2017 was a very big year for the sports cannabis movement. Below are the top 10 sports cannabis stories from this year (in no particular order).
1. Retired professional athletes continue to unite to push for cannabis reform
When retired professional athletes speak out in support of cannabis reform in professional sports they risk becoming victims of the stigma associated with cannabis. Retired athletes risk losing endorsement deals, league appearances, broadcasting opportunities, coaching opportunities, and more when they come out in support of freeing the plant.
Despite those risks, a growing number of retired professional athletes are coming out publicly in support of cannabis reform. Retired National Basketball Association (NBA) players such as Clifford ‘Uncle Cliffy’ Robinson, John Salley, and Al Harrington have been very vocal in 2017 in calling for the NBA to get on the rights side of history. Retired National Football League (NFL) veterans like Eugene Monroe, Ricky Williams, Kyle Turley, Marvin Washington, Boo Williams, Nate Jackson, and Eben Britton have been pushing all year for reform in the NFL.
Retired athletes in other leagues like Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have stepped up big time in 2017 in the name of reform cannabis policies in professional sports. Organizations such as Athletes for Care have helped athletes from all professional sports leagues unite together to amplify their voices in calling for cannabis reform in professional sports.
2. Current athletes call for reform in the NBA and NFL
It takes a lot of courage to call for cannabis reform while still being an active player in a professional sports league. Doing so can result in players being typecast as ‘potheads’ which comes with a significant amount of unfair stigma. Two active players made headlines in 2017 in the NFL and NBA by expressing support for reform.
The first was Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves who expressed support for medical cannabis reform in the NBA. The second was Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan who not only called for cannabis reform in the NFL, but also wore custom cleats as part of the NFL’s #MyCauseMyCleats campaign. Morgan’s cleats supported the pro-cannabis non-profit Realm of Caring.
3. World Anti-Doping Agency announces that UFC fighters and other athletes will not be penalized for using CBD
The World Anti-Doping Agency announced in 2017 that starting next year CBD will no longer be listed as a banned substance, which means that UFC fighters and other athletes that are held to World Anti-Doping Agency’s testing standards can use CBD. CBD has been found to help treat ailments and conditions that many professional athletes suffer from.
In addition to allowing athletes to benefit from the wellness properties of CBD, the decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency is significant because it demonstrates that the World Anti-Doping Agency does not consider CBD to be a performance-enhancing drug.
CBD does provide wellness benefits to athletes but does not enhance athletic performance to such an extent that it warrants being categorized as a performance-enhancing drug. That’s a big deal because many have feared that CBD prohibition in professional sports would continue under the justification that CBD is performance enhancing.
4. Ex-NBA Commissioner David Stern publicly endorses cannabis reform in the NBA
While David Stern was the NBA’s commissioner he suspended players for cannabis use, including multiple suspensions handed down to Clifford Robinson. In an interview earlier this year, conducted by retired NBA player Al Harrington, Stern indicated that he has changed his mind, stating “I’m now at the point where, personally, I think [marijuana] probably should be removed from the ban list. I think there is universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”
The change of heart was certainly welcomed by cannabis advocates and made headlines around the world, but the message did not come with an apology to the NBA players that were victims of David Stern’s NBA prohibition policy. The Uncle Cliffy team is hopeful that a sincere apology will come soon.
5. Dallas Cowboys leadership comes out in support of cannabis reform in the NFL
When it comes to NFL owners, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has always stood out in the crowd due to being so outspoken. When Jerry Jones talks, the sports world listens, including NFL league officials. So it was a very big deal when Jones spoke out in 2017 in support of cannabis reform in the NFL.
Jerry Jones was joined by Cowboys Vice President Stephen Jones, who also expressed support for cannabis reform in the league. NFL owners, league officials, and fans should all want players on the field competing, and not dressed in street clothes on the sidelines due to a cannabis suspension. That’s a point that Jerry Jones hammered home in 2017, and hopefully will continue to express early and often in 2018.
6. Polling shows that it is beyond time for professional sports leagues to end cannabis prohibition
2017 saw a number of polls released which demonstrated a significant amount of support for cannabis reform. 68% of poll participants in one poll expressed that if their favorite sports athlete consumed cannabis that it ‘makes no difference’ to the level of respect that they would have for the athlete. An additional 3% stated that they would have more respect.
