It would appear cannabis use is commonplace in most, if not all, professional sports. Retired Philadelphia Flyers enforcer Riley Cote estimates that about half of NHL players use cannabis, one time Denver Nugget Kenyon Martin says it’s 85 percent of the NBA, and former Dallas Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett says nearly 90 percent of NFL players use cannabis – mostly to manage pain, instead of relying on opioids that can often lead to major side effects and addiction.
Easing pain isn’t the only reason NFL players use cannabis products. Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin revealed he got high before every game to help manage his intense crowd anxiety. “The only thing that really seemed to work is when I would smoke marijuana,” Harvin told Bleacher Report. “There’s not a game that I played in that I wasn’t high.”
But Harvin isn’t alone; in a 2019 interview, Cowboys’ defensive lineman Shaun Smith said, “I smoked two blunts before every game. When I smoke, I can focus and actually do the job I have. I feel like nobody can stop me when I was out there. It’s the best thing for me.” Smith and Harvin are also joined by Dallas Cowboys defensive end David Irving who, in March of 2019, announced his retirement via Instagram where he smoked a blunt, saying, “Every game you saw me in, I was medicated.”
But despite this, the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), which sets the rules for more than 650 sports, lists cannabis as a banned substance for athletes in competition., and many athletes have faced consequences for breaking that outdated rule. Despite having a legal medical prescription for cannabis, golfer Matt Every was suspended for three months by the PGA Tour in 2018 following a positive test for cannabis. Over this past summer, the United States Anti-Doping Agency suspended newly qualified Olympic sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for one month for testing positive for cannabis. The suspension cost her a trip to, and likely medal at, the Tokyo Olympics.
For years, people have been raising the very good question of why cannabis is illegal and athletes are under such strict consumption bans while alcohol, an undeniably more addictive and harmful substance, is fully legal in the U.S.; in fact, innumerable athletes have done alcoholic beverage promotions throughout the decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 10 deaths in working-age adults between 20 and 64 in the US is due to excessive alcohol use. In contrast, the US government does not even track deaths caused by overdoses of cannabis – because there has never been one.
In May 2013, WADA raised the threshold for cannabis in an athlete’s system from 15 nanograms to 150 nanograms. In 2018, they also removed CBD from their list of prohibited substances — in or out of competition. The NFL recently raised the acceptable limit of THC in a player’s system from 35 nanograms to 150 and no longer suspends players for a positive cannabis test. Following pressure from their players’ union, Major League Baseball removed cannabis from its list of prohibited substances in 2019. In 2020, the NBA suspended random testing of its players for cannabis.
Today, medical marijuana is legal in 37 states. 19 states and Washington, DC, have legalized recreational cannabis use. The stigmatization of cannabis, in all of its forms, is waning. Acceptance of cannabis products for pain relief, stress relief, mental health, etc. is growing. Pro sports leagues and associations are coming around slowly – