Why Is the NBA Still Testing Players for Marijuana?

Cannabis and the National Basketball Association (NBA) have long been an ideal matchup. Even before 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis treatment for a broad spectrum of medical conditions, some of the NBA’s most winning competitors played with a relaxed, concentrated flow that suggested cannabis products were involved in pregame preparation. Even today, reviewing classic clips of NBA games, half the fun is spotting players who appear to be pioneering the confluence of contact sports and cannabis.

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Why Basketball Players May Use Cannabis

There are many reasons why basketball players, or any professional athlete may choose to use cannabis as medicine. Cannabis can help:

  • reduce inflammation and pain
  • speed up recovery from injury
  • improve sleep
  • reduce intake of pharmaceuticals

A player coping with the rigorous schedule, taxing physicality and intense competition at the level of an NBA athlete will amass plenty of valid qualifying conditions for accessing medical marijuana resources. The analgesic properties of medical cannabis products have been documented as successful in relieving or reducing the body inflammation and pain that is part and parcel of engaging in bruising competition for the duration of a 72-game season.

Peer reviewed studies also show that medical marijuana is effective in relieving neuropathic pain. Even broken bones are susceptible to the healing power of medical cannabis. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research concentrated on the medical cannabis active ingredient CBD and concluded, “We found CBD alone to be sufficiently effective in enhancing fracture healing.”

Medical cannabis can also function as a sleep aid for players at away games in distant time zones. Medical cannabis is not a performance enhancing drug in the league of anabolic steroids, androstenedione, human growth hormone, erythropoietin, diuretics, creatine and stimulants. Some players do feel cannabis reduces pre-game anxiety.

Is Taking Cannabis Healthy for Athletes?

Overall, yes. Cannabis is a healthy alternative to many medications and thanks to its range of consumption methods, can be adapted to suit anyone’s lifestyle and preferences.

Coaches who worry that smoking cannabis will wreck their players’ lung capacity while fighting for rebounds in the Denver Nuggets’ 5,280 feet elevation Mile High Stadium can rest assured that cannabis infused creams or sprays and medical cannabis products that are dripped beneath the tongue or eaten in candy form are equal to smoking medical cannabis in controlling inflammation and pain.

It’s important to point out that responsible use of medical marijuana for relief from the physical wear and tear of pro basketball life avoids the potentially lethal and addictive pitfalls of pharmaceutical muscle relaxants and opiate painkillers.

Downsides To Using Medical Cannabis as an Athlete

The only real 1990s downside to NBA players benefiting from medical cannabis treatment was that marijuana remained illegal in most of the United States. Only recently has accessing medical cannabis’s therapeutic benefits in much of the country ceased to be a crime.

Adult-use marijuana is legal in 11 states and an entire country (Canada) that are home to 14 NBA teams. When New Jersey finally pulls its legal cannabis regulations together, the Garden State’s legal cannabis dispensaries will be available to serve three additional NBA teams. Medical marijuana is regulated in eight more NBA hosting states. In full, two-thirds of NBA teams are located in legal marijuana jurisdictions.

The NBA’s Approach to Cannabis

But there is one reason why players in the National Basketball Association are not free to benefit from the therapeutic realities of medical cannabis products, and it’s a big but. Marijuana has been on the NBA’s banned substances list since 1999. For years, the league has conducted random marijuana screening of players for THC and other cannabis byproducts.

On the first violation, a player is enrolled in the NBA’s marijuana program. A second random positive test for cannabis use nets a $25,000 fine for the player. A third violation of NBA cannabis policy earns the player a five-game suspension without pay. For every subsequent positive on a cannabis test, the player will be suspended five games longer than the previous violation.

The NBA’s rules and penalties against medical marijuana use apply to all players in the league, even those who reside in the two-thirds of NBA jurisdictions where adult use or medical marijuana is condoned and regulated.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed (temporarily perhaps) some ways the NBA does business. The teams played out their 2019-2020 campaigns while quarantined in the so-called Orlando, Florida, bubble. The league discontinued random marijuana testing toward the end of the first bubble season and has opted to forgo marijuana testing for all of the current 2020-2021 season.

