Athletics: An Evolution in Professional Sports
Professional athletes are driving change in sports league policies regarding cannabis use.
Cannabis was a big winner in November 2020, with several additional states voting in favor of legalization. In 15 states and Washington, D.C., it’s now legal to buy and consume adult-use cannabis; medical cannabis is approved for legal use in 36 states, plus Washington, D.C. Population data indicate that 1 in 3 Americans now lives in a state where adult-use cannabis is legal.
Across professional athletics leagues, this translates to more than 80% of National Hockey League (NHL), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL), and Major League Baseball (MLB) playing in states where any player can legally purchase and consume adult-use or medicinal cannabis. However, each league has handled this increasing popularity and legality differently, with some being more progressive than others.
The primary issue associated with cannabis use in professional athletics is that cannabis is still federally illegal, says John P. Harloe, JD, PhD, general counsel for Balanced Health Botanicals, a producer of hemp-derived CBD health and wellness products. CBD has only recently been accepted by professional sports leagues. In 2017, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its list of banned substances. Now, thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, Harloe notes, CBD is federally legal. Professional athletes in the United States can now use CBD without legal repercussions, but there are still concerns and, in some cases, punishment, for those testing positive for THC.
“The issue that most sports organizations seem to have in common is the concern about players testing positive for THC from full-spectrum CBD products,” Harloe explains. Some of the sports leagues have been more progressive in moving away from punishment and toward acceptance as legal adult use has become more widespread, and emerging research demonstrates health benefits of cannabis related to inflammation, chronic pain, and anxiety. Professional league policies for cannabis use differ depending on the sport, such as in the following cases:
- The NHL has been most progressive in accepting cannabis use—no surprise given that more than 90% of its teams are in states where cannabis is legal for medical and or adult use. The league also has eliminated punishment for positive THC testing. If a player shows “abnormally high levels” of THC in blood tests and signs of substance abuse, the league approaches it as a health care issue, as it does alcohol use.
- The NFL has eliminated suspensions for positive THC testing and raised the threshold for positive tests. Prior testing was conducted over the entire football season; now, THC testing is limited to the first two weeks of training camp. As in the NHL, the NFL has moved away from punishment and now handles THC use as a health care issue if there are signs of substance abuse.
- The MLB recently removed cannabinoids, including THC, from its list of banned substances; synthetic cannabis remains banned. Excessive cannabis use is treated similarly to excessive alcohol use now. While Major League players have previously been tested only for cannabis use if there was “reasonable cause,” Minor League players were regularly tested, facing substantial suspensions and fines, even permanent bans, for cannabis use. The recent THC policy change, therefore, had a huge positive impact for Minor League players.
- Until June 2020, the NBA had the strictest and harshest policy in US professional sports. Testing was conducted throughout the season (but not the off-season). One positive test required a player’s participation in its cannabis program, and a second positive test resulted in a significant fine. A third positive test resulted in a five-game suspension, with additional suspensions added for each subsequent infraction. In June, the NBA announced it would be testing players for performance-enhancing drugs but would no longer test for recreational drug use.
The evolving positions of professional sports leagues have occurred even with continued uncertainty about cannabis legalization at the federal level. Harloe notes that too much ambiguity surrounding cannabis regulations means professional leagues might have to reverse decisions if regulations change. However, because they haven’t been able to make a firm decision given the lack of clarity from federal government regulations, sports leagues seem to be mirroring the retail landscape, Harloe says. And that landscape seems to be one of the primary reasons professional sports leagues have recently evolved in their treatment of players using cannabis.
The Bigger Picture
Professional athletes seem to be among the key driving factors in public acceptance and use of cannabis. They’ve founded and joined collaborative efforts across the sports industry to promote the wellness benefits of cannabis for athletes. They’ve put their names on local and online dispensaries and widely publicized their involvement and personal cannabis use. Numerous retired and injured professional athletes have shared stories of relief from regular cannabis use. Players who lost their careers due to cannabis use under stricter professional league policies have been especially active in helping to eliminate the longtime stigma associated with “weed.” Recently, a few of these players have started playing again, signing contracts with professional teams since cannabis use regulations have relaxed in their sports leagues.
Another key factor in the acceptance of cannabis in professional sports has been published research on its effects on athletes in terms of performance and health. Research confirmed that cannabis didn’t enhance performance;1-3 this, combined with ongoing research suggesting health benefits for athletes, has made it more acceptable for use during professional sports seasons.
With the added testimonials from players regarding the health benefits of cannabis, professional sports leagues have been sponsoring research, particularly relating to pain relief as an alternative to the use of opioids. Studies are ongoing in the NFL and NHL. Most recently, cannabis is under investigation as a potential treatment for postconcussion syndrome by the NHL in collaboration with a cannabis company.
As society and regulations pertaining to cannabis move toward even more acceptance and legalization, it’s expected that professional sports league policies and attitudes will continue to evolve.
— Jennifer E. Van Pelt, MA, is a health care researcher and freelance writer located in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area.
1. Charron J, Carey V, Marcotte L'heureux V, Roy P, Comtois AS, Ferland PM. Acute effects of cannabis consumption on exercise performance: a systematic and umbrella review [published online July 28, 2020]. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.20.11003-X.
2. Ware MA, Jensen D, Barrette A, Vernec A, Derman W. Cannabis and the health and performance of the elite athlete. Clin J Sport Med. 2018;28(5):480-484.
3. Kennedy MC. Cannabis: exercise performance and sport. a systematic review. J Sci Med Sport. 2017;20(9):825-829.