The NBA is reaching a tipping point in the debate over legalized marijuana

Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr have more in common than the 1990s Chicago Bulls. (AP)
Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr have more in common than the 1990s Chicago Bulls. (AP)

The legal use of marijuana, whether it be medicinally or recreationally, is gaining steam in the NBA.

First, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted last week to using legally prescribed marijuana during his recovery from a 2015 back surgery, questioning how a league could encourage prescription painkiller use for players healing from injury while listing marijuana among its banned substances.

Now, New York Knicks president Phil Jackson has followed Kerr’s admission with tales of recreational marijuana use during his own recovery from back surgery as a player in 1969, suggesting the recent legalization of cannabis in several states will force the NBA to address a rule now in conflict with law.

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In an appearance on CBS Sports Network’s “We Need to Talk” on Tuesday, during which he touched on several subjects, including a non-apology for his controversial “posse” remarks on LeBron James, Jackson was asked about Kerr’s recent comments on marijuana. This was his response, in its entirety:

“I don’t know about its medicinal ability. I know that when I had back surgery, the year I was off I was smoking marijuana during that period of time. I think it was a distraction for me as much as a pain reliever, but I never thought of it as ultimately a pain medication for that type of situation. I know for ocular things, stomach digestive issues and other things I think it is regarded quite highly.

“We’re in a situation that’s in flux. We have states — Washington, D.C., Colorado — that have legalized marijuana. Those are going to raise issues. We also have a testing regiment that we go through in the NBA, so we’re kind of in conflict with what is going to be the law. I see that as a decision that’s — I don’t know if we can equate it to gay marriage or whatever else — but it’s a decision that’s going to be made by our population at some point. They’re going to come out and make that decision for us, I think, instead of legislators trying to make the decision.

“I think we’ve tried to stop it in the NBA. I don’t think we’ve been able to stop it. I think it still goes on and is still a part of their culture in the NBA, and I think it’s something we either have to accommodate or we have to figure out another way to deal with it.”

As others have noted, Jackson already discussed his 1960s and ’70s marijuana and LSD use in both his 1975 autobiography, “Maverick,” and 2001 biography, “Mindgames: Phil Jackson’s Long Strange Journey,” weighing perceived mind-altering benefits of such substances against the inherent dangers.

Phil Jackson admitted to using marijuana while recovering from injury as a player in 1969. (AP)
Phil Jackson admitted to using marijuana while recovering from injury as a player in 1969. (Getty Images)

Jackson did not elaborate on any potential personal marijuana use after the 1969-70 season, when he missed the entirety of New York’s championship campaign following spinal fusion surgery, but he did suggest marijuana was still prevalent among today’s players. In 1997, when Jackson and Kerr’s Chicago Bulls were in the midst of winning six titles, The New York Times famously reported roughly 60-70 percent of the league smoked marijuana, and that number may be higher now, if Jay Williams’ 75-80 percent estimate this past May is accurate. In other words, marijuana is not a new issue for the NBA.

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According to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players’ association, all players are subject to as many as six tests per year, randomly scheduled by a third-party entity — four during the season from October 1 to June 30 and two more in the offseason months between.

Players cannot be suspended until a third violation of the marijuana policy, which includes court convictions for use or possession in addition to positive tests, at which point they face a five-game ban (10 for a fourth violation, 15 for a fifth, etc.). The NBA’s enforcement of its policy is widely considered lax, and Adam Silver suggested as much in an interview with GQ in 2014, when Chuck Klosterman asked the commissioner if Colorado’s legalization of pot would force the NBA to adjust:

“It doesn’t force us to change our policy. Plenty of employers have rules against employees drinking, which is perfectly legal. This is a policy matter, and it’s our strong preference that our players do not consume marijuana. We believe it will affect their performance on the court. That said, marijuana testing is something that’s collectively bargained with the players’ association, and we adjust to the times. But we’re much more concerned about HGH testing and designer performance-enhancing drugs. Among our many priorities going forward, marijuana is not at the top of our list.”

Still, two players have been slapped with drug suspensions as a result of marijuana use in the past three seasons, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Mitch McGary and Milwaukee Bucks big man Larry Sanders, both of whom are no longer in the league, and they offer interesting case studies in the debate over policy vs. productivity. Would Sanders, a rising star, still be in the league if he were allowed to use marijuana? And would McGary, a relative bust, still be in the league if he never used marijuana? The answers to those questions could shape the NBA’s marijuana policy moving forward.

However, the league did not expect in mid-November to drastically alter its policy in the forthcoming 2016 CBA, according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. This despite eight teams (Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards) playing in cities with legalized recreational marijuana and an additional 12 (Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors) in states with legalized medical marijuana. That’s two-thirds of the NBA.

With Kerr and Jackson now publicly addressing the subject, you wonder if both the NBA and its players’ association will take another look at it before the CBA’s expected final approval later this month. After all, if Kerr can admit to consuming edible marijuana in the same season he won NBA Coach of the Year honors, without repercussion from the league, it does seem hypocritical to hold players to a higher standard — to say nothing of a team doctor allegedly prescribing painkillers as an alternative to marijuana for a player who ultimately left the league over mental health issues.

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None of this is to say abolition of the marijuana policy is a universally held belief among NBA players and coaches. Between Kerr and Jackson raising the issue over the past week, Suns head coach Earl Watson and Houston Rockets player development coach John Lucas expressed their concerns about such a policy change, specifically for the message it might send to still-developing youth athletes.

Those worries should also hold weight in the NBA conversation, even if Watson and Lucas do not have the championship resumes of Kerr and Jackson. We can debate the merits of arguments for or against marijuana — its addictiveness, effect on the brain, reputation as a gateway drug and relatively mild influence in relation to NBA-legal alcohol and prescription drugs, among other sources of contention — but the point here is that this debate has become increasingly difficult for the league to ignore.

Jackson suggested there was a tipping point for the NBA once enough of the population voted in favor of legalized marijuana, and you have to wonder — now that two-thirds of the league’s teams play in cities that have passed some form of it into law and an estimated three-quarters of its players use the substance — whether we’ve surpassed that tipping point. Maybe they should put it up for a vote.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!