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.
After UFC 202 Nate Diaz shocked many people, especially members of the media, by using a vaporizer pen during his post-fight interview. Nate pointed out that the vaporizer pen cartridge he was consuming contained cannabidiol (CBD), and touted its benefits. “It’s CBD,” Diaz said at the time. “It helps with the healing process and inflammation, stuff like that. So you want to get these for before and after the fights, training. It’ll make your life a better place.” CBD, which is one of dozens of cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, has been proven to help treat all types of ailments by various studies and personal testimonies.
CBD does not cause euphoria like its cannabinoid counterpart tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Because it does not induce euphoria, CBD has become more and more popular with people (including athletes) that want to experience cannabis’ medical benefits, but without the ‘high’ that comes with consuming THC. All but four states in America have passed cannabis reform measures that are at least CBD-specific. Most sports leagues have been slow to recognize CBD’s benefits, and prohibit CBD along with all other parts of the cannabis plant. One noteworthy exception would be the National Hockey League, which does not list cannabis (or any of its parts) on its banned substances list.
On Friday the World Anti-Doping Agency, which sets the drug testing standards that organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) follow, announced its list of prohibited substances for 2018. One substance was exempt from the list – CBD. Per MMA Fighting:
Beginning Jan. 1, Diaz could vape CBD in the pre-fight press conference if he wanted to, since it will no longer be prohibited at all.
“Cannabidiol is no longer prohibited,” WADA wrote on its website. “Synthetic cannabidiol is not a cannabimimetic; however, cannabidiol extracted from cannabis plants may also contain varying concentrations of THC, which remains a prohibited substance.”
On some levels this is a significant move by an agency that has long opposed cannabis in all forms. But the policy change is likely to prove to be largely symbolic from a functioning standpoint. In order for CBD to provide the most amount of benefit, it needs to be coupled with THC, a process known as the ‘entourage effect.’ In layman’s terms, cannabinoids from the cannabis plant work together to help each other travel throughout the human body. Isolated CBD or THC on its own will not be as effective. Combining one with the other, and other cannabinoids via whole-plant extractions, provides the most benefit to the person consuming the cannabis.
So in order for CBD to provide the necessary level of benefit in most cases, it would need to come from the whole cannabis plant. That means that some THC would be involved, putting the athlete at risk of failing a drug test. Athletes can certainly use CBD on its own, but it will not provide as much benefit as if they had consumed CBD combined with other cannabinoids. For some athletes the new policy will be enough, but for most athletes, the policy change by the World Anti-Doping Agency will be more symbolic than anything.
One significant takeaway from the policy change is that the agency does not view CBD as being a performance enhancer, at least not enough to cross the threshold to constitute CBD being a substance that is a performance enhancer as it relates to athletic competition. The new policy that UFC fighters will be bound by is much more progressive than the policies that professional football, basketball, and baseball players are bound to. The National Football League, National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball still prohibit all forms of cannabis, although it’s worth pointing out that cannabis tests in those leagues only look for THC metabolites in players’ systems, not CBD metabolites. Hopefully this policy change is a step in the right direction rather than a permanent change, and will be followed by more comprehensive reforms.
Texas is home to some of the harshest cannabis laws in the country. Possession of 4 grams of concentrated cannabis is a felony in Texas, punishable by up to twenty years in prison and a $10,000 fine. To put that into perspective, an adult over 21 years of age in Oregon can possess up to one ounce (28 grams) of concentrates with no penalty at all. Oregon voters legalized cannabis in 2014.
The Lone Star State’s tough approach to cannabis can also be found in testing requirements for mixed martial arts fighters (MMA). The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) official anti-doping partner is the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which has a THC metabolite threshold of 150 ng/mL. Most states have adopted a similar threshold, but not the State of Texas. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) has a threshold of only 15 ng/mL.
This is significant for MMA fighters who fight in Texas, and are therefore held to the lower TDLR standard. Curtis Blaydes and two other MMA fighters found out about that the hard way when they were recently fined $1,000 for testing positive for cannabis via a TDLR drug test. Mr. Blaydes and another fighter also had their wins overturned after competing and winning at UFC Fight Night 104, which did not sit well with Curtis Blaydes for obvious reasons.
“I made a mistake, but in my eyes, I feel like USADA is the only commission I should have to honor, and that’s the one I did honor. I didn’t fail their test. I feel like that’s the only thing that should count, but it is what it is. I did fail the Texas commission test, so I will take whatever the punishment is, even though I don’t agree with the punishment. But that’s what it is, they’re going to take away the win. I still know I won the fight. There’s video. Everyone else knows I won the fight. It’s not controversial, like the Kevin Lee and Chiesa fight. It’s nothing like that, so I’m over it.” Blaydes said according to MMA Fighting.