Another poll found that an astounding 76.5% of sports media members polled expressed that cannabis prohibition should end in professional sports. A separate poll found that 54% of the public believes that professional athletes should not be prohibited from using cannabis if they live in a state where it is legal. Currently 8 states in America have legalized cannabis for adult use, and 29 states have legalized cannabis for medical use.
7. United States Congressman urges the NBA and NFL to end cannabis prohibition
United States Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has been a champion of cannabis reform in politics for a long time. He spearheaded the effort in Oregon’s Legislature in the early 1970’s to make Oregon the first state to decriminalize cannabis. Blumenauer has either introduced, co-sponsored, and/or endorsed every cannabis reform bill in Congress since he became a Congressman in 1996.
This year Congressman Blumenauer was interviewed by TMZ, and during the interview, Earl Blumenauer stated (in regards to cannabis in professional sports), “It’s much less damaging than the opioids, the painkillers, the shots, the pills … and it’s time professional sports stops punishing them but works with them.” Blumenauer pointed out that 2/3rds of Americans have legal access to medical cannabis and that to ban NBA and NFL players from using medical cannabis is basically treating them like “second-class citizens.”
8. The PGA increases its cannabis drug-testing threshold
Some sports leagues default to the World Anti-Doping Agency standard for cannabis metabolite drug testing thresholds, while other professional sports leagues set their own standards. The MLB has a THC metabolite threshold of 50 ng/mL, the NFL has a threshold of 35 ng/mL, and the NBA has a threshold of just 15 ng/mL.
The Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) increased its THC metabolite threshold ten fold in 2017, raising the limit from 15 ng/mL to 150 ng/mL. To put things into perspective, Olympic athletes are also held to the standard of 150 ng/mL. The increase in the PGA’s testing threshold is not as good as removing the prohibition on cannabis use altogether, but it’s a welcomed step in the right direction.
9. NBA commissioner Adam Silver states that he is ‘open’ to medical cannabis reform in the NBA
In a report from earlier this year, current NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed an openness to medical cannabis reform in the NBA. Silver stated, “My personal view is that it should be regulated in the same way that other medications are if the plan is to use it for pain management. And it’s something that needs to be discussed with our Players Association, but to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we’ll be open to it.”
Commissioner Silver made the comments to members of the media while visiting Israel as part of the Basketball Without Borders program. Adam Silver has stated a number of times in the past that the NBA prohibition policy would remain in effect, but his comments while he was abroad are encouraging and hopefully will lead to constructive conversations about cannabis reform in the NBA in 2018.
10. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell makes inaccurate comments about cannabis to justify league prohibition
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a polarizing figure in the sports world. In the sports cannabis world specifically, he is absolutely on the wrong side of history. In April 2017 Goodell claimed that cannabis has no medical benefits, and went even further to say that cannabis use is harmful to NFL players. He also suggested that allowing NFL players to consume cannabis could make the league liable for ‘negative consequences’ that could occur from cannabis use.
Those statements were quickly debunked by the Uncle Cliffy team. Cannabis provides a number of medical benefits, including benefits specifically for NFL players that suffer from pain and brain injuries. Cannabis also has been shown to reduce opioid consumption, which is something that the NFL should absolutely want to embrace. Goodell’s denial of cannabis’ medical benefits while the NFL simultaneously embraces much more harmful substances like alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs is extremely hypocritical.
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.
A big push has been underway to try to reform cannabis policies in professional sports leagues. Current and retired NFL players have been lobbying hard to try to convince the league to allow players to use medical cannabis under certain conditions. The same can be said about current and retired NBA players, as well as athletes in other leagues that prohibit cannabis.
The Uncle Cliffy team supports such efforts and believes that all suffering players should have safe access to cannabis because it is a safe and effective medicine. However, we also believe that medical cannabis reform does not go far enough. A league policy that continues to prohibit cannabis for adult-use, even when medical cannabis use is allowed in some circumstances, is a policy that will continue to perpetuate institutional racism.
People of color are arrested at a disproportionate rate compared to Caucasian people in America, even though the rate of consumption among races is relatively the same. In cities like St. Louis, African Americans are arrested at 18 times the rate of Caucasians. If a league continues to prohibit cannabis, and an athlete is more likely to be arrested outside of competition, then that same athlete is also that much more likely to be punished for cannabis by the league that employs them. That’s why the Uncle Cliffy team is urging athletes to push for a full end to cannabis prohibition in professional sports. Medical cannabis reform is great, but it does not go far enough to ensure that athletes are not targeted.
