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Keeping Score: Major League Sports’ Stance on Cannabis

Published on April 24, 2019 · Last updated September 19, 2022
Marilyn Nieves/iStock

When players from the Stanley Cup winning team skate off the ice after their final game in June, they will head to the dressing room and, in keeping with tradition, they will uncork bottles of champagne. In seasons to come, players might be smoking weed to celebrate their success.

The league is pretty liberal when it comes to cannabis. Players are using it and even talking about it in front of their coaches.

Compared to other professional sports leagues in North America, the NHL is lenient when it comes to cannabis. The league doesn’t test players for street drugs in the off-season and, during the regular season, it tests only a third of its players at random. Those who test positive must enter a substance abuse program.

The league considers cannabis a “drug of abuse” but players are not disciplined for having trace amounts in their system—though they could be referred to the substance abuse program if they have a level of cannabis that is considered dangerously high.

Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner, described the league’s stance as being “ largely consistent with how people are approaching” cannabis.

Former NHL player Riley Cote shares that sentiment. He said about half his peers were using cannabis when he was in the league between 2006 and 2010, and he thinks that number is closer to 90% now. “The league is pretty liberal when it comes to cannabis. Players are using it and even talking about it in front of their coaches,” he told Leafly.

He said cannabis helps players with pain management as well as physical and mental recovery. “Players often use it to come down after a game. They use it now the way they once used alcohol or Ambien,” which is prescribed for insomnia.

Cote, who co-founded Athletes For Care, a not-for-profit organization that works to de-stigmatize cannabis and raise awareness of its medicinal benefits, said many trainers now see a therapeutic value in the plant. “It’s on your radar if you’re in that role. If it isn’t, you’ll lose your job,” he said.

Cote believes that as cannabis gains broader acceptance as a medical treatment, its recreational use will become more tolerated in professional sports.

But for now, it remains a banned substance in the four major sports leagues in North America, and the other three leagues are less tolerant of it than the NHL. Here is the breakdown:

National Football League

Cannabis is thought to be widely used in the NFL. One of the league’s recently retired players, Martellus Bennett, speculated that almost 90% of players use it. The NFL has suspended at least one player, Le’veon Bell, for using cannabis in recent years.

Players are tested once in the off-season. During the regular season, 10 players per team are randomly selected each week. Those who have at least 35 nanograms of extracted THC per milliliter of urine must enter a substance abuse program. The second and third violations lead to fines and subsequent violations result in suspensions, each one longer than the previous one. The sixth violation results in a one-year suspension.

Bennett is one of many football players who have used cannabis, at least in part, to deal with health issues that result from their vocation. “There are times of the year where your body just hurts so bad… You don’t want to be popping pills all the time,” said the former tight end. “There are anti-inflammatory drugs you take so long that they start to eat at your liver, kidneys and things like that. A human made [those.] God made weed.”

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Major League Baseball

Cannabis use is also thought to be widespread in MLB. However, the league is not as tough on cannabis use in part because the players’ union has opposed strict punishment for smoking weed since 2002.

The MLB tests players for drug use only if there is probable cause. Those who test positive for more than 50 nanograms of extracted THC per milliliter of urine are subject to a treatment plan and as much as $35,000 in fines. They don’t face suspension unless they violate the terms of any treatment program they are required to be in.

National Basketball Association

The NBA established a drug policy in the 1980s, when cocaine use was widespread. A decade later, many of the league’s stars developed a reputation for smoking weed. In response, the league started testing for cannabis in 2000. But there is speculation that as many as 80% of NBA players are using the banned substance today.

All players are subject to four random drug tests a season. Those who test positive for at least 15 nanograms of extracted THC per milliliter of urine are required to enter a substance abuse program. They’re fined $25,000 for a second violation and are suspended five games for a third positive test. Five more games are added to each subsequent violation.

However, change seems to be in the wind. In a dramatic about face, former commissioner David Stern now says the league should not ban cannabis.

Five months ago, the current commissioner said the league might soon change its cannabis policy. Adam Silver told the Bleacher Report he was aware players self-medicate with cannabis to cope with stress, insomnia and anxiety. He also said some conventional medications could be more harmful than cannabis.

“I also recognize if [players] don’t want anti-anxiety medication, and they can’t smoke marijuana, they may drink more—which is perfectly legal,” he added. “Obviously, you can overuse alcohol in our league, but we don’t have a prohibition on drinking and that might be much worse for them.”

However, Silver cited some impediments to his league becoming more lenient about cannabis use. He said there is not enough evidence indicating that it’s more helpful than harmful. He also pointed to its legal standing in the US.

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

Cote and others think the NHL is more liberal than other leagues when it comes to cannabis use, in part, because more of its franchises are based in cities where cannabis is legal medically, recreationally or both. In fact, 90% of its franchises fall into that category. That is more than the NFL, MLB, or NBA.

But Cote believes change is around the corner. “When the US government changes the legal status of cannabis,” he said, “the entire landscape of professional sports will change with it.”

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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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