“It’s an old rule. It’s archaic. It’s just not very smart. I live in Denver, so things are different in Denver, and things are different here now (in Las Vegas). I just found out that they legalized marijuana here, I didn’t even know that. I just found out, so everyone else, it feels like they’re more forward thinking, they’re changing and evolving their rules, and I feel like Texas isn’t. They’re probably the last ones to get with it.” Blaydes went on to say in the article.
A 15 ng/mL threshold for THC metabolites is ridiculous, which is why the USADA has a threshold that is 10 times greater than that. It is feasible that a person could test positive for cannabis at that low of a threshold without even consuming it. One study found that someone could fail a drug test at a rate of three times greater than the Texas threshold for simply being around other people that are consuming cannabis.
The National Football League (NFL) had a threshold of 15 ng/mL in years past, but has since raised the threshold to 35 ng/mL, which is still too low. Ultimately athletes should not be tested for cannabis at all, regardless of what state they are competing in. The National Hockey League (NHL) has removed cannabis from its list of banned substances, and it has not been negatively impacted in any way as a result.
Professional athletes can legally consume cannabis for recreational purposes in eight states and Washington D.C., with more states virtually guaranteed to follow suit by the end of the decade. The Department of Licensing and Regulation is so far behind the times it is unreal. It is beyond time that the State of Texas, both inside and outside of the sports world, ended prohibition for responsible adults and got on the right side of history.
If you are familiar with UFC history, then you are familiar with the name ‘Big’ John McCarthy. John refereed his first UFC match in UFC 2. For the record, UFC 220 is scheduled for this December. That doesn’t include all of the non-numbered UFC events, as well as all of the other mixed martial arts (MMA) events and organizations that are out there these days. MMA is becoming more and more popular every year. John McCarthy has been a MMA icon for all of those years, spanning over two decades.
John McCarthy has seen his fair share of injuries, especially injuries to the head. It comes with the territory when a victory potentially involves knocking an opponent out. More MMA fights end in submissions than knockouts, but even if a fighter is not knocked unconscious does not mean that the repeated blows to the head don’t cause harm. Just as in the NFL and other sports, MMA fighters need to be proactive with their brain health and need to be educated on what works. Multiple studies have shown that cannabis can be helpful for treating brain injuries, but more research is needed. That’s a point that John McCarthy hammered home in a recent interview with Vegas Cannabis, and excerpt of which is below via MMA Weekly:
Thanks to researchers like Professor Yosef Sarne of Tel Aviv University, we’ve discovered that cannabis may help prevent long term brain damage by administering THC before or shortly after the injury. In fact, Israel Defense Force (IDF) practitioners administer CBD or low-dose THC as a first-line of treatment to IDF soldiers. Is that something that could possibly help a fighter who has developed Traumatic Brain Injury or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy? I don’t know for sure, but why in the world would we not explore the possibility,”
“I think every athlete under the care of a physician should be able to discuss with their physician what type of medication is best for their particular style of life and ailments. I think it is silly to say that marijuana is a dangerous drug, while opiates and opioids are being used all the time and under medical supervision are considered safe. Any medication can have side effects, but we should always be open to finding better ways to handle some of the aches, pains and problems that come with pushing your body to the point of it breaking down. I can remember commercials from when I was a kid that talked about all of the health benefits associated with smoking cigarettes. Is that what we say today? We should always be striving to learn and evolve. We should never hold onto old and outdated methods just because that’s the way we did it then,” he said.
Part of the stigma that surrounds medical marijuana is the falsehood that people using it just want to get high. McCarthy’s wife has benefited from marijuana’s medicinal properties to treat her lupus. She currently uses medical marijuana, and it isn’t to get high.
“She started using cannabis to help her lupus in 2016, so it has not been a long time, but we can really see how it makes a difference with her headaches and her fatigue,” said McCarthy.
John McCarthy stated several times in the interview that he has never consumed cannabis, that he doesn’t support fighters being under the influence during competition, and that more needs to be known about the cannabis plant. But McCarthy is clearly in support of cannabis reform and thinks that prohibitions on cannabis are ridiculous given the fact that fighters can consume as many pharmaceutical painkillers as they want. Fighters can also consume alcohol, a substance that has been found to be 114 times more harmful than cannabis, but is widely embraced by MMA companies at their events. MMA fighters could benefit from using cannabis for wellness purposes. They are adults, and should be treated as such. Judge them by what they get done in the octagon, and not by how much THC they have in their system.