Professional sports leagues each have their own cannabis testing policies. Each individual policy can be evaluated based on two factors – what the threshold is for failing a drug test for cannabis, and what the punishment is for a failed test. Because of the two different factors, it’s not exactly straightforward to answer the question ‘which professional sports league has the harshest cannabis policy?’

From a purely testing threshold standpoint, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has the strictest policy with a THC metabolite threshold of 15 ng/mL. To put that into perspective, Olympic athletes are held to a threshold of 150 ng/mL (10 times the NBA threshold). THC metabolites indicate cannabis use and can stay in a person’s system for as long as 100 days after cannabis consumption. The NBA starts suspending a player after a third offense, with a $25,000 fine for a second failed test. NBA players are subjected to four random drug tests a season, which is more than any of the other major American professional sports leagues.

From a punishment standpoint, the designation for harshest policy would go to the National Football League (NFL) which puts a player in a substance-abuse program after one failed test but then starts suspending the player after a second failed drug test. The NFL’s current THC metabolite threshold is 35 ng/mL but was 15 ng/mL until fairly recently.

Major League Baseball has a threshold of 50 ng/mL but only suspends players that “flagrantly disregard” the league’s cannabis policy. The least-strict cannabis policy among America’s professional sports leagues is the National Hockey League (NHL), which does not list cannabis as a banned substance. But, that does not necessarily mean that NHL players cannot be penalized for cannabis use, as described by retired NHL veteran Riley Cote in an article for SportsNet:

According to Cote, a player who tests positive for a hard “street drug” such as ecstasy or cocaine will likely have to enter the league substance-abuse program for about a month. But a player who tests positive for THC, the primary intoxicant obtained from cannabis, will only receive a call. Either way, the test results aren’t revealed publicly, whereas a positive result for performance-enhancing drugs would be.

That approach, Cotes says, keeps most positive tests for marijuana use under wraps.

“Nobody I’ve heard of has tested positive strictly for THC and been thrown in the substance-abuse program,” says Cote. (Otherwise, Cote adds, he’d have spent a fair share of his NHL days in the program.)

The NHL’s policy is a much more sensible approach compared to other professional sports leagues. However, that’s not to say that it cannot be improved upon. For starters, the policy is extremely subjective. NHL players do not normally get anything more than a phone call for testing positive for THC metabolites, but that’s not to say that it will automatically always be the case. Some chance still exists that a player could be thrown into a substance-abuse program, even if the cannabis use does not affect the player’s performance in competition, which is obviously unacceptable.

If it’s true that NHL players are not punished solely for cannabis use, why not have a policy that completely reflects it? In failing to do so, the NHL can target players for punishment as the league sees fit. Even the slight chance that selective enforcement could occur should be completely eliminated.

What would be even better than codifying the previously described NHL policy improvement would be if the NHL actually embraced cannabis as a medicine. Cannabis could help NHL players deal with a number of ailments, as described by Riley Cote in the same article for SportsNet:

“It’s all about increasing quality of life. It’s about helping these guys wake up the next morning, where they can feel functional enough, good enough, [that] they can enjoy their family and not worry about the pain and anxiety — that vicious cycle that generally leads to mental health issues.”

The NHL’s cannabis policy is good, but it’s not as good as it could/should be. The NHL currently has 7 franchises in Canada, a nation which is expected to legalize cannabis in the middle of next year. Multiple NHL teams are located in American states that have legalized cannabis for adult and/or medical use. The NHL, along with all other professional sports leagues, need to get on the right side of history and end cannabis prohibition. If a player cannot be penalized in society for cannabis use, they should not be penalized by their professional sports league employer.