To pave the way for a world where cannabis prohibition will be a thing of the past, it seems that every major industry is feeling the green tide pulling on its outdated policies as the wave of destigmatization crests. And the juggernaut of professional sports is no exception.
For decades, cannabis has been banned in nearly every professional sports league, with positive drug tests resulting in fines, suspensions and other putative action for athletes. Now with cannabis legal in many of the states in which teams play and players reside, and with Canada legalizing cannabis, logical reasons for athletes to be barred from partaking in the benefits of cannabinoids are becoming ever scarcer.
If cannabis is legal for an adult to purchase, and if the sporting word is unable to convincingly classify cannabis as a “performance enhancing substance” like anabolic steroids (eSports aside), questions as to why athletes would be punished for cannabis use but allowed to consume alcohol will only grow more pressing.
Massive changes in attitudes towards cannabis in professional sports are already coming to pass. While most leagues do still test and prosecute THC use, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s decision in 2018 to allow athletes to use CBD has opened the floodgates for acceptance of non-psychoactive cannabinoids in the majority of major sports leagues. Sponsorship-, partnership- and athlete-run CBD brands have followed, as athletes are now free to endorse a compound that many of them have looked to for years as a pain management alternative to opioids.
In this transitional period, with laws and regulations constantly changing, we at PRØHBTD have compiled an up-to-date highlight reel of the status of cannabis in professional sports.
Although cannabis is still considered a prohibited substance by the National Football League (NFL), there’s a good chance that won’t be the case for much longer. Currently, players who test positive for cannabis in random drug tests are still subject to fines and suspensions. However, over the last few years, an unprecedented number of retired NFL players have opened up about their cannabis use—former Dallas Cowboy Shaun Smith even told Bleacher Report that he smoked cannabis regularly before games.
As state laws continue to change in favor of legalization, the NFL has offered to work with the Players Association to determine if scientific evidence backs cannabis as a viable pain management tool. A host of notable football players—both active and retired—have come out in support of CBD use as a way to accelerate their bodies’ natural healing from the physical punishment intrinsic to the sport, explaining that after having suffered an injury cannabis has, in some cases, provided a safer alternative to the opioid medications they are typically prescribed. The powerful healing many of them experienced has led several former players to enter the cannabis industry.
Recently, retired New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski held a press conference announcing his partnership with CBDMedic, a company that produces a line of CBD pain medications. “I’m here today to appeal to the sports governing bodies of the world to update their position on CBD, whether that’s the NBA, MLB or NFL,” said Gronkowski. “It’s just time.”
Patriots and Gillette Stadium owner Robert Kraft plans to partner with his former star, marking the first such partnership between Gillette Stadium and a CBD company.
The same week as Gronkowski’s press conference, Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis announced he is co-founding DEFY, the first company to produce a CBD-infused sports drink. Speaking about his personal experience with the healing properties of CBD, Davis said, “For me, it’s really taken me to another level…. I feel about as good as I did when I played. I have more flexibility in my joints right now. What I didn’t expect is that it actually helped with my migraines…. I believe in it. It’s worked for me.”
Currently, the National Basketball Association (NBA) tests its players for prohibited substances more than any other major sports league. In the last several years, repeated positive tests for cannabis have resulted in players such as Reggie Bullock, Monta Ellis, Nerlins Noel and Thabo Sefolosha all being suspended for five games without pay. Yet, players who have broken their silence about cannabis use in the NBA have estimated that more than 80 percent of players use it, some even admitting to having used it before stepping on the court.
“All of my best games I was medicated,” retired NBA player Matt Barnes told Bleacher Report last year. “It wasn’t every single game, but in 15 years, it was a lot.” Barnes won a championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2017.
The stigma surrounding cannabis use among athletes has limited public support almost exclusively to non-active players. Like their NFL counterparts, that support has been strong, resulting in several former players, like Cliff Robinson, Al Harrington and Cuttino Mobley, becoming involved in the cannabis industry and others, such as Hall of Fame point guard Gary Peyton, speaking out about his support for cannabis in sports now that the plant is legal in many states. Both the growing openness in the basketball world towards discussing these issues and the increasing number of U.S. states legalizing cannabis have led NBA commissioner Adam Silver to engage in ongoing conversations with the National Basketball Players Association about changing the league’s strict regulations surrounding cannabis. Meanwhile, former commissioner David Stern recently suggested the NBA should considered ending its ban on cannabis use.
“You don’t want players drinking beer at halftime, and you don’t want them smoking joints at halftime,” Stern told CNBC. “But if it’s a controlled usage and has a viable, legitimate use, why not?”
