Professional athletes, the healthiest people on the planet, would like weed to be a part of their training regimen. The leagues in which they play are slow to get with the program, but they’re coming around.
“The older you get, the more pain and aches start to mount up.”
So says a guy who ought to know about aches and pains, former NFL running back Reuben Droughns, who spent eight seasons on the gridiron taking, and giving, a pummeling with his body. Droughns, like many of his peers, consumed weed during his playing days, and today he consumes it in retirement. “You look for more ways to relieve that pain, whether it’s in cannabis, CBD or just trying to find a way other than traditional medicines,” he says.
Athletes from every major sport are indeed using cannabis—both THC and CBD—to treat pain, relieve stress, recover from injuries and sometimes just to kick back and relax, like the rest of us. Because of weed’s many medical applications, and because of its growing widespread acceptance, both socially and legally, and because pro athletes usually work and play in cities where it’s not only easy but also quite legal to purchase the stuff, you’d think that athletes and marijuana are a perfect match. But not quite yet.
“I think it comes down to this—we are elite athletes and as long as it’s not performance-enhancing or illegal, we know what’s best for our own bodies.” So said an anonymous professional athlete—a hockey player—speaking to ESPN earlier this year. He continued: “I find that a couple hits of weed at night is good for me. It’s legal, it’s natural, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
The player explained that after a night of highly pressurized, physical play, he needs something to soften the blows of his job. So he’ll hit the vape pen a wee bit to relax. “Honestly, it’s the easiest and most natural way for me to fall asleep and be ready for the next day,” he said.
However, as cannabis enters the mainstream as a safe and legal part of millions of lives, professional sports have not only been slow to get with the program, but downright reactionary. All over the world, professional and amateur athletic organizations continue to include demon weed on their lists of banned substances. Such is the case with the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), Major League Soccer (MLS), Major League Baseball (MLB), the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and, of course, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Standing like a beacon of sanity in this prohibitionist fog is the National Hockey League (NHL), alone among professional sports leagues that doesn’t put the kibosh on cannabis.
With such restrictions, we can’t expect active players who blaze to talk about it candidly, so we don’t really know just how widespread weed consumption is among athletes. We usually have to wait until they’ve retired to hear them open up about the issue, and boy, do they ever. Last year on 4/20, the sports website Bleacher Report got some former NFL and NBA players to toke up and talk:
“All of my best games, I was medicated,” said former Golden State Warrior Matt Barnes, who won an NBA championship in 2017. “It wasn’t every single game but, in 15 years, it was a lot.”
“I feel like this is the most dynamic plant on earth because it does so many things,” said Al Harrington, an NBA player of 16 years.
“At least 80 percent,” said Shaun Smith, a retired defensive end, when asked how prevalent weed consumption was in the NFL. “Shoot, the coaches do it. Personnel, people upstairs do it… Everybody has their reasons.”
These are world-class athletes doing what they need to do to be at the top of their game, in mind, body and heart. (Listen to more of their stories at 420.bleacherreport.com.)
Retired players are not only talking about cannabis, they’re getting in on the legal industry and are ardent advocates for the green. In 2016, some ex-pros got together to found Athletes for Care (athletesforcare.org), which promotes wellness and safety in sports with a focus on cannabis and its utility in treating health issues attendant to repetitive physical exertion and contact, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and brain injury. The big four sports leagues—MLB, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL—are well represented here, as is boxing, volleyball, tennis, rugby, mixed martial arts and more.
One Athlete for Care is the afore-quoted Al Harrington, who says he became personally aware of the benefits of cannabis after “a botched knee surgery” toward the end of his long NBA career. After encouraging his grandmother to give weed a try for her glaucoma and diabetes, he was inspired to launch his own line of cannabis products—flower, vape pens, extracts—that he named after grandma Viola (violabrands.com).
