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Playing Games with Cannabis

Achievement on the court, field, and track can be stressful. And painful. So why are some sports leagues still resisting a popular cure?

Imagine you play for one of the four NBA teams based in California, and you’ve found that consuming a cannabis-infused gummy—purchased legally in one of the state’s many dispensaries—helps you both wind down and ease your aches after a game. You take heart in the fact that the league is notably forward-thinking on matters of the broader culture, and that its commissioner, Adam Silver, has said that players consuming marijuana is worthy of not much more than a shrug.

So you chew away, bliss out, and stop worrying, right?

There’s one problem: On paper, the NBA has one of the stricter policies around cannabis use in professional sports. According to its collective bargaining agreement, the league can sanction its players for testing positive for a lower threshold of THC—15 ng/ml—than other leagues allow. By contrast, the NFL, generally thought to be more conservative, doesn’t flag players unless they turn in a result over 35 ng/ml. And just to add to the confusion: The NBA only suspended one player for violating the cannabis policy in the 2017–18 season, while in 2017 the NFL suspended six.

As sports leagues weigh marijuana use by players, these are puzzling times for pros who don’t want to be cons. Cyclists and triathletes can use CBD, but runners can’t. Hockey players have a free pass, while NASCAR drivers buzzing around race courses in some of the same cities can’t even get a license to compete if they fail a test.

There are reasons for this seemingly helter-skelter approach, says Dr. Marilyn Huestis, senior fellow at the Lambert Institute for the Study of Medical Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University, who has worked on policy for such organizations as the World Anti-Doping Agency. Just like with laws for medical and recreational marijuana, the science around the therapeutic benefits of cannabis is evolving. It was once considered a league-threatening menace like cocaine or steroids and blacklisted accordingly. Now that it’s mainly being used as a training aid, to speed recovery, ease muscle aches, and settle performance anxiety, attitudes are softening. But it’s taking a while for the rulebooks to catch up.

“I’m a person who believes there are some good potential therapeutic uses for cannabis,” Huestis says, “but we don’t have the data that supports that yet.” 

Another factor: Say new research comes out next month that offers a case for targeted cannabis use among athletes. Professional sports leagues typically renegotiate labor agreements that include drug-testing provisions every few years. Major League Baseball’s labor pact runs through 2021. The NBA’s extends to 2023–24, with a mutual opt-out after 2022–23. 

That leaves basketball, among others, in something of a bind. In comments on Chris Haynes’ Posted Up podcast in May, Silver acknowledged as much. “Some guys are smoking pot the same way a guy would take a drink. No big deal. No issue. And I think it’s the reason why it has been legalized in a lot of states. And from that standpoint, if that were the only issue, maybe we’re behind the times in our program.”

He added that if players were over-imbibing, or using cannabis to deal with chronic anxiety—as some had indicated to him they were—then those are issues to address. But otherwise, the policy already runs the risk of being outdated.

Of course, these issues are mirrored by our society as a whole, where in the workplace an employee could fail a test for a legally purchased product, Huestis says. “It’s happening everywhere,” she says, “not just in sports.” 

Where do they stand? Leagues ranked, most conservative to least.

NASCAR: Drivers and crew members are required to pass a drug test 90 days before applying for their NASCAR license. The association can order a drug test anytime for “reasonable suspicion.” Violators are suspended and admitted into the “Road to Recovery” program.

NFL: Players with no previous violations are subjected to one offseason test. During the season, players are randomly selected for a test each week. The first positive test results in a referral to a substance abuse program; a second results in a fine of two game checks; a third costs four game checks. After that, players face suspensions: four games for a fourth violation; five for a fifth, and a full season for a sixth.

NBA: One violation results in entry into the “Marijuana Program,” the second is met with a $25,000 fine, and the third results in a five-game suspension.

WNBA: As in the NBA, marijuana is listed as a “prohibited substance.” According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, players are entered into a “Marijuana Program” for the first violation. A second pop? She enters the program and gets hit with a $3,000 fine. A third means the program and a three-game suspension. 

MLB: The players’ union opposes strict punishment for positive marijuana results and has stood firm against it since 2002. Players are only tested when there is probable cause. 

NHL: Does not list marijuana as a banned substance.