The landscape around marijuana in North America is evolving. Canada legalized recreational usage nationwide two months ago and is pounding through the process of settling on legal ages, distribution and public safety. The fourth and fifth recreational pot shops in Massachusetts opened on Friday in Wareham and Saturday in Easthampton respectively, each learning from the experiences of openings elsewhere.
The Bay State is one of 10 (plus the District of Columbia) to allow recreational use and one of 33 to allow medical use, all in conflict with federal laws that ban any use or possession. If we needed a crystallization of the lack of clarity in the debate, none is clearer than that.
The sports world’s stance on the issue is no more universal. With the caveats that Josh Gordon’s indefinite suspension has not been specifically tied to marijuana, his history makes him a suitable jumping-off point to look at the varying ways our professional leagues deal with marijuana use.
Quoting from the NFL’s Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse, “marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids” are among the drugs prohibited from use, with even “passive inhalation” not an allowed defense. There are lesser penalties if initial test failures within the final two stages of the drug program are for marijuana, however, and the league raised the threshold for what constitutes a positive test in 2014 as part of an apparent quid pro quo with the Players Association.
The NFL threshold for a positive test is nearly 75 percent below the Olympic standard.
NFL players are initially only drug tested prior to entering the league, in the preseason, or by the request of a team, though Gordon likely entered the league’s drug program — and thus was subject to random testing — due to his marijuana issues at Texas Tech.
The current policy was finalized in October 2016, by which point both Colorado and Washington had legalized recreational use. Commissioner Roger Goodell, however, doesn’t feel he’s been convinced that allowing marijuana use is a good thing. (Not that that’s stopping anyone, apparently.)
“Is it something that can be negative to the health of our players? Listen, you are ingesting smoke, that’s not usually a very positive thing, people would say. It does have an addictive nature. There are a lot of compounds in marijuana that may not be healthy for our players long-term. All those have to be considered,” he told ESPN in 2017, before citing a conversation with the league’s medical advisors. “They haven’t said, ‘This is a change we think you should make that would be in the best interest in the health and safety of our players.’ If they do, we certainly will consider that.”
Free-agent running back Mike James earlier this year became the first player to apply for a therapeutic use (medical) exemption to use cannabis, but was denied.
Asked with the Canadian legalization looming whether the NHL had any plans to change its stance on marijuana use, Commissioner Gary Bettman gave an emphatic no, declaring “The Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program for decades has been educating players on using drugs, legal or illegal. … We think based on the educational level and what we do test for and how we test, at least for the time being, we’re comfortable with where we are.”
Which is that marijuana is not a banned substance in the league’s eyes.
NHL players are subject to two “no-notice” tests each year, with one-third of players randomly selected from that group to be screened for a variety of drugs, among them cannabinoids. Positive tests are not punished or publicized, however, merely referred to the NHL and NHLPA’s Performance Enhancing Substances Program Committee for review. Players can be subject to mandatory substance-abuse treatment based on the results, but there is no suspension attached.
While there is a feeling within the sport that marijuana use is still frowned upon by the majority of team executives, one former player and current front-office employee estimated to Sportsnet that “60 to 70 percent” of current players smoke marijuana either for recreational or pain-management reasons.
“For pain management, managing stress, performance anxiety and sleep, and 20 other good reasons,” said another former player, Riley Cote. “Teams would be smart to be proactive [on the use of marijuana] and look to it as a tool they can use to support their players.”
Baseball’s steroid and performance-enhancing drug policies draw plenty of scrutiny, but its stance on what it terms “drugs of abuse” — among them both natural and synthetic cannabis, cocaine, opiates and ecstasy — is far more lenient at the highest level.
Which such drugs are prohibited at all levels and tested/suspended for in the minors, MLB players are not tested for drugs of abuse as part of the regular drug program, only in cases where this is “reasonable cause” of use. Even in those cases, MLB players are fined instead of suspended.
How widespread is marijuana use in the majors? The Mets reportedly had a problem with it in the final days of the Bobby Valentine regime, at the very least.
Matt Barnes told Bleacher Report earlier this year that, “All of my best games, I was medicated. It wasn’t every single game but, in 15 years, it was a lot.” In the same article, Kenyon Martin estimated “85 percent” of the NBA used marijuana. With that background, and commissioner Adam Silver’s reputation as a progressive on controversial topics such as advertising on uniforms and gambling, it’s little surprise he’s in the midst of evaluating his league’s stance on marijuana.
That stance currently might be a surprise: An even lower threshold for a positive test than the NFL and no exemptions for medical use, though players aren’t suspended until their third violation. Suspensions start at five games and jump five for each successive failed test. (Outside of reasonable cause testing, they’re subject to four random tests each season and two in the off-season.)
“We should follow the science,” Silver told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. “This is not an ethical issue for me. It’s not a moral issue for me. I obviously see what’s happening in states around America.”
Of note: Former commissioner David Stern, who says he tightened marijuana testing during his 20-year tenure at the request of players, now believes medical use should be allowed.