Major League Sports are Softening Up on Marijuana Use

With about two thirds of the United States public being in favor of legalizing marijuana, various professional sports league are adjusting to align with the public perception. More and more athletes are turning to medical marijuana in order to combat pain management along with stress related issues resulting from their participation in high-level athletics.

The four major sports leagues, the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL comprise 123 teams and 101 of those teams play in 33 of the states that permit medical marijuana use. The District of Columbia and 11 states have fully legalized adult use. Only recently has the NFL has removed suspensions and fines for player drug tests that are positive for marijuana.

  • Texas: Astros, Cowboys, Mavericks, Rangers, Rockets, Stars, Spurs, Texans
  • North Carolina: Hornets, Hurricanes, Panthers
  • Tennessee: Grizzlies, Predators, Titans
  • Indiana: Colts, Pacers
  • Wisconsin: Brewers, Bucks, Packers

The above l 22 teams that are only ones located in states that still prohibit any type of marijuana use. It makes sense to align the regulations of marijuana in professional sports leagues with the majority of states allowing some form of legal use.

NFL

The NFL previously had a hard-line anti-marijuana policy. In recent seasons, the NFL has been on blast for the alarming results of what many believe to be football-related occurrences of CTE. Although the rate of player concussions is decreasing, the NFL still had over 200 diagnosed cases of concussions last season. In addition, the NFL has been plagued with recent increases of high-profile player retirements like Andrew Luck, Rob Gronkowski, and Luke Kuechly. Various players are citing reasons for ending their careers early that include chronic pain, decreased mental acuity, and general fear for increased degradation of mental health and physical health – something that marijuana arguably helps.

Image Source – NFL Player Health and Safety

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell commented in 2016 that marijuana was not endorsed by the League’s top doctors and has not commented on the subject since. Now, with only six teams left in areas that completely prohibit any marijuana use, it would make sense that the League’s doctors and the Commissioner revisit this issue.

As the NFL negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement a new proposal that players would no longer face the possibility of being suspended from games just for testing positive for marijuana has been incorporated. The changes broadly removed suspensions and fines for players who test positive for marijuana.

Image Source – ESPN.com

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the NFL is expected to delayed its preseason and regular season start. Former NFL player Kyle Turley believes that his marijuana use over 20 years has not only saved his life, but it also provides an essential boost to the immune system especially during a time of a widespread pandemic. Besides scientific potential for a widely under-research drug, Turley stated an important fact of marijuana use, that it helped him get off of powerful pharmaceuticals, including psychological medications that he was taking to help what he believes is CTE.

“He knew I was struggling, That was the first night that year that I got true sleep.’’

Kyle Turley, commenting on his teammate’s suggestion to try marijuana in the 1999 NFL season.

NBA

A recent agreement with the NBA and the NBA Players Association has halted random drug screenings while the league remains on suspension in view of the COVID-19 virus.

Normally, the league has applied a policy that includes six random, unannounced urine drug tests during each season and off-season as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement. These screens would normally test for marijuana among other prohibited substances.

Image Source – ESPN.com

Al Harrington, who played in the NBA for 16 years and is now a prominent owner of the cannabis company called Viola in Detroit believes that the updated policy of the NBA is purely for logistical reasons. Since the NFL’s recent change in policy, he has pondered the question of when will “it be our [the NBA’s] turn?”

“If I didn’t have cannabis, I’d probably be hanging off my roof right now . . .”

Al Harrington, former NBA player to CBS Sports

Six anonymous players a month ago commented that at least fifty percent to as high as eighty-five percent of players use marijuana in some form – buds, edibles, concentrates, CBD oils, lotions, patches, according to NBC Sports. Given that it is estimated that half of the players use marijuana, the NBA has pretty harsh penalties for testing positive.

The first positive test receives no penalty, but the second positive test results in a $25,000 fine. In both cases of a first and second positive test, the violations aren’t announced. In the case of a third violation, a five-game suspension is given and announced, but not as specific to marijuana.

NBC Sports reported that they were only able to find five suspension linked directly to marijuana. With the low number of reported incidents in conjunction with not reporting the violations for the first and second offenses, it is confusing why the NBA still prohibits marijuana and the players are not pushing hard to remove its prohibition.

Possibly the prohibition is merely to maintain a public image for the NBA. Stephen Jackson reported that he smoked marijuana over his entire fourteen-year career. Jackson stated that the drug helped him come down after games and was a better alternative to pain killers.

