When it comes to pro sports, cannabis has remained firmly on the bench. Banned outright by most North American leagues, players today face stiff punishments and public backlash if they speak out or test positive for cannabis.
Notwithstanding, more and more pro and former pro athletes are breaking their silence to promote the plant for pain and injury management, as well as for improving players’ mental wellness. Where do major league sports currently stand on cannabis usage and permittance? And more importantly, how is it changing? Here are some key factors and players in the pro-athletic cannabis movement.
Cannabis in sports: a background
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decides how athletes are tested for drugs on a global scale. Currently, a substance must meet any two of the three criteria to be considered on their prohibited list: It must have the potential to enhance performance, it must represent a potential health risk to the athlete, or it must violate the spirit of sport.
While the WADA still establishes THC as a prohibited substance, it’s become more lenient in the last decade. In 2013, the WADA raised the limit allowed in an athlete’s system from 15 to 150 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. Five years later, they removed cannabidiol (CBD), from the list, which means athletes may now use CBD formulations with no THC.
Keep in mind, the WADA is a governing body for things like the Olympics and international sports. Each major league sport has its own set of rules, too.
What are the rules for major league sports?
While 11 American states have legalized recreational use (and 33 other states for medicinal purposes), all major pro sports leagues in the U.S. still punish players for cannabis use. One notable exception is the National Hockey League, which doesn’t include cannabis on its list of banned substances. As long as your public conduct is not detrimental to the league (i.e. arrests, DUIs) you can essentially light up all you want if you’re a pro hockey player.
Cannabis is banned in the National Football League, but quite often officials look the other way. It takes two positive tests for the drug before a suspension is issued, and the testing window itself is quite short—once in the spring, from April through August. Once a player passes that test, he isn’t tested again for another year.
“We always used to call it like the ‘dummy test’ because you know when the test is going to happen,” former running back Tiki Barber told FOX Business. “So just be clean and as long as you’re not in the program, you can probably get away with it, even if they technically know that it’s happening.”
Today, Barber is an outspoken cannabis advocate. Though he’s not a marijuana smoker, he uses CBD-infused products to manage pain from his football playing days. He joins a long list of current and former players who use cannabis therapeutically.
Athletes speaking out
Former running back Tiki Barber is an outspoken cannabis advocate.
Via Web Summit on Flickr
Football takes an enormous physical and emotional toll on its players. Plagued with serious injuries and lifelong pain—sometimes resulting from head trauma—pro athletes are desperate for relief. Responding to a project by The Bleacher Report, which looked at players’ attitudes towards cannabis, former offensive tackle Ryan Clady explained, “Every weekend is like a car wreck, and you start feeling better about Friday or Saturday.”
With their careers no longer in jeopardy, retired pro-football players Shaun Smith, Ryan Clady, Bo Scaife, and John Moffitt, along with former pro-basketball stars like Matt Barnes, Al Harrington, Cuttino Mobley, and Kenyon Martin, were able to speak candidly about their cannabis use in the groundbreaking report. Their admissions were eye opening.
Former offensive tackle Ryan Clady credited cannabis for helping him recover physically after games .Via broncos_canada on Instagram
After tearing his ACL three times, former NFL tight end Bo Scaife says he was on a prescription-drug routine, taking pharmaceuticals regularly for pain when he switched to cannabis. "I think people overlook that this is a medicine—and it's a healing medicine—and the rhetoric hasn't always supported that,” he says.
Former NFL offensive tackle Kyle Turley says he began experimenting with cannabis after reading a study that showed a cannabinoid could protect mice from brain injury. Today, he credits cannabis for saving his life during a suicidal period. Turley says he hasn’t taken any kind of pill—no anti-inflammatories, no opiates, and no antidepressants—since 2015. Convinced football deteriorated his brain, he describes cannabis as “unbelievably powerful and better than any psych medication I was ever given,” adding, “It gave me my life back.”
Former National Basketball Player player Kenyon Martin estimates “85% of the league” smoked marijuana during his career.
By Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USA - Kenyon Martin, CC BY-SA 2.0
One of the most famous cannabis users in football was Ricky Williams, who endured a suspension, fine, and public fallout after testing positive in 2003. Suffering from social anxiety disorder and borderline personality disorder, he treated his illnesses with antidepressants but was forced to discontinue treatment due to undesirable side effects. Today, he manages his symptoms with cannabis and is now even producing a personal line of cannabis products.
These players aren’t outliers. Indeed, former National Basketball Player player Kenyon Martin estimates “85% of the league” smoked marijuana during his career, while Martellus Bennet guessed the NFL was even higher, at “about 89%.”
Cannabis and sports: no clear winner…yet
Anabolic steroids, hormones, stimulants, and other performance-enhancing drugs are clear no-nos for professional athletes. But most experts believe the benefits of cannabis are mainly therapeutic. “It’s certainly not a performance-enhancing drug,” concedes NBA Commissioner Silver, who admits the plant has medicinal qualities and opportunities for pain relief.
Nonetheless, the NBA, NFL, and MLB continue to bar players from medicating with cannabis, including CBD, despite it being approved by WADA.
Thankfully, shifts are underway. In May, the NFL and NFL Player association announced they’d be cooperating in studying the use of cannabis as a pain management tool for players. It would include two areas of research—one for pain management and the other for mental wellness—and would also review existing team policies and practices for the use of prescription medication and painkillers.
As former wide receiver Grant Mattos told Playboy before the 2018 Super Bowl, “Opioids nearly killed me. Cannabis, and a lot of love from friends and family, pulled me out of a very dark place when the NFL dream died.”
Four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana added: “Legalization is picking up steam on a global level and I feel like now is the time to spread information about the curing capabilities of this plant. As with any medicine, increased accessibility comes with the need for education.”