The details from the proposals that have been making their rounds in the media describe a scenario in which an athlete will be allowed to have cannabis in their system if the player lives in a state where medical cannabis is legal, and the player is a registered medical cannabis patient. While a number of states have legalized medical cannabis, a number of other states have not. Even in states that have legalized medical cannabis, there are still a number of hurdles that prevent a player from being eligible to become a registered medical cannabis patient.
Qualifying conditions to become a medical cannabis patient vary from state to state. A player that lives in California will be able to qualify fairly easily, whereas a player in Louisiana will have to wait a long time to be able to qualify for the same condition if they ever qualify at all. Many medical cannabis states have yet to issue medical cannabis cards/recommendations to any patients, and it could be quite some time before these states have programs in place that can actually help athletes.
A league cannabis policy that only allows exceptions for registered medical cannabis patients is going to leave a lot of players on the outside looking in. It will create a scenario that results in unfair treatment, with some players being considered to be compliant, and others not, based solely on which state the athlete decides to reside in. If a player lives in a state that does not have a medical cannabis program or does not recognize the condition that the player suffers from, they will be subject to the same disciplinary actions that are currently on the books, even if a player with the same condition that lives in a neighboring state is seen as being compliant. How is that fair? How is that compassionate?
What if a player is arrested in another state for using medical cannabis? How will the league handle that scenario? The use would obviously be medical in nature, but because the player was caught with cannabis in a prohibition state, do they still get punished by the league? Just because a player crosses a state border does not mean that their condition goes away, so this situation is a very real possibility. A medical-only league cannabis policy will help some players, but most players will still be in the same situation that they are in today.
Anything short of ending cannabis prohibition altogether will no doubt lead to selective enforcement. Leagues will be able to effectively pick and choose which players they want to let slide, and which players they want to punish. If a league wants to target a player for non-medical reasons, they will be free to do so. A player that thinks that they are in compliance with league policy will not found out that they are out of compliance until it is too late. That is clearly unacceptable.
Cannabis prohibition does not work. Athletes in professional sports leagues are adults, most of which are over the age of 21. In eight states and Washington D.C. adults over 21 years old can possess and consume cannabis responsibly, so why can’t they do the same when they are employed by a professional sports league? Why are athletes prohibited from consuming a substance that has been found to be 114 times safer than alcohol, alcohol, of course, being widely embraced by professional sports? Why do leagues support the practice of perpetuating institutional racism due to a plant that has been found to help people use fewer prescription drugs, including opioids?
“Medical cannabis reform is a great step in the right direction, and will hopefully help some players, but it does not go far enough. A medical-only policy still leaves the window open for selective enforcement, which is dangerous for players, especially players of color. The only way to eliminate institutional racism via cannabis prohibition in professional sports is to end cannabis prohibition altogether.” said Cliff Robinson.
The Uncle Cliffy team encourages professional athletes to push for the complete end to cannabis prohibition in their respective leagues. The NHL no longer lists cannabis as a banned substance, and the NHL has not suffered in any way as a result. Leagues like the NFL and NBA need to follow the example set by the NHL and treat its players with compassion and respect. More and more states are set to end cannabis prohibition and join the 8 states (and D.C.) that have already legalized cannabis. Professional sports leagues need to do the same and free the plant.
Cannabis consumption of any kind is prohibited in most professional sports, including the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and Major League Baseball (MLB). Cannabis prohibition is a failed policy whether it’s in professional sports or society, and is very harmful to those that have to deal with prohibition’s unfair consequences.
Many upstanding professional athletes have had their careers hindered, or even derailed, because of cannabis prohibition. Athletes should be measure by their physical skills and moral character, and not by the level of cannabinoids in their system. Below are ten reasons why professional sports leagues should get with the times and end cannabis prohibition.
1. Because cannabis is safer than substances that leagues currently embraces
Alcohol and opioid painkillers are used widely by professional athletes, and embraced by professional sports leagues. Cannabis has been found to be 114 times safer than alcohol. Opioid addiction is a major problem in professional sports leagues, due in large part to how often painkillers are pushed on players. As many as 40 people die every day in America from opioid based painkillers. Cannabis has never killed anyone.
2. Because cannabis helps suffering players
Athletes get hurt. If you play sports long enough, you will incur injuries either from contact with another player or surface, or from wear and tear. There’s simply no way around it. Cannabis has been found to be a proven medicine that can effectively treat all types of ailments that athletes suffer from, including and especially chronic pain. Cannabis is one of the most studied substances in America, with over 23,000+ medical papers published about the topic to date. Cannabis is medicine. That’s an undeniable fact.
