Pro athletes eager to embrace cannabis, but are leagues listening?

Published on September 25, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Four months after he received a three-month suspension for testing positive for THC, professional golfer Robert Garrigus called on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances.

“Performance enhancing substances that give players an unfair advantage should remain prohibited but everything else should be a discussion,” he told Golf Channel in July, noting that he had used cannabis to treat back and knee pain.

“If you have some sort of pain and CBD or THC may help that, and you feel like it can help you and be prescribed by a doctor, then what are we doing?”Join the Leafly Canada CommunityGarrigus planned to meet with PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan to discuss the matter.

It remains to be seen if that meeting will result in a PGA policy change but if recent developments in professional sports are any indication, it’s just a matter of time before cannabis is removed from the list of banned substances in North America’s biggest sports leagues.

Cannabis in Sports Now

As of today, cannabis is considered a drug of abuse not just by the PGA but also by the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Football League (NFL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and Major League Baseball (MLB).

All those leagues have established disciplinary measures to be taken against athletes who use cannabis, though some of the leagues are more strict than others.

Despite the ban, cannabis use is widespread for recreational and medical purposes in all those leagues. Many athletes embrace it as a healthier alternative to opioids, which are often prescribed to treat pain and are highly addictive. Other professional athletes use cannabis to ease pre-game anxiety and recover from competition and training.

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Martellus Bennett, who retired from the NFL last year, has speculated that almost 90% of the league’s players use it. Former Chicago Bulls player Jay Williams estimates that 75% to 80% of NBA players use cannabis. One retired NHL player says about 60% to 70% of players in the league indulge.

Several current and former professional athletes are now urging league officials to reconsider their stance on cannabis.

Three years ago, for example, Eugene Monroe became the first active NFL player to call on the league to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances.

He even donated $80,000 (US) to the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University to study cannabis use in football.

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Numerous athletes are going even further, and are getting directly involved in the cannabis industry. Among those athletes are retired NFL player Nick Mangold, retired NBA star Gary Payton, and Olympic skier Bode Miller.

Last year, former NFL star Ricky Williams, who was banned multiple times for cannabis use during his playing career, established a line of cannabis-based products that includes salves, vape cartridges, and tonics that contain either CBD, THC, or both.

Earlier this year, former NFL star Rob Gronkowski announced he was launching a line of ointments and edibles with Rhode Island-based Abacus Health Products. Gronkowski said CBD had helped him manage pain caused by the injuries that brought an early end to his spectacular career. He described his use of CBD as “life-changing” and said he wished he had been able to use it while he was in the NFL.

Also this year, Dutchie, an Oregon-based e-commerce platform for weed pickup and delivery, received backing from Thirty Five Ventures, an investment firm co-founded by current NBA star Kevin Durant.

Leagues are Listening

Professional sports leagues and unions are not necessarily ignoring these staunch voices from current and former pro athletes.

In May, the NFL and its players’ union agreed to cooperate in a study of the potential of cannabis as a pain management treatment. They established two new medical committees that will provide recommendations. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league would consider allowing cannabis to treat pain if studies established its validity.

Two months earlier, the NHL Alumni Association announced that 100 retired players would be given CBD in a study examining the compound’s possible role in treating pain and post-concussion neurological disorders.

“We know that many athletes are already self-medicating with cannabis and its derivatives in an attempt to reduce both the physical and emotional consequences of head injury,” said Mark Ware, the chief medical officer of Canopy Growth, the Rhode Island-based cannabis producer that partnered with the NHLAA to conduct the research initiative.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has also weighed in on the cannabis issue, suggesting the league might change its stance.

In December, he said the league had been discussing the issue with the players association for some time. He said the ban on cannabis use among players was not an ethical or moral issue for him, and he added that the league should “follow the science.”

The leagues should look at cannabis for the sake of their athletes’ well-being, says Joseph Hanna, a lawyer based in Buffalo, NY, who has written extensively about cannabis in sports.

“The statistics are staggering when it comes to the number of professional athletes who have used opioids and are dependent on them. The opioid epidemic is a national crisis,” Hanna told Leafly. “Cannabis could be a safer alternative.”

Resting on Federal Legalization

At the moment, the legal status of cannabis, both medical and recreational, varies from state to state, and it’s illegal at the federal level in the US That presents a problem for all professional sports leagues whose franchises are spread out across the continent.

Even so, Hanna is among many observers who believe it’s just a matter of time before North America’s biggest professional sports leagues take cannabis off the list of banned substances.

“The leagues are taking their cues from governments, state and federal, so as states become more progressive about cannabis legalization sports leagues are following suit,” says Hanna.

“It’s now a matter of ‘when’ leagues lift the ban on cannabis not ‘if’.”

Editors note: A previous version of this article mis-attributed Abacus Health Products as being based in Ontario, instead of Rhode Island.

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Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin is an author and journalist in Toronto. She has worked at several major media outlets, including the National Post and the CBC, and has written for dozens of publications, such as The New York Times, Time magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and The Globe and Mail.
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