The NBA and NBPA have had ongoing discussions about their marijuana policy up to the point of the COVID-19 postponement and drug testing moratorium. Commissioner Adam Silver, who is seemingly open to reform, has been quoted several times as saying, “We should follow the science,” a hopeful statement with respect to marijuana use policy in the NBA.

MLB

The MLB has taken a different approach to its policy on marijuana by removing the drug from a category of “drugs of abuse” and substituting other drugs into that category.

In December of 2019, the MLB removed marijuana from their list of “drugs of abuse.” The MLB went further. In addition to removing natural cannabinoids like THC, CBD and marijuana, they added opioids, fentanyl, cocaine and synthetic THC, along with the other substances listed under “drugs of abuse,” which includes banned substances and drugs classified as Schedule I or Schedule II under federal law. The change aligns only four teams in the MLB located in areas that prohibit any form of marijuana use.

Image Source – ESPN.com

Going forward MLB players who have tested positive for marijuana will be subject to evaluation of a board of medical professionals who will prescribe a treatment plan. Only players who refuse the evaluation or do not cooperate with the guidelines of the prescribed treatment will then be subject to discipline.

Image Source – MLB Communications via Twitter

Although players are allowed to use marijuana, they are not permitted to use it before competition or prior to “work-related” events. However, the players are not currently allowed to enter into commercial agreements with marijuana companies.

The league is also going further with the new regulations, teaming with product-testing organization NSF International to analyze and certify legal, contaminant-free CBD products. This partnership allows teams to store the products on individual club premises for ease of access.

NHL

The NHL is unique in that it has two different drug policies. One policy covers performance enhancing drugs like anabolic agents, stimulants, and growth hormones. while the other covers prohibited drugs. The second policy covers “drugs of abuse.”

While the NFL gives a guideline threshold for an amount of a substance to be tested, the NHL does not. This confidential guideline gives discretion to the league to determine what is a “dangerously high level” of THC.

Image Source – ESPN.com

Since less than 10% of the NHL’s teams are located in areas where any form of marijuana is prohibited, and Canada has legalized marijuana nationwide, the league has adapted a very liberal testing policy since 2017. The urine screenings report 100% of all substances and will only flag a player if the THC amount is determined to be “unusually high”.

At the point when a THC level is considered “abnormally high” the test is flagged. The player’s identity is revealed to two doctors, who will contact the flagged player. Those doctors can then recommend the player enter the NHLPA’s joint Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (SABH) Program and develop an individualized treatment plan for the player. Neither the NHL nor the NHLPA is informed that the player has entered the program.

Players are not required to enter the program and are not punished for not enrolling. Only once a player has decided to enter the program can NHL doctors Dr. Lewis and Dr. Shaw have the power to levy fines, suspensions or other penalties if conditions are breached.

“The thing that we’re really looking for is if there’s a guy that has an issue or a problem and he needs help — that’s what we’re trying to capture in that program . . . I do think it has worked very well. We have a tremendous amount of faith in the doctors that run the program. Confidentiality in that program is of the utmost importance.”

Senior NHLPA Executive and former NHL defenseman – Mathieu Schneider

The NFL’s CBA expires after this season and it is widely believed the drug policy will be a major discussion point. In wake of the COVID-19 postponement of the 2019-2020 season, it is possible that changes could further loosen up the league’s current policy on marijuana. ESPN reported that the NFLPA probably will argue for something similar to the NHL’s policy — test for marijuana, but don’t punish for it.

Rationale for Cannabis in Sports

Marvin Washington is VP of business development for Isodiol International Inc. A former eleven-year NFL player, Washington discussed the various positives Cannabis has for professional and amateur athletes alike. The two different chemicals of the Cannabis he explains are THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol).

CBD, a non-psychoactive part of the Cannabis plant, has a lot of exclusive medicinal benefits. CBD is an effective anti inflammatory, particularly within the nervous system with anti-anxiety properties and displays neuroprotective effects. CBD can improve sleep quality and duration without interrupting normal sleep patterns that strong prescription pharmaceuticals do. Lastly, unlike opioids, CBD has no psychoactive or addictive qualities, making the combination of positive effects very beneficial to athletic performance recover.

THC, the psychoactive part of the Cannabis plant, has aided players in their day-to-day lives away from the sport and after their careers. There are numerous accounts of players using THC to aid in sleep and managing CTE-like symptoms after a professional contact-sport career.

As time passes, and leagues like the NFL demand more from their players, it only makes sense that all of the professional sport leagues will allow marijuana use in order to increase the physical and mental health as well as the performance of their players.

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