3. Because consumption will not go away, it’s just pushed into the shadows
Cannabis has been prohibited in professional sports for many years now, yet consumption rates are still significantly high (no pun intended). That’s not a bad thing. Cannabis consumption is going to occur regardless of if it’s prohibited or not, the only difference is that players will be doing it in secret under prohibition, and likely with little to no thought as to what type of cannabis or consumption method is best for their situation. Legalization pulls that consumption out of the shadows, which is an undeniably better approach for players’ health.
4. Because the punishment doesn’t fit ‘the crime’
There are numerous professional athletes, Cliff Robinson included, that have been penalized for making the safer choice to consume cannabis instead of alcohol or pharmaceutical painkillers. These athletes were prevented from competing in a sport that they had dedicated their lives to, all because they chose to consume a plant that has been found to be 114 times safer than alcohol. If the only violation is that an athlete was caught possessing and/or consuming cannabis, a substance that is safer than alcohol and painkillers, how is it justified that the athlete should be prevented from competing? If the athlete was not found to be harming another human in any way, how is justified to penalize them in so harsh a manner as to keep them from coming to work and/or fining them large sums of money?
5. Because it will help combat the opioid epidemic in pro sports
644 NFL players were surveyed in 2010 about opioid use. Per the survey, ‘Over half (52%) used opioids during their NFL career with 71% reporting misuse. Additionally, 15% of NFL misusers currently misused vs. 5% among players who used just as prescribed during their NFL career. Prevalence of current opioid use was 7%–3 times the rate of the general population.’ That is a problem that is found throughout professional sports, and the problem seems to grow with every passing year. Patients using medical cannabis to control chronic pain reported a 64% reduction in opioid use, per a University of Michigan study. If professional sports leagues are serious about their desire to reduce opioid abuse among players, which we here at Uncle Cliffy Sports Cannabis sincerely hope is the case, removing cannabis as a banned substance would significantly help achieve the goal.
6. Because cannabis prohibition is a racist, failed policy
Cannabis prohibition disproportionately affects minorities. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) African Americans are almost four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people, even though consumption rates are roughly the same for both races. In St. Louis specifically, one study found that African Americans were arrested 18 times more often than white people for cannabis. This is tremendously important because many sports leagues treat a legal cannabis issue such as an arrest as grounds for league sanctions. By enforcing cannabis prohibition in that manner, professional sports leagues are perpetuating the systematic racism that is so ingrained in America’s criminal justice system. If leagues truly embraced diversity and equality, they would get on the right side of history and remove cannabis as a banned substance.
7. Because fans support cannabis reform
Gallup has been asking Americans if they support cannabis legalization since 1969. Back then, only 12% of Americans that participated in the survey supported cannabis legalization. That number has since steadily surged to an all-time high of 60% this year. Support is even greater for the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Professional sports leagues need to recognize that reforming cannabis policies in their leagues is not a risky move. After all, polling consistently has shown that most Americans would welcome such a move.
8. Because so many teams are located in states/districts that are legal
There are many NFL, NBA, and MLB teams located in states (and D.C.) that have voted to legalize cannabis for adult use. Those teams are: Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, Golden State Warriors, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings, San Diego Padres, Anaheim Angels, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics, New England Patriots, Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Mariners, Denver Nuggets, Denver Broncos, Colorado Rockies, Washington Redskins, Washington Nationals, Washington Wizards. This of course doesn’t even include states that have legalized medical cannabis, nor does it include other professional sports leagues who have teams or hold competitions in legal states.
9. Because doctors and law enforcement support it
Doctors for Cannabis Regulation is making a big push for cannabis reform in sports. The doctors that help lead the organization are established and very much respected in the medical community. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is an organization comprised of current and retired members of law enforcement who have witnessed first hand the failures of cannabis prohibition, and therefore fight to end cannabis prohibition wherever it may exist. Common reasons that cannabis opponents offer up as to why they oppose cannabis reform (including in sports) is because it’s bad for peoples’ health and it’s illegal. It’s important for sports leagues to know that doctors and cops are among those leading the charge to reform cannabis laws in America, which includes professional sports leagues.
10. The NHL has done it, and the sky is still intact
The National Hockey League (NHL) does not include cannabis on its list of banned substances. This sensible approach to cannabis policy is something that other professional sports leagues should adopt, and is definitive proof that removing cannabis as a banned substance does not result in the downfall of a sport or its players.
image via ThirdMonk.net