Outside of the NBA, other professional basketball leagues have taken a far more lenient and inclusive stance to cannabis. BIG3, a relatively new professional 3-on-3 basketball league comprised of many former NBA players, officially accepted use of CBD by its players in 2018. Considering BIG3 was founded by rap legend Ice Cube and some of its players—like the aforementioned Al Harrington—who own their own cannabis companies or have advocated for CBD acceptance in sports, BIG3’s attitude toward cannabis isn’t particularly surprising. Still, that doesn’t make the fact that a pro-sports league has officially condoned, welcomed and even lauded cannabis as an alternative to opioids any less significant.
Another young basketball league, the recently founded NAPB (North American Premier Basketball League) has also accepted the use of CBD products by its players, even partnering with CBD company Green Roads Athletics, naming them the “Official Alternative Nutrition of the NAPB.” While neither BIG3 nor the NAPB are sports juggernauts like the NBA, these small steps towards acceptance and inclusivity will continue to put pressure on the larger leagues to rethink their drug policies.
Although cannabis continues to sit on the list of prohibited substances in all of the world’s major soccer leagues, that hasn’t stopped many soccer players past and present from using cannabis both recreationally and to help with post-match healing. The U.S. and Canadian professional soccer league, MLS, seems to have taken a more lenient policy towards enforcing its anti-drug rules where cannabis is concerned in recent years, considering the plant’s legality in Canada and a growing number of U.S. states.
As with NFL and NBA players, some high-profile soccer stars are publicly supporting the use of CBD products for pain relief and recovery treatment, going as far as launching their own companies. Megan Rapinoe, reigning top goal scorer in the most recent World Cup and widely considered one of the best female soccer players on the planet, has founded Mendi with her twin sister Rachael Rapinoe. The company will produce CBD products for athletes.
Rachael played soccer at the collegiate level and professionally in Iceland before a career-ending knee injury. She not only confirmed that CBD helped her manage injury-related pain during her time playing for the University of Portland, but she also said that her sister has used it for those same reasons during the last several years and that many active veteran players use it as well. On a more institutional level, the National Women’s Soccer League, team Portland Thorns FC, has recently hopped on the CBD train becoming the first NWSL club to partner with a CBD brand.
Although players in the minor leagues (who are often minors themselves and wouldn’t be able to buy cannabis even in states where it’s legal) are subject to random drug tests for cannabis, the Major League Baseball (MLB) does not test its players for cannabis. Thus, once you hit the majors, cannabis tests suddenly disappear unless the league has some specific reason to test a given player for abuse. Having faced other high-profile drug abuse scandals in the last several years, it seems the MLB is less focused on sniffing out which of its players use cannabis to treat their pain or anxiety than on which of them takes steroids to boost their home run totals. That sounds pretty logical, actually.
There may be fewer public advocates for cannabis use among baseball players than in basketball or football, but given the relative freedom the MLB affords its athletes with regards to cannabis, there is considerably less need for advocacy or change. All evidence seems to point to the fact that many MLB players use and benefit from cannabis, even if the league does not officially condone it.
In 2009, police in Washington found about three grams of cannabis in the car of Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Tim Lincecum, slapping him with a misdemeanor and instantly turning him into an icon for cannabis use in Major League Baseball. Former San Diego Padres pitcher Dirk Hayhurst encountered enough cannabis use amongst his fellow players that he described his experience in the MLB to CBS Sports as a “Cheech and Chong experiment.” Before his career was cut short by injuries, Florida Marlins prospect Ryan Tucker noticed that many major league players he saw were using cannabis. Tucker is now involved in the cannabis industry, having opened his own a dispensary.
Update: Per a press release issued December 12, the MLB has ended its prohibition on cannabis: Natural Cannabinoids (e.g., THC, CBD, and Marijuana) will be removed from the Program’s list of Drugs of Abuse. Going forward, marijuana-related conduct will be treated the same as alcohol-related conduct… which provides for mandatory evaluation, voluntary treatment and the possibility of discipline… in response to certain conduct involving Natural Cannabinoids.
Of all the major leagues in the U.S. and Canada, the National Hockey League (NHL) might soon become the model for cannabis policy in professional sports. While the NHL does conduct random drug tests during training camp and the regular season, what makes the NHL so different from other leagues is that if a player tests positive for “drugs of abuse,” they face absolutely no punishment.
If a substance—THC for example, which, unlike CBD, is considered a “drug of abuse” by the NHL—is detected in a player’s urine, the player in question will be referred to the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program, with no obligation to participate in it. “The thing that we’re really looking for is if there’s a guy that has an issue or a problem and he needs help,” former defenseman and current Players Association official Mathieu Schneider told ESPN. While it’s hard to imagine other leagues extending this attitude towards all drugs (cocaine, for example), it seems likely that as leagues like the NBA and NFL reexamine their drug policies, they might look to the NHL as an example when they sit down with their respective Players Associations to discuss reform.