The suspension of the marijuana testing creates an ideal opportunity to call for lifting the cannabis ban altogether, which writer Jeff Zillgitt does in a February 3, 2021, USA Today editorial titled “Opinion: NBA Needs to Permanently Abolish Marijuana Testing.

Zillgitt questions why the NBA’s anti-cannabis prejudice still makes the rules. The answer begins with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s reservations about players’ legal use of regulated marijuana products.

Commissioner Silver’s rationale for maintaining the NBA ban on medical cannabis, expressed at a December press conference prior to the start of the 2020-2021 competition, is that the NBA prohibition of legal marijuana use is for the players’ own good: “Our players travel for a living. One of our concerns has always been, and I know the Players Association shares this concern, that if our players are traveling from jurisdictions that do not have prohibitions to jurisdictions where there’s still criminal penalties for possession and use of marijuana, we want to make sure we’re not creating a trap for our players and putting in place rules that will put them in the crosshairs of the law.”

According to ABC News, the NBA pulled in $8.3 billion in revenue over the 2019-2020 season. With all those billions of dollars to draw upon, surely every team can afford an assistant road manager charged with notifying players when they are headed into a no cannabis zone so the players can elude the trap of being put into the crosshairs of the law.

Indica and satvia cannabis plants

The Future of Cannabis In the NBA

The fact that only a reported five players in the past four seasons have been suspended for cannabis use, coupled with a compliant attitude toward cannabis testing from the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), may be contributing to the NBA’s ongoing cannabis ban. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has said she expects random marijuana testing to be eliminated, “maybe even next season.”

The NBA’s Players Association has so far showed no urgency in advocating for its dues paying members’ right to use regulated cannabis products as freely as any adult who is not a pro basketball player.

At the most recent negotiations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NBA and the Players Association, in 2017, securing the human right to treat strains and contusions with medical cannabis products was not on the top of the meeting’s to-do list. The 2017 bargaining focused on health care and benefits for ex players and a shorter preseason for current ones. The next CBA negotiations are scheduled for 2024.

Marijuana legalization has gone forward not backward in the years since 2017’s CBA was signed off. At the beginning of February 2021, three Democratic Senators, Cory Booker (NJ), Ron Wyden (OR) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) issued a joint statement promising to push for cannabis legalization at the national level.

NBA Commissioner Silver hesitates still: “Marijuana, no different than alcohol, can be abused. It’s something that we want to pay close attention to, especially given the incredible stress that our players are often under, and particularly given the stress of playing in a pandemic.”

Pandemic stress itself is a qualifying condition for loosening the NBA’s restrictions on medical cannabis. A December 2020 Harris Poll found that adults with children under 18 years old are choosing cannabis over alcohol for relief from the ongoing stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Mom and Dad, as the saying goes, know best, and medical cannabis using parents are not alone in being ahead of the NBA’s medical marijuana thinking.

The National Hockey League (NHL) does not punish its players for positive cannabis tests and will suggest a treatment program if deemed needed.

The National Football League (NFL) overlooks trace amounts in marijuana screenings and has no automatic suspension policy. Treatment is suggested only after a medical panel individually reviews each case.

Major League Baseball (MLB) no longer considers cannabis, THC and cannabinoids as drugs of abuse.

Golden State Warrior coach Steve Kerr, who can wear a different NBA championship ring as coach and player for every day of the week (taking weekends off), has bluntly had enough of the NBA lagging behind in medical cannabis acceptance. “I do feel strongly that [marijuana] is a much better option than some of the prescription drugs, and I know that it’s helping a lot of people,” Kerr told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana is allowed in sports leagues. The education will overwhelm the perception.”

Written by
Allan MacDonell
Allan MacDonell

Allan MacDonell’s work has been featured in publications ranging from Dazed and Confused UK to the New York Times and Washington Post. He is the author of Prisoner of X, Punk Elegies and Now That I Am Gone, and was a founding editorial director at online outlets including Buzznet, TakePart and Kindland. MacDonell views teaming with Leafwell as an opportunity to encourage the emerging role of legal cannabis as a highly effective medical treatment.

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