The National Basketball League’s (NBA) banned substances policy has evolved over the years. NBA drug testing policies were born decades ago out of a reaction to a public perception that NBA players had a cocaine use problem. At the same time that the NBA cocaine abuse perception issue was occurring, American society was in the middle of the ramping up of the War on Drugs. Professional sports, along with lawmakers across America, started to institute polices that took a zero tolerance approach towards many substances, cannabis included.
Those cannabis prohibitionist policies continue into today. The only major sports league in America that does not include cannabis on its list of banned substances is the National Hockey League. A national conversation has been occurring recently regarding cannabis reform in professional sports, with retired professional athletes like 18 year NBA veteran Clifford Robinson leading the charge on the reform side. Cannabis prohibition has never worked in professional sports. That was true when cannabis was first prohibited by professional sports leagues, and it’s still true now.
Retired ex-NBA commissioner David Stern made headlines recently when he announced that he now supports cannabis reform in the NBA. This of course is the same David Stern that championed a league cannabis prohibition policy that harmed a number of NBA players (and their families) over years while Stern was the head of the NBA. Stern claims that he had a change of heart because cannabis is now legal in multiple states for recreational and/or medical use. Stern’s endorsement of cannabis reform in the NBA was not coupled with an apology to the players that were suspended during his tenure overseeing the league’s cannabis prohibition policy. It’s worth noting that cannabis has been legal in some form for medical use at the state level in America since 1996 (California), and for adult use since 2012 (Colorado), and that David Stern served as the head of the NBA from 1984 to 2014.
A number of current and retired members of the NBA community have commented on David Stern’s recent statements, including Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. Below are excerpts of an article posted by Detroit Free Press which detail what Stan Van Gundy had to say:
“I think the NBA is going to be in a tough spot down the road – not just medical – but as more states legalize marijuana even for recreational use,” Van Gundy said after Friday’s practice at the Galen Center on the USC campus.
“That doesn’t mean you have to allow it. There’s still some businesses who test for it, but you let people be impaired by alcohol because it’s legal, how are you going to draw that distinction with marijuana in states that it’s legal?
“To me, that’s a tough one.”
The Uncle Cliffy team believes that the NBA is already in a tough spot, and has been since the NBA first started prohibiting players from using cannabis while simultaneously embracing alcohol. Cannabis is 114 times safer than alcohol. Prohibiting cannabis while at the same time embracing alcohol is extremely hypocritical. The NBA’s cannabis policy should be driven by science and compassion, and not the harmful, hypcritical political views of a handful of league officials.
Cannabis reform in the NBA is not as complex an issue as league officials and cannabis opponents are trying to make it out to be. What benefit does cannabis prohibition provide to the NBA? David Stern claimed that one of the reasons the NBA banned cannabis in the first place was that players were coming to league officials and complaining that other players were showing up to games under the influence of cannabis. If that is indeed true, then why prohibit all cannabis consumption by NBA players at all times, with zero exceptions? Why not institute a less-sweeping (and less harmful) policy that prohibits players from showing up to work under the influence of cannabis?
Cannabis can stay in a person’s system for up to 100 days. Just because an NBA player has cannabis in his system does not mean that he was impaired at the time of practice or competition. For that matter, just because an NBA drug test shows that a player has cannabis in his system does not mean that the player personally consumed cannabis. A study from 2015 found that someone who was simply around other people consuming cannabis could test as high as 50 ng/mL, which is more than three times the THC metabolite threshold that the NBA currently has in place.
The NBA needs to balance whatever justification it has for keeping cannabis prohibition in place (valid justifications so far being elusive) against the harms that cannabis prohibition has had on so many players. If it has been determined that an NBA player consumed alcohol in a private setting 100 days ago without any incidents, should that player be suspended? Of course not. So why is it happening with cannabis, especially considering that cannabis is so much safer? This of course doesn’t even touch on the fact that cannabis can provide a number of wellness benefits to players, which is further justification for ending cannabis prohibition in the NBA.
Ending cannabis prohibition in professional sports leagues should not be a tough decision. Cannabis prohibition has failed, and it’s time that leagues took a more sensible approach to cannabis use by players. Studies show that such a move would be welcomed by a strong majority of sports fans. The momentum for cannabis reform in the NBA and other professional sports leagues continues to pick up steam, and that is a great thing. It’s great for players who should no longer have their careers ruined because of cannabis prohibition, for the affected players’ families, and ultimately for the professional sports leagues themselves who should want their athletes competing on the court or field, and not serving a suspension for a beneficial plant that is safer than alcohol and pharmaceuticals.