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.
Most professional sports leagues prohibit cannabis use, even when the use is occurring in a state that has legalized cannabis for adult use, and even when the use is medical in nature. One exception would be the National Hockey League which does not include cannabis on its list of banned substances. For the leagues that do prohibit cannabis, each has its own threshold that determines whether or not an athlete has failed the drug test due to cannabis use.
Professional sports leagues are specifically looking for the amount of THC metabolites in an athlete’s bodily fluid (usually urine, but sometimes blood). The National Football League (NFL) sets a threshold of 35 ng/mL. The National Basketball Association (NBA) sets its threshold at only 15 ng/mL. Major League Baseball has the highest threshold of the three major sports leagues, setting the threshold at 50 ng/mL. The NFL had previously set its threshold at 35 ng/mL but increased it in recent years. The Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) is set to increase its THC metabolite threshold starting in October. Per an article written by an anonymous golfer for Golf Digest:
Under the new policy, the amount of marijuana that can be in my system is being raised by a factor of 10. The threshold for failing a test was 15 nanograms but will now be 150 nanograms.
The new policy is definitely an improvement compared to the PGA’s previous policy. To put things into perspective, PGA golfers will now be held to the same THC metabolite threshold as Olympic athletes. Having a policy that is three times as lenient as Major League Baseball, over four times better than the NFL, and ten times better than the NBA league is commendable. However, the PGA policy change does not go far enough in the opinion of the Uncle Cliffy team.
Anything short of a complete end to cannabis consumption prohibition for adults over 21 years old, including professional golfers, is ultimately unacceptable. The new PGA policy does not provide for any exceptions for medical cannabis use. The new policy also doesn’t account for the fact that cannabis is legal for adult use in 8 states now, as well as in our nation’s capital. A large number of PGA tour events are scheduled in legal cannabis states like California and Nevada. If golfers can legally consume in those states, or their home states (if they have legalized), why should they be penalized by the PGA?
At the same time that the PGA has been testing and penalizing golfers for using cannabis, they have been embracing alcohol. Cannabis is 114 times safer than alcohol. How does it make any sense to continue to penalize players for consuming a plant that is 114 safer than a product (alcohol) that the PGA currently promotes for profit? It doesn’t. The PGA’s ‘new and improved’ cannabis testing policy is still incredibly hypocritical, especially when taking into account cannabis’ proven medical benefits. The Uncle Cliffy team commends the PGA on improving its cannabis policy, but hopefully it serves as more of a step in the right direction versus being considered a permanent fix.