: The knowledge. There’s a big learning curve for us in all phases of the business. Coming right out of football, we have little bit of business experience, but getting the cannabis [experience], it was even that much worse because it’s brand new. Even the people that were so-called experts weren’t really experts; they were just self-proclaimed as experts. So it was continually going back to the drawing board and figuring out, ‘okay, we hit an end here. What’s next?’ A lot of trial by error.
Obviously when you run into business, the delays and mistakes take time, and [it’s] already a hard industry. You’re going to have some failure. How are you able to get back on that horse and keep riding? If you have that element of people that just overcome and persevere, you have a fighting chance.
CJ: It started with just selecting the right talent for who’s going to head our cultivation department [and] getting those right people in place. We had a little trial and error, but at the end of the day, we ended up leaning on a recruiting source specifically for the cannabis industry. They helped us vet folks out, we did our interviews and were able to nail one down, and we found a good teammate.
What is a common misconception that most people have about the cannabis industry?
CJ: Money falling from the trees. When you have money trees, that’s true.
RS: We have money trees, but they’re fickle. That’s the assumption just in general. In today’s market with team members and employees, it’s very much their culture. They have opportunities to go anywhere and make $20 an hour, so we always have to manage that piece of it, right? And contractors, they see dollar signs when they pull up on your lot and understand you’re a cannabis business. [Same with] attorneys or anything that touches this space—there’s a premium. So that always makes it a little bit more difficult.
What’s a business-related issue that keeps you up at night?
CJ: Something happening, just a tragic situation with the building or the structure would be something that keeps me up at night. Maybe like, for instance, somebody driving through your building.
RS: It already happened. Truck in the middle of the dispensary. Hilarious. [This was] six months ago.
CJ: It was middle of the day. We don’t know if the man was under the influence because there was no sobriety [test] taken for a person [who] drove [through] a building, for some reason. But in general, just things that will shut down the operations.
RS: It’s always that ‘what if?’ that could happen with what we have in front of us. There’s been a lot of risk to get here … so really seeing it come to fruition. And it’s not fast. It’s not microwaved. You’re looking down the line and you start to get into that business mode where you’re like, ‘Okay, next year we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this, [etc.],’ because there is no end in sight. I’m understanding more and more that no, I don’t want to have that “Oh, I made it” moment. It’s just all these opportunities that we’re going to continue to tirelessly chase. That’s a good thing. So I think sometimes that keeps me up, you want to see the fruit sooner and you’ve got to wait. So the patience part is difficult for me at times.
What about running your business helps you sleep at night?
CJ: Knowing that we have—and are still building—a tried and tested team.
RS: The thing that really keeps me going is we did build a business that could do $2 million in revenue. We did that with our team. You start to realize we made it through the pandemic, and you were essential during that time; you kept the lights on, you kept people working. And when you see all that and you look back at the road, you’re like, “Oh, we’re just scratching the surface. We’re really just growing up now.”
What advice would you offer to new or existing cultivators who really want to make it in this industry?
CJ: Have some money. Have a line of credit somewhere.
RS: You got to know what you’re doing. It’s not for the faint of heart. This business will try you. It’s not instant gratification, but you got to have faith that you can get that done. It’s no half-stepping; if you’re going to commit to this, you better go all the way.
CJ: You can’t have any other jobs. Your focus has got to be there.
The Road Ahead
As Primitiv enters year three of operations in 2023, the company will continue to build out operations—with the goal of launching both Primitiv and Primitiv Performance products nationally and internationally—but will focus on honing operations at home before expanding too quickly.
Johnson (left) and Sims are excited about Primitiv’s future in the cannabis industry, saying the company is “just scratching the surface.”
“Michigan has definitely matured quicker than most, but I think right now it’s just really tightening up our system that we already have in place to be able to expand once we get there and the brand gets there,” Sims says.
While Johnson admits the challenges of operating in the cannabis industry are “every day,” Sims says the duo’s football backgrounds provide the resolve needed to keep pushing forward.
“We know how to win together, and we know how to lose together,” Sims says. “We’ve been able to overcome a lot of things because of that, and now our team has the confidence that they can overcome anything. So we’re not just here today, gone tomorrow, ‘if it doesn’t work, okay, we’ll go back to whatever we’re doing.’ This is very much a way of life; this is very much our baby.”
Through all the challenges, learning curves, opportunities and market changes, at the end of the day, Johnson makes clear that Primitiv’s purpose is all about serving the people.
“That’s really the industry we’re in: We’re in the people business. We’re able to affect people’s quality of life,” Johnson says. “That’s really what drives you, because you’re able to affect somebody’s quality of life for the better, just how they feel on a daily basis, whether that’s mentally or physically, [and] that can help propel somebody throughout their day. So being able to provide those products, we’re just scratching the surface.”