Professional Sports Organizations' Stance on Cannabis
Updated: Dec 21, 2019
The federal prohibition of cannabis has made it very difficult for accredited research universities and private research corporations to conduct meaningful research on the benefits and effects of cannabis. Despite this lack of historical research, the proliferation of state approved cannabis programs has led to the expansion of approved research into cannabis. Recent studies have found that cannabis can be effective at alleviating symptoms associated with pain, cancer, muscle spasticity, amongst a number of other treatments. As both anecdotal and scientific support of the health benefits of cannabis become more readily accessible, more and more people are ditching their prescriptions, or at least limiting their intake, and turning to cannabis to improve their conditions… including professional athletes!
For years former athletes have come out about their cannabis use to help manage pain and inflammation associated with the physical exertion and impact of high-level sports, as opposed to traditional opioid medications. Interestingly, many professional sports leagues continue to ignore cannabis’ potential health benefits and continue to punish athletes who are caught with cannabis in their system, regardless of the legal status of cannabis in the home state of the team and/or athlete.
The varying stances of professional sports leagues and their respective Players’ Unions provides interesting perspective into how employers and unions treat employee/athlete use of quasi-banned substances. These organizations and leagues represent multi-billion dollar industries that have a vested interest in the health and safety of their athletes as well as in keeping their athletes out of legal trouble and on the field. Each professional sports organization deals with cannabis differently – some only test for cannabis in order to target substance abuse so they can offer support services as opposed to suspending or fining the athlete. Below we have provided a brief summary of the current cannabis use policies of some of America’s largest sports organizations.
The National Hockey League (NHL) has the most laid-back stance regarding cannabis use by athletes participating in the league. Currently, the NHL does not list cannabis as a banned substance, thus athletes are not reprimanded if their use if discovered. Their stance is to not punish the athletes; they simply test in order to identify its use and offer help to those who need it. The league randomly tested only a third of the athletes in a given season and those that do come back positive can be referred to enter a drug program which will remain confidential to the league. However, athletes do not have to enter the program if they choose not to.
Major League Baseball (MLB) takes a slightly more punitive stance on cannabis use in the league than the NHL. While the MLB does not test for cannabis regularly, they may do so if they have reasonable cause. Athletes who are tested and have more than 50 nanograms of THC in their system may be subject to a treatment plan and further fines for subsequent failed tests. Players are typically only suspended when they flagrantly disregard the rules, or the league deems them a threat to fellow players’ safety.
The other two major sports associations, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL), are the most strict when it comes to cannabis use. The NBA tests athletes 3 times during the season and twice during offseason. NFL players are only tested in preseason and rookies or veterans are subject to pre-employment testing when entering into a new contract with the NFL club. However, both leagues have similar punishments for the first and subsequent offenses including: mandatory enrollment into a marijuana/substance use program for the first offense, a fine for the second, and then game suspensions for further violations.
In addition to strict policies relating to use, most of these leagues and their associated players’ unions also prohibit players from partaking in the ownership of companies that participate in the cannabis industry. This second restriction has the result of preventing professional athletes from making investments into the cannabis industry. The consequence of this is that athletes cannot invest their earnings in a way that allows them to support themselves after their playing careers; it also results in many athletes making ill-advised under the table investments that jeopardize their careers as well as the cannabis companies that they entrust their funds to.
As federal legalization efforts and research increase and more states develop legal cannabis programs, there needs to be a shift in how these organizations treat cannabis both as a potential treatment and alternative source of income for their athletes. Many former athletes have been advocating for cannabis use and less strict league policies, but until the federal government takes a lighter stance it is likely that these organizations, with the NHL being the exception, will continue to act paternalistically. Unfortunately, until there are policy updates, many professional athletes will continue to be unjustly reprimanded for not only entrepreneurial cannabis ventures, but also, more importantly, for employing natural cannabinoid remedies for pain and inflammation.
It is understandable that these leagues are trying to protect their assets (ie: players), but the unnecessarily restrictive nature of these outright prohibitions against use and investment directly impact players’ freedom of choice. Further, archaic stances against cannabis use for analgesic, pain, and inflammation purposes pressures athletes into treating pain and inflammation with synthetic opiates – chemicals that are plaguing the United States with addiction, over-prescription, and overdose problems. With the ever-changing legal atmosphere surrounding cannabis and a steadily increasing amount of legitimate medical research, it will be interesting to see how these leagues and their players’ unions adapt their positions regarding athletes and cannabis.
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