Interest in cannabis commerce among athletes goes well beyond those from the big four, of course. In July, tennis player John Isner inked a deal with Defy, a new sports-drink company that specializes in CBD-infused beverages. “I play a sport where taking a single point off can be the difference between winning and losing a match and Defy is a product specifically intended to put me in a position to perform on every single point,” the 15th-ranked player in the world said in a statement. “It’s been great getting to know Defy as a company and I look forward to working with them to help people achieve improved performance through CBD.” Isner, the first tennis player to link up with an herb company, will don the Defy logo on his hat during tournament play, and reportedly will guzzle the stuff on the court as well. (Golfer Bubba Watson also signed an endorsement deal this year, with medical-pot company cbdMD.)
Team sports embracing cannabis-friendly sponsors may not be far behind. This year, the Las Vegas Lights FG of the United Soccer League glommed on to THC-infused-beverage specialist Two Roots Brewing Company as its exclusive craft-beer sponsor for 2019. Sadly, the brew served at Lights home games at Cashman Field doesn’t actually contain THC or CBD (it’s alcoholic) due to local laws, but that day will come.
Expect to see more sponsorship deals cut between athletes and cannabis companies, although not any time soon with football players. While the NFL has recently, slowly, begun to at least consider CBD products as a possible pain reliever and muscle-recovery aid, the league maintains a ban on cannabis-related sponsorships and deals. Players have to wait for retirement before palling around with pot-adjacent companies, and Defy is a good example of this dynamic—it was cofounded earlier this year by former NFL star and Hall of Famer Terrell Davis.
One of the selling points for medical marijuana in sports is that it is a safer, and frankly more effective, analgesic than opioids. We asked Dr. Frank D’Ambrosio, an orthopedic surgeon and cannabis advocate in Los Angeles, if this argument is sound. “If you have an injury of any kind, the body’s first instinct is to heal,” he says. “Opioids work by essentially numbing your brain, decreasing the brain’s ability to perceive sensations. Whereas cannabis, through the endocannabinoid system—the CBD and THC and all the cannabinoids and phytocannabinoids, terpenes and everything else—work to actually start the healing process. So the opioids block the pain response, but the cannabis and the cannabinoids work on beginning the healing process.”
Opioid abuse is considered a crisis throughout North America, but cannabis is increasingly seen as a safe alternative. “We know based on all the literature that after a five-day supply of opioids, the addiction process starts,” Dr. D’Ambrosio says. “But you can’t be addicted to cannabis. Once the cannabis has done its job, it’s over. But the opioids, they continue. They leave a lasting impression on your body and your central nervous system, where you have to fight not only the original injury, but now you’ve got to fight an addictive process.”
Major League Baseball has a fairly decent drug policy, but its minor leagues—with many more players—are not so reasonable. The reason? “Major League Baseball players and minor league baseball players are treated differently because Major League Baseball players are members of the union,” as the former MLB Players Association (MLBPA) communications head Greg Bouris succinctly explained to the Huffington Post.
The union-negotiated MLB-MLBPA Joint Drug Policy decrees that players are tested for drug use only when there’s probable cause. When a player breaches the threshold for a positive test of THC— over 50 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml), he may need to undergo a “treatment plan,” and can be subject to up to $35,000 in fines. So long as he sticks to the treatment, he can’t be suspended.
The minors are a different story. At the end of last year, MLB quietly announced that five minor league ballplayers were suspended for drug-policy violations. The hardest hit was St. Louis Cardinals prospect Griffin Roberts, who was suspended for a whopping 50 games for cannabis use, his second infraction. He is back on the mound these days with the Palm Beach Cardinals of the Florida State League, which is designated as Class A-Advanced, the third-highest classification of minor leagues.
Former player Matt Bruback bounced around the minors for eight years until he retired from the game in 2006. In 2004 he got high, then had an epiphany that led to a fascinating invention, the Sensory Belt— a therapeutic device used to help with balance and other issues for kids with autism and other conditions. “Smoking pot got me to hyper focus on core balance and the Sensory Belt was the result,” Bruback explained in an email.
But smoking pot came with a risk. “Each team was tested two times a year on average,” Bruback said. “A few guys got in trouble and were banned from a few games and obviously if the team wanted to get rid of someone I’m sure this would have been used as an excuse to do so. As for me, I only smoked a few times back in 2003 and 2004.”
