Weed and pro sports have a storied history, but most of it has been in the dark.
While some athletes have been vocal about their use of mind-altering plants and substances—think of baseball’s Doc Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher who claims he threw a no-hitter in 1970 while high on LSD—most have kept it quiet since it’s typically against league policy. There have been some very vocal outliers about weed and pro sports though.
Ricky Williams walked away from millions of dollars with the Miami Dolphins because he felt it unfair that he couldn’t use his medicine while being asked to put his body on the line. Dallas Cowboy defensive lineman David Irving quit last year for similar reasons, claiming he didn’t want to take the pills prescribed by his doctor and would rather self-medicate with cannabis. The medical benefits are widely known now and it’s obvious why athletes would be drawn to the anti-inflammatory properties, pain relief and calming effects of cannabis. It’s impacted some so much that they’ve built entire businesses around it.
Former power forward Al Harrington now owns a marijuana company that sells everything from butter to live resin because he was convinced of its healing properties when playing for the Denver Nuggets and alleviated his grandmother’s glaucoma. In the same interview, he estimates that about 80% of NBA players use cannabis at least occasionally and players claim similar numbers for other leagues too. But most keep to themselves about it because they have to.
Give players the freedom to do what they want.
We’ve analyzed the most popular professional leagues, their marijuana policies and whether they actually enforce them or not.The penalties across professional sports leagues range from fines in the thousands to multiple game suspensions and some even go so far as expulsion from the organization. Based on the letter of the law, it makes sense why they would keep it quiet, though it seems many leagues are less strict when it comes to applying their outdated rules. So why have them? Perhaps it’s to keep up this facade of puritan morality in sports that a good portion of its owners and media still promote. Maybe they want to keep in line with state and federal law depending on where they are.
This is rapidly changing in professional athletics though, as legalization sweeps North America. Many professional sports teams reside in a town or state that allows cannabis consumption—In the NHL over 50% of its teams exist under at least medical laws—so what happens when the legal system and corporate policy conflict?
Let’s start with Al Harrington’s former league, where he claims the vast majority of NBA players use cannabis. The reason for such a high number is that the NBA doesn’t seem to really enforce its policy. Cannabis is on the banned substances list—though former commissioners now think it should be taken off—but the testing is minimal at best. Players are tested four times a year but none of those tests occur during the season. That means the time between the end of the Finals in the summer and October is the only period they need to be clean. During the season, it’s fair game unless a situation warrants further testing. This is why you don’t hear much in the news about NBA players getting reprimanded for marijuana. If they do get caught, there can be some trouble but most of it amounts to annoyances for basketball stars. The first time a player is busted they can choose to enter a substance abuse program—because, you know, use = abuse amirite?—that will basically wipe it under the table. A second offense is a $25,000 fine, which gives me anxiety just typing but could be fine depending on who they are, and after the punishments are 5-10 game suspensions. If what former players say is true, you don’t have to worry about your favorite NBA star getting benched for a little weed, the league is not even trying to catch them.
The NHL seems to be of one accord with the NBA, they don’t really care but are still obligated to ride the fence on scientific research and public opinion. As mentioned earlier, over 50% of the league host cities allow at least medical pot consumption, including all the Canadian teams of course, so this has forced the NHL to be more vocal about its relationship with the plant. Its drug policy doesn’t specifically name marijuana because they’re more concerned with performance-enhancing drugs. If they test positive during their random two-a-year screenings, it does go on record but mostly to track the data of marijuana usage among players. If it’s a trace amount it just goes into the data. A professional hockey player needs a large amount in his system to be referred to a rehabilitation program by the league. The NHL claims it is open to changing this already lenient policy—compared to other leagues—if the science backs it up with more data. For now, they will not formally condone cannabis use but that doesn’t seem to stop the players. As former Philadelphia Flyer Riley Cote says, “Good people break bad laws, I guess,” he says. “At least half of those guys [in the league] consumed, and a fraction of those guys consumed regularly. Like, every day…. And that number is probably higher.”
While the NBA and NHL don’t have perfect marijuana policies (hint: the best one is none!) they’re doing much better than the regressive enforcement of the National Football League. A former tight end, Martellus Bennett, made headlines when he made the oddly specific claim that 89% of players in the league smoke weed to deal to pain. He was probably exaggerating and being specific as a joke but the point remains that many players are alleviating the pain from one of the most physically taxing sports with cannabis. NFL players are tested once a year, unless they fail the test, in which case they can be tested as much as the league feels. Ricky Williams says he was probably tested around 50 times in his career. The punishment is up to the discretion of the league too. Suspensions can range from a few games to an entire season, sometimes costing players millions of dollars in potential earnings, since they don’t get paid when they don’t play. This makes their policy particularly insidious and it’s come under much scrutiny in recent years, especially from former and current players urging the league to catch up with the times. The NFL is considering some changes for the 2021 player policy revision but it seems they’re selfish and only being used as a bargaining tool for owners.
We opened this piece talking about how a Major League Baseball pitcher once threw a no-hitter on acid and, surprise, baseball has the most lenient drug policy. So lenient in fact, America’s pastime is full of wild stories of drug use. Until recently MLB players were openly taking some form of amphetamine in the dugouts, which they affectionately called “greenies”. While those days are over, along with steroid-era home run records, baseball stars aren’t under much pressure when it comes to weed. The league only tests if there’s a reason to and then the question of testing gets put up to a vote by a panel. So basically they don’t test unless you’re really not holding your shit together. It’s unclear how many players come to games high, but it’s an open secret that occasional use is common across the teams. It’s difficult to find a time when the major leagues punished somebody. Unfortunately, this isn’t the same in the minor leagues, where players face up regular testing and up to fifty game suspensions if caught. It’s wild considering how relaxed the policy is once players are called up to the big leagues.