Professional sports continues to play catch-up with weed laws

Bailey Shepherd

marijuana related items
Various marijuana products sit on a table April 10, 2018. (Matt Tackett | Collegian)

Throughout the four major professional sports organizations, 101 out of 123 professional teams play in regions where marijuana is legal in some regard, whether that be for medicinal or recreational use. That makes up for about 82% of all professional sports teams across the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, which includes a few teams in the NHL and MLB from Canada, where marijuana has been legal since 2018.

The overall health of athletes is much more important than preserving draconic perceptions surrounding the use of a substance that could ultimately be used to better the recovery and well-being of those athletes.” 

Since Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2012, the positive shift in public opinion surrounding the use of the drug has been surprisingly quick.

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However, in the world of sports, viewing marijuana in a positive light is still contentious. I remember how scandalous it seemed when arguably the greatest Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, was raked through the media mud for hitting a bong at a party at the University of South Carolina in 2009.

Until 2019, the only professional sports league that didn’t include marijuana on its list of banned substances was the NHL. The league’s policy in handling positive marijuana tests is relatively similar to the way they treat alcohol; players will not be punished for testing positive for marijuana but may be entered into a substance abuse program if cases become severe. 

The MLB was the first major organization to revert its position on marijuana and implement new rules that removed it from the organization’s list of banned substances. Their new policy mirrors the NHL’s. Under the MLB’s previous policy, positive tests resulted in mandatory treatment, which was accompanied by up to a $35,000 fine if a player refused to comply, but this will no longer be the case. 

Most recently, the NBA also eased its marijuana restrictions in December 2020. Citing the pandemic, the league insisted that not testing for marijuana in the bubble limited unnecessary contacts, implying the league no longer believes it’s necessary to test players for marijuana — another win for weed.

One of the most notable moves coming from a league regarding marijuana testing came from the NFL on March 15, 2020. Under a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, players who test positive for marijuana will no longer face suspension from games, which is a huge step away from the league’s old policy. On top of that, the minimum amount of marijuana in a player’s system required to result in a positive test was increased significantly. 

That being said, multiple positive tests will still lead to players being entered into treatment programs, but it’s a step in the right direction. Legendary players like Randy Moss have been advocating for the league to update its policy as early as 2016, with Moss being quoted saying, “The NFL just needs to loosen up and let everybody live.”

Yes, as Moss said, we do need to let athletes “live” but maybe not for the reason you’re thinking. Moss is just one of many advocates who believe there is a recovery benefit for athletes in using marijuana and its derivative substances, particularly cannabidiol, or CBD.

CBD is a non-psychoactive derivative of hemp and has been proven to have an anti-inflammatory effect, which is why it has garnered so much praise among athletes. Olympian gold medalist and Colorado State alum Amy Van Dyken credits CBD as an integral part of her recovery from an ATV accident in 2014 that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

UFC fighter Nate Diaz has also been a huge advocate for the recovery benefits of CBD and marijuana. Diaz has never been shy from public attention, and in 2019, he received widespread media attention when he lit a joint at an open UFC practice to promote the CBD company he and his brother founded

Leagues have taken notice of the potential benefit of these substances, particularly the UFC and the MLB. The UFC has taken the stance that using CBD and marijuana for recovery and relaxation is a lot less detrimental to the health of athletes than the use of opioids and prescribed painkillers. The MLB is more explicit in its discouragement of opioids, as their new drug policy states that while athletes will not be tested for marijuana, they will be tested for opioids.

This is where the conversation needs to be directed when discussing marijuana use in professional sports. Athletes should not be punished for utilizing natural derivatives when it’s not even performance-enhancing in nature, especially when you consider the use of opioids and painkillers are still allowed.

The overall health of athletes is much more important than preserving draconic perceptions of a substance that could ultimately be used to better the recovery and well-being of those athletes. 

Bailey Shepherd can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @B_Sheps.