There were some odd strategies for beating the tests. “I was told by a few veteran [players], if there were testers waiting in the clubhouse, to leave and drink cranberry juice and take some goldenseal root,” Bruback explained. “This concoction was supposed to clean out your kidneys to pass the tests.” Bruback was never busted, but goldenseal’s efficacy in beating a drug test is dubious at best.
One of the quandaries facing the professional leagues in North America is that legal weed in one form or another is ubiquitous. Consider that among the 31 cities where hockey players compete, 28 are in jurisdictions where you can legally purchase something that will trigger a positive drug test. The argument that the owners have made about “following the laws” is increasingly irrelevant.
Another argument that prohibitionist types have made is that pot use is a kind of cheating, like taking steroids or human-growth hormones, but that’s a nonstarter too. “There is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug,” according to a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine titled “Cannabis and the Health and Performance of the Elite Athlete.” Nevertheless, while the World Anti-Doping Agency does not prohibit cannabis use “out of competition,” it does for in-competition testing. At least the WADA upped its threshold for triggering a positive test to 150 ng/ml THC.
The UFC follows WADA guidelines, and its website attempts to explain why weed can be considered, if you squint hard enough, a performance enhancer: “Cannabis can cause muscle relaxation and reduce pain during post-workout recovery. It can also decrease anxiety and tension, resulting in better sport performance under pressure. In addition, cannabis can increase focus and risk-taking behaviors, allowing athletes to forget bad falls or previous trauma in sport, and push themselves past those fears in competition.”
And therein lies a truly incoherent argument: Weed is really good for competing athletes, therefore we should ban it. By the criteria above, simple weight training is a performance enhancer. So is meditation or visualization or virtually anything else an athlete does while training, which by definition is done to improve performance.
The NCAA takes a stricter stand on cannabis consumption, perhaps because it assumes more of a guardian role over its charges, many of whom are teenagers: “The penalty for a positive test for a substance in the cannabinoid class is withholding from competition for 50% of the season in all sports in which the student-athlete participates,” its website states. “A second positive test for a cannabinoid results in the loss of a year of eligibility and withholding from participation for 365 days from the test.”
It doesn’t take much to trigger a positive test—a mere 15 ng/ml. This is actually an improvement over its previous threshold, a microscopic five ng/ml. Either way, a tiny amount is sufficient to screw up a student’s life.
In the NFL, the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expires at the end of the 2020 season. Many observers believe that cannabis—or CBD at least—will be part of the next CBA. This is also true for the NBA, whose CBA runs through the 2023-24 season. Erasing cannabis from the list of banned substances could very well happen by then. Baseball’s labor pact will expire in 2021, and we shall see what happens there. The days of career-killing suspensions and other penalties may soon be over.
Because of the dramatic changes in marijuana laws happening so quickly, it is difficult to predict how professional sports will evolve. One new law that almost had an immediate impact is New York City’s ban on pre-employment testing for weed, enacted in April of this year. This would have been a big deal for the big four sports, since all of them have headquarters in New York, but the new law exempts businesses that have provisions for pre-employment screening in their respective CBAs.
A number of cultural developments are converging that suggests we will see saner drug policies governing professional and quasi-professional sports leagues. Foremost, more chill attitudes about marijuana have entered the mainstream. Imagine being a young person in California or Colorado (or in any of the other nine legalized US states or, for that matter, Canada) and hearing that a favorite athlete is being disciplined for consuming a legal and harmless—indeed beneficial—plant product. Whether or not you see pro athletes as role models, there is a cognitive dissonance here that needs reconciling.
And then, of course, there’s the money. Big-time athletics is a multibillion-dollar industry, and most of the cash comes from television money, which comes from advertisers. It is only a matter of time before ads for edibles are being aired alongside beer commercials during halftime and TV timeouts.
Laws are catching up with society’s changing attitudes on pot, and professional sports will eventually follow, albeit at their own stately pace. The players themselves know what’s up, and the owners are starting to get the idea. Even non-pros know how well weed goes with the sporting life—whether it’s for training, muscle recovery, or pain and stress relief. Athletics and weed just go together.
Originally published in the November, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.