In the spirit of April 20, or 4-20, I thought it was the right time to applaud the National Basketball Association for its recent reforms regarding drug testing.
Announced at the beginning of April, the NBA reached a new agreement with its players’ union that includes a stipulation that the league’s players will no longer be tested or penalized for marijuana use. The NBA is the third major sports league in the United States to adopt similar policies, joining Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Hockey League (NHL).
Under the NBA’s previous weed policy, players who were caught using were entered into a treatment and counseling program for their first violation. They would then be fined $25,000 for their second violation and given a five-game suspension for the third violation.
The changes are a long time coming for a sport where athletes use marijuana for both mental and physical recovery. In an interview with GQ back in 2022, former NBA star Al Harrington estimated that around 85% of the league’s players used on a regular basis. Harrington, along with former NBA player J.R. Smith, both lobbied for the legalization of recreational cannabis use in New York State back in 2019.
Playing 82 games over the course of six months can have long-lasting effects on a player’s physical and mental well-being. Especially during long road trips or after playing on back-to-back nights, NBA players have used marijuana to try and combat both physical ailments and the stress and anxiety that come with being a professional athlete.
The NFL has made changes to its marijuana policy over the years and now allows players to consume during the offseason. They also did away with suspensions for positive tests during the season in favor of just fines.
While the move by the NFL was a wise choice, it could also be considered too little, too late. Numerous players have had their careers derailed thanks to positive weed tests, including former receiver Josh Gordon. After breaking out with the Cleveland Browns in 2013, Brown played five games in 2014 before being handed two year-long suspensions in 2015 and 2016. Brown wasn’t officially reinstated into the NFL until November 2017, and by that point his prime was already behind him.
I believe the NFL should also allow for players to use marijuana in season. Football is unique among the major American pro sports because of its physical demands. Many liken getting tackled by a professional football player to being in a low-speed car crash. In a league where pain is the name of the game, players need to have safe pain-killing alternatives so they’re not forced to turn to opioids.
In a story published in 2017, Bleacher Report found that many NFL players were using Toradol to deal with pain on gamedays. While there was no definitive link unearthed, doctors told BR that Toradol might put players at greater risk of concussion because of its blood-thinning properties.
Still, other players said Toradol played second fiddle to other pain-killers like OxyContin and Vicodin, which are both highly addictive substances and can be dangerous when abused.
Marijuana, on the other hand, provides the pain-killing and stress-relief that prescription opioids offer without many of the negative side effects.
Back in 2022, the NFL pledged to give $1 million toward funding research into the benefits of cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) on pain-management for players. Thanks to this donation, the University of California San Diego and the University of Regina are now conducting a three-year study into the topic.
It might be a years before the results of that study are published, but I hope the league is more proactive in listening to its players and understanding why they choose to use cannabis and the benefits it offers.
And while it might be controversial, the NCAA should discuss similar changes to their drug testing and determining which drugs affect a student-athletes eligibility. In a country that’s dealing with a vast opioid epidemic, finding safe pain-killing alternatives could be a life or death dilemma.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.