More than 50 teams in major league baseball, basketball, hockey and football now play in states where cannabis is legal recreationally, and at least that many more are in places where it is legal for medical purposes. That’s more than 80 percent of all professional athletes. It’s now easier to name the states where it’s still a crime—Indiana, Georgia, N. Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin—than where it’s legal.
American views on cannabis continue to evolve—about two-thirds of people in all polls these days say they are in favor of legalization and 90 percent favor medical marijuana — players are no different. They have become more open about their cannabis use — some for pain and injury relief, some for pleasure — and they have increasingly petitioned league officials to end the bans, fines and suspensions that come with that use, especially when being used as an alternative to the opiates often prescribed for those conditions. Whether cannabis enhances or diminishes athletic performance is still an open question, but leagues and teams have begun reacting to players’ concerns and anxieties in different ways.
The number of players that openly admit their own use and are calling for change continues to grow. We’ll never know what Ricky Williams, who was busted for cannabis so many times he finally retired from the NFL, was capable of as a player. But today, he’s a fierce advocate and operates a cannabis-friendly gym in San Francisco. Retired Denver Bronco Nate Jackson and ex-NBA great Bill Walton have been outspoken in their calls to allow cannabis to be used by players to help with pain and recovery.
Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon says that medical marijuana has been the key to him being able to deal with pain and other issues associated with the many concussions he endured as a player. And ultramarathoner Avery Collins told me that cannabis does more for post-race recovery than anything else he’s tried. “I mean it in a sense that when you come home from a 30-mile run, your legs still think you’re running and the blood is still flowing fast,” he said. “Whether eating an edible, using a topical, or smoking a bowl, it just slows me down back to normal, real life.”
The most progressive steps so far have been taken by the National Hockey League. About nine in 10 players live in legal cities — including seven in Canada, where cannabis is legal everywhere — and the NHL is beginning to act more like our northern neighbor, which treats addiction and drug use as a health issue rather than a legal one. The league is adamant about banning performance-enhancing substances, but it now draws the line at cannabis.
The latest collective-bargaining labor agreement between the National Football League and its players included some positive changes. Testing will only occur during the first two weeks of training camp, and the THC level for positive results was raised. The agreement now also allows players to use cannabis during the offseason without penalty.
Major League Baseball’s new drug policy, implemented in December, added testing for opioids, cocaine, fentanyl and synthetic cannabis, but opted for treatment for those found using cannabis and cocaine and took all cannabinoids off its drug-abuse list. Cannabis will be treated much like alcohol in that players will no longer be punished for merely testing positive for THC. “Going forward, marijuana-related conduct will be treated the same as alcohol-related conduct under the Parties’ Joint Treatment Program for Alcohol-Related and Off-Field Violent Conduct, which provides for mandatory evaluation, voluntary treatment and the possibility of discipline by a Player’s Club or the Commissioner’s Office in response to certain conduct involving Natural Cannabinoids,” MLB said in a press release.
Players in the National Basketball Association have long been known as weed users. The NBA no longer tests during the offseason, but a positive test still automatically means the player goes into a marijuana treatment program, with a second positive carrying a $25,000 fine. “One of the things I’ve been talking more about in the last year is mental wellness of our players,” Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN.
And look, some guys are smoking pot just in the same way a guy would take a drink. And it’s like whatever, ‘Smoking pot, I’m just using it to come down a little bit or I just want to relax.’ No big deal. No issue.” Silver added that some players struggle with cannabis use, which is why the league has a cannabis program.
We’re still a long way from cannabis being no big deal or no issue in sports, but these changes are all welcome and significant. Hopefully, as we return to the new sports normal, more cannabis restrictions will be lifted. Meanwhile, let’s play ball.