Where Do The Major North American Sports Leagues Stand On Cannabis?

Dave Royse

One-time NFL golden boy Joe Montana was as much an icon for the league as you could get in the 1980s. Four Super Bowl wins, three Super Bowl MVPs, comebacks — he was Tom Brady when Tom Brady was a toddler.

Seemingly out of place with Montana’s throwback, straight-laced image, he’s now the latest former NFL player promoting cannabis. California marijuana company Caliva announced last month that Montana is part of a group that invested $75 million in the company.

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In addition to a handful actually in the business, dozens of former players have said their old league should let players try marijuana for pain relief as an alternative to addictive opioids.

But despite more and more veterans — even legendary “good guy” players like Montana — accepting the idea of cannabis as medicine, and growing public acceptance, the league isn’t quite ready. While cannabis is legal in an increasing number of states with NFL teams, its use remains officially off-limits to players.

But slowly, more executives in the big professional sports leagues, including some in the NFL, are starting to contemplate a time when some form of cannabis is as much a part of the medical room inventory as tape and smelling salts.

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Some are ahead of the curve, particularly the National Hockey League, where cannabis isn’t technically banned. The NHL Alumni Association even announced this week it will work with major Canadian cannabis company Canopy Growth Corp. (NYSE: CGC) on studying the potential effects of cannabinioids on players with head injuries.

And while it’s not a major league, the 3-on-3 basketball league made up of former NBA players known as The BIG3, said last summer its players can use cannabidiol, or CBD.

The following is a look at where the big U.S. sports leagues stand on cannabis.

NFL Not A Fan Of Legalization

Ending the ban on marijuana use may be an issue in talks over the next collective bargaining agreement between owners and the players’ union, if a NBC sports blog is correct. The current agreement ends in 2020. NBC’s PFT blog by Jim Florio speculated that the NFL is hoping to offer to make changes to the current policy, which prohibits players from using cannabis, as part of its negotiations, though the suggestion wasn’t sourced to anyone in NFL ownership.

The league policy is that use of marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids is banned, with players subject to suspension after two positive tests.

Earlier this year, former player Martellus Bennett said he believed nearly 90 percent of NFL players use marijuana, including many who use it to deal with injuries. One former player, Mike James, last year applied for a medical exemption to the rules, essentially challenging the ban, saying that he needed pot for medical reasons to be able to play. The league turned him down.

NHL Takes Relaxed Approach 

With the NHL being the national obsession of Canada, where marijuana is now legal, perhaps it’s not surprising it is the most laissez-faire league on cannabis.

The NHL doesn’t punish players who test positive for marijuana, which it technically doesn’t classify as a banned substance. Commissioner Gary Bettman told the Associated Press late last year that the league was comfortable with its current policy, as was the NHL Players’ Association. And, as mentioned, while several leagues say they want to know more about the effects of cannabis, the NHL is actually partnering in research.

NBA Assessing The Issue 

Players in the NBA, like in the NFL, have estimated that huge numbers of their colleagues on the court are using marijuana off it. While the NBA prohibits its use now, commissioner Adam Silver says it's being evaluated.

Silver said on Bleacher Report’s Full 48 podcast in December that the league doesn’t treat its players that harshly when they test positive.

“There’s no public disclosure of it,” the first time a player tests for cannabis use, he said. “The team in the first instance isn’t even informed. It’s a confidential program where the player talks to a drug counselor, and often that’s a trigger for a player to talk to a counselor about issues they’re having in their life.”

The league policy: After that, however, players can face fines for second and subsequent violations. And there are random spot drug tests, including some in the off-season.

MLB: More Lenient Baseball

Use of marijuana and cannabinoids by Major League baseball players is prohibited.

But the league only tests for it on a “for-cause” basis, not randomly. In a statement to Bleacher Report last year, the league said that players who test positive are “provided the necessary professional resources to help them abstain,” and are only subject to discipline if they continue to use it. Minor leaguers, who are not covered by MLB’s collective bargaining agreement, are subject to suspensions.

MLS: More Lenient Still

Major League Soccer has a vague policy. It prohibits the use of illegal substances, but if players voluntarily get treatment, they may avoid any sanctions. The league prohibits use of “controlled substances,” but doesn’t address whether marijuana is included, considering it is illegal some places and legal in others.

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