This Ivy Leaguer left football behind to normalize cannabis on campus

Published on September 30, 2021 · Last updated December 2, 2021

Nadir Pearson’s SMART org works to remove stigmas that stall research, business development, and vibes at colleges nationwide

When Nadir Pearson was deciding what to dub Brown University’s first cannabis advocacy group, he wanted the name to speak for itself. That’s why the Clifton, New Jersey native started with the full acronym SMART, before deciding on “Student Marijuana Alliance for Research & Transparency” for each letter.

“I wanted a name that was gonna defeat the stigma as we say it,” Nadir says. So far, SMART is living up to its name and its founder’s brilliant vision. As the org’s quarterback, Pearson remains focused on passing the power of legal pot to any open movers and shakers in the rapidly-growing field.

Mapping SMART’s national campus network

SMART boasts eight chapters, including Pearson’s alma mater, Brown University, as well as Rutgers University, The University of Texas-Austin, and Cornell, which now has a medicinal plant cannabis chemistry program thanks in part to SMART’s on-campus advocacy. Chapters have also bloomed from Stockton University in New Jersey, which offers a minor in cannabis studies, and at agricultural sciences powerhouse Tuskegee University in Alabama, which is currently studying industrial hemp with support from SMART’s free resources.

Pearson plans to expand the org’s national footprint by enabling cannabis research and opportunities for every campus he can reach. “We want to be a hub for the best information resources and to lower the barrier to entry for folks,” he explains.

“I never did this to make a boatload of money. I did this to help as many people as possible because that’s what this industry needs.”

– Nadir Pearson, SMART founder

A life-changing audible

Pearson was moved to start SMART after leaving Brown’s football team. The lifelong student-athlete suffered a string of concussions and was experiencing side effects he couldn’t ignore.

“I went to some doctors around Brown’s campus who recommend I stop playing football,” he remembers. “I brought that back to my coach and they basically tried to incentivize me to keep playing. They said, ‘We’ve had people who get concussions and we can just strengthen your neck with these exercises.’” Pearson wasn’t persuaded, mainly because he’d already suffered concussions in high school.

“The coaches said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you had concussions? We would have never recruited you!’ And it was one of those moments like, ‘Wow, thanks for making me feel worse about this.’ But, I’m glad I played my cards like I did because you really don’t care.” – Nadir Pearson

From gridiron glory to ganja advocacy

Pearson moved on from the disappointment by learning media production and digital marketing via programs and internships on campus. He also began immersing himself in New England’s budding cannabis scene in his free time.

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After classes, Nadir would scan LinkedIn for Black or Brown faces in the space that he could potentially connect with. He even drove to nearby campuses for 420-friendly events, using his new camera and editing skills to get in the door. The camera was also great bait for getting the attention of the biggest influencers in the room.

“Every time I took pics, they had to get in contact with me to get them,” says Nadir, fondly remembering his clever networking strategy. His first big event was the Freedom Rally in Boston, one of the largest annual gatherings of cannabis enthusiasts in the country.

“I just went, grabbed my camera, and I would hit up vendors for interviews. I asked them all one question: ‘What would you say to someone who says cannabis is bad?'”

Pearson applied the work ethic he’d crafted on the football field to his new passion and saw results quickly. “I knew that anything I can practice I can be good at,” he asserts. And after the success of Colorado’s recreational cannabis bill, he knew it was only a matter of time before other states followed the loot. But even with legalization gaining steam around him, Pearson knew he would need more help to connect the big dots aligning his idiom for SMART.

The pot power circle

As Nadir’s influence grew on campus, it wasn’t enough to rub shoulders with lobbyist and Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) President Kamani Jefferson, who took the SMART leader under his wing after a cold email on LinkedIn. After meeting attorney, entrepreneur, and restorative justice advocate Shanel Lindsay, he had another all-star in his orbit and felt ready for takeoff. Lindsay helped the “Yes I’m For It” campaign’s fight for legalization and social equity measures in Massachusetts, one of a handful of states prioritizing social impact applicants for licenses.

As his power circle expanded, Nadir felt it was time to bring all of the key local players he knew together. With the right team, he knew SMART could push even more research, legislation and normalization forward.

“I wasn’t equipped at the time,” he admits. “I was speaking to all the right people, the medical school at Brown, the deans, but the federal illegality of it all made it difficult.” That’s when he recognized an opportunity to be the bridge between this exciting new space and his school’s prestigious campus.

“I was the only 18 or 19-year old at these events, and I thought, ‘Where’s the under 21 crowd? Oh, they’re not here? Cool, let me go get them.’” His next move was obvious: “I need to make a cannabis association on campus!”

Legitimizing the leaf

SMART officially launched Pearson’s sophomore year after he learned he only needed 10 signatures to get a new club approved. “I made sure that I got 50 people, because I knew it was gonna be a higher hurdle.” From there, he planned to use his “Ivy-league-ness” like a shield from the stigmas that most cannabis users still face.

Early on, SMART worked to “educate, not promote” cannabis normalization and contributed to the Cannabis Center of Massachusetts’ Dr. Marion McNabb’s initiative to conduct qualitative surveys about cannabis that didn’t break federal laws.

In late 2020, the team launched a SMART directory on AirTable, which includes a profile system and resumes to promote new connections as the org continues to host marquee events and local meetups.

“As we start to pair people with jobs and opportunities, we want to be able to have a place to come in and say, ‘OK. Where are the other people from Brown in this network?’ People rely on their college to develop new connections and opportunities. So I saw that directory was a big need. Not just to have chapters, but to have engagement within our community internally.”

The more his vision grows, the SMARTer this founder looks. “Our next steps include a virtual career fair, and the development of more opportunities that educate and connect people around the power of cannabis,” Pearson says.

He appears aligned with his purpose while promoting a new Hybrid box he designed titled DROP #001: NOT FOR EVERYONE at this year’s Hall Of Flowers gathering in California.

Here’s to working smarter and harder.

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Calvin Stovall
Calvin Stovall
Calvin Stovall is Leafly's East Coast Editor.
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