As with other leagues, it appears that the use of both CBD and THC is fairly common in the NHL. In the wake of Canada’s full legalization of recreational cannabis, an unnamed front office executive and former NHL player told Canadian publication Sportsnet that he believes between 60 and 70 percent of players in the league smoke cannabis recreationally. Still, this person felt the need to remain anonymous and said that they keep their personal cannabis use private, fearing conservative attitudes among league executives.
Conversely, as CBD is not considered a “drug of abuse” by the NHL, players such as Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid have been free to speak out regarding its use as a method of post-match pain relief. “You’d be stupid not to look into it,” McDavid told the Associated Press. “When your body’s sore like it is sometimes, you don’t want to be taking pain stuff like Advil all the time.”
Fun fact: NASCAR evolved from illegal bootlegger races staged during the original Prohibition in the 1920s. Despite its roots in rebelling against substance prohibitions, it makes sense that professional racing leagues don’t want their drivers hurtling around a track at 200 mph under the influence of any psychoactive substance, especially one that might reduce their driving speed! What doesn’t make sense, however, is NASCAR’s particularly harsh stance towards cannabis, even for participants who never get behind the wheel of a vehicle.
In 2010, crewmember Randy LaJoie was suspended from the league for testing positive on a drug test. LaJoie was a spotter—someone who sits in the stands and communicates the positions of others cars to his team’s driver—rather than a driver himself.
Elsewhere in the racing world, things are slowly moving forward in alignment with the overall trend of increased cannabis acceptance, especially where CBD is concerned. Professional off-road racer Justin Peck spoke with PRØHBTD about how cannabis has helped him immensely in his struggles with mental health issues, and for the first time in Indy 500 history, two different CBD companies—DEFY and Craft 1891—sponsored drivers at this year’s race.
Retired boxing champion Mike Tyson has gone all in on cannabis since his retirement. In 2016, he started his own cannabis company, Tyson Holistic Holdings, and owns a 40-acre ranch and cannabis farm in southern California. He founded the Tyson Cultivation School with the intention of teaching growers how to cultivate cannabis, has a podcast called Hotboxing with Mike Tyson, and has announced plans to open a holiday resort he’s referred to as the “Lollapalooza of cannabis.” The boxing legend recently claimed on his podcast that he personally smokes around $40,000 worth of cannabis every month. Once a heavyweight, always a heavyweight.
For active boxers, a life as filled with cannabis as Tyson’s remains a sure way to run afoul of pro boxing’s regulatory bodies. As recently as last year, professional boxers have seen their careers interrupted after incurring suspensions from the sport for having tested positive for cannabis use. Boxers Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Avery Sparrow were hit with severe penalties in the wake of positive drug tests, being sidelined for nine months and a little over a year, respectively.
Just like cannabis legalization in general, cannabis regulations in the boxing world are beginning to look different on a state-by-state basis. In the wake of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s acceptance of CBD, the Florida State Boxing Commission has changed its policy from zero-tolerance towards any cannabinoids to permitting fighters to use CBD. It’s probable that sufficient CBD acceptance will soon become the rule rather than the exception throughout the boxing world, given that CBD company Craft 1891 announced a groundbreaking partnership with the World Boxing Council, which looks to completely revolutionize fighting’s relationship to the cannabinoid. The WBC and Craft 1891 will be working together to develop an entire research-backed recovery protocol as well as co-branded wellness products to be released around the world.
Connections between the relaxed atmosphere of a verdant, green golf course and cannabis are nothing new, and have only strengthened as the stigma around cannabis continues to dissipate like so much smoke. In Canada, a cannabis-friendly golf course, Rolling Greens, recently opened, and the cannabis-friendly nation is also home to the ForeTwenty golf tournament, which bills itself as “the first cannabis golf tournament in the world.”
Professionally, things are a little less free and easy with regards to cannabis use. Pro golfer Robert Garrigus was suspended for three months by the PGA earlier this year after testing positive for THC, becoming the first-ever golfer to be suspended for using any substance the PGA considers a “drug of abuse.” Garrigus has since voiced his beliefs that the PGA should review its stance towards cannabis considering that, like alcohol, which is not tested for, it can now be bought legally in stores. In the meantime, the PGA busted another pro golfer last month: Matt Every received a 12-week suspension for state-legal use of cannabis with a prescription in Florida.
“There’s something new that hurts every single day. Being a golfer for 25 years I guess that’s going to happen,” Garrigus recently told USA Today. “If you think I’m better on the golf course on OxyContin than I am on THC, then you’ve lost your mind.”
Garrigus’ suspension comes at a time when CBD is exploding in the golf world. Players like Phil Mickelson have been seen medicating with CBD oil while on the green during a Masters telecast, and pro golfers like Bubba Watson, Morgan Hoffman, Charlie Hoffman, Scott McCarron and Brandt Jobe are all sponsored by CBD companies. The PGA has warned its players that if a CBD product they are using happens to contain THC, they will be penalized if THC comes up on a drug test, but isolated CBD use is permitted in general. Against this backdrop, a majority of PGA pros recently said they want the cannabis ban lifted, and one in five pros said they’d consumed cannabis in the past year.
Mixed Martial Arts
Just like in fellow combat sport boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting has a contradictory and complicated relationship with cannabis. Over the years, many of its fighters have incurred lengthy suspensions for testing positive for cannabis. Cynthia Calvillo, Niko Price, Curtis Blaydes and Abel Trujillo were all suspended from the sport for testing positive for cannabis in just the last couple of years. In perhaps the highest-profile cannabis related suspension in MMA history, fighter Nick Diaz was hit with a five-year suspension for testing positive for cannabis.
This hasn’t stopped many fighters from openly advocating cannabis use, particularly CBD, which became a permitted substance in the UFC in 2018. Since then, its popularity has exploded within the sport. Nick Diaz and his younger brother Nate, also a professional MMA fighter, founded their own CBD company, Game Up Nutrition, and Nate has made a point of publicly smoking CBD at recent press conferences and open workouts. Retired fighter Bas Rutten has spoken about how CBD helped him break an injury-precipitated addiction to painkillers, and other fighters like Ronda Rousey, Sean O’Malley and Jake Shields have publicly spoken about their positive relationships with cannabis—to say nothing of commentator and UFC personality Joe Rogan, who consistently advocates for cannabis and psychedelics on his incredibly popular podcast the Joe Rogan Experience.
On a sport-wide level, massive partnerships between CBD company Aurora and the UFC, as well as between cbdMD and Bellator MMA, appear set to fully codify CBD acceptance within mixed martial arts.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
Slowly but surely the NCAA has been softening penalties for athletes who test positive for cannabis. In 2014, the organization lowered the length of suspension from one year to six months, and it has recently increased the THC threshold in urine from 15 to 35 nanograms. Some schools, like Reuters, require an athlete to test positive five times before they receive a suspension. That being said, the NCAA officially lists “marijuana,” not THC, as the banned substance it tests for, which means that CBD use among student athletes would incur punishment.
A few years ago, former NBA champion and league MVP Bill Walton actually called out the NCAA for its cannabis restrictions during a live television broadcast.
Unsurprisingly, punishment for the use of cannabis in surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and other pro action sports are all but unheard of for most of their history as professional sports. Since long before the existence of the World Surfing League—or its skating, snowboarding and BMX counterparts—cannabis has been an integral part of action sports culture. One thing that has changed regarding cannabis in action sports is the administrative scrutiny that comes with its inclusion in the Olympics.
As recently as 2018, 19-year-old Cory Juneau became the first-ever pro skater to receive a suspension for cannabis when he tested positive for THC at Brazil’s Oi Park Jam skateboarding competition. Juneau’s suspension comes on the heels of professional skateboarders being subject to World Anti-Doping Agency regulations, now that skateboarding will be an official event in the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Professional surfing has also had to adopt global anti-doping rules following the sport’s inclusion in the Olympic Games.
The Olympics have had a strange and fairly comical relationship with cannabis in the past. In 1998, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for cannabis. His medal was almost immediately reinstated when the Olympic commission realized that THC wasn’t actually on their list of prohibited substances⎯an oversight they quickly rectified. Since 1998, THC has been on the substance black list, its inclusion famously causing the disqualification of U.S. judo athlete Nick Delpopolo from the 2012 Olympics after he unwittingly ate a cannabis brownie and subsequently failed his drug test. The regulations the Olympic Committee have placed on skateboarding and surfing have caused many to worry that the sport will lose an important part of its culture.
Given the strong bond between cannabis and action sports, many professional skaters, snowboarders and surfers have entered the cannabis industry. Aforementioned snowboarding gold medalist Ross Rebagliati has his own CBD company, Legacy Brands; Weedmaps has fielded its own sponsored team of pro surfers; and skateboarding legend Tony Hawk partnered with CBD company 1933 Industries to release a personal line of products.
Despite its surreal stance on cannabis in general, the Olympics ended its prohibition on CBD use in 2017, and the USA Triathlon formalized a partnership with Pure Spectrum CBD just last month. Per the Team USA website, the deal made history as “the first U.S. National Governing Body in the Olympic and Paralympic Movement to formalize a partnership with a CBD manufacturer.”
Here’s to history repeating.