The National Football League (NFL) currently prohibits cannabis consumption by players with zero exceptions. The NFL’s drug test threshold for cannabis is 35 ng/mL of THC metabolites, which is less than Major League Baseball (50 ng/mL) and far less than the standard that Olympic athletes are held to (150 ng/mL).
Over two dozen states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes beyond just low-THC/high-CBD, and all but four states have reformed their cannabis laws to at least allow low-THC/high-CBD possession in limited circumstances. Nine states have passed measures to legalize cannabis for adult-use. Washington D.C. has legalized cannabis for both medical and adult-use.
Of the four states that still completely prohibit cannabis (Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho, and South Dakota) none of them have an NFL team. Literally, every state and district that NFL teams are located have more progressive cannabis policies than the NFL itself. Why does the NFL continue to cling to cannabis prohibition? Cannabis prohibition provides zero benefits to the NFL and it can be easily argued that cannabis prohibition is bad for the NFL and its players.
By not allowing NFL players to make the safer choice and use cannabis, the NFL is pushing players towards much more harmful substances, most notably addictive opioids. Increased access to cannabis has been associated with significant reductions in opioid use, which is something that the NFL should be embracing given its ongoing issues related to opioid addiction and abuse by current and former players.
Cannabis has been proven to be 114 times safer than alcohol, which is a substance that the NFL widely embraces. In addition to players being allowed to consume alcohol, the NFL is heavily sponsored by the alcohol industry. The NFL’s prohibition on cannabis in the name of ‘player safety’ while they simultaneously embrace alcohol and pharmaceuticals is blatant hypocrisy.
An unfortunate example of that hypocrisy played out recently with the NFL’s denial of a medical cannabis exemption request by NFL running back Mike James. James had applied for a therapeutic use exemption with the NFL which is a process meant to help players that require the use of a banned substance to treat a diagnosed medical problem.
James, who had been taking harmful pharmaceuticals to treat his chronic pain since 2013, found relief after using medical cannabis. He was able to beat his addiction to opioids, which improved his health and quality of life. “I never had something where I could be coherent and still have pain relief.” James said according to CNN.
Now James is faced with three choices. He can either go back to using opioids, continue to use cannabis and risk his career, or he can retire from the NFL. Obviously, none of those options are acceptable. The NFL should have compassion for Mike James and other suffering players and at the least allow them to be exempt from the NFL’s cannabis policy, or even better, to end cannabis prohibition altogether.
The fans of the NFL want to see their players on the field competing, and not serving a suspension because they decided to use a substance that is safer than alcohol and most pharmaceutical drugs. NFL players should only be prevented from competing if they are too hurt to play or they have done something truly wrong. Suspending them for cannabis takes away from the NFL’s product and often ruins players’ careers.
NFL cannabis prohibition perpetuates institutional racism. Cannabis reform in the NFL has the support of fans, players, and even members of sports media according to polling. The NFL needs to care more about the well-being of its players and get on the right side of history. Cannabis is medicine and cannabis prohibition is a failed policy, both inside and outside of NFL stadiums. Shame on the NFL for denying Mike James’ request and a huge hat tip to James for having the courage to speak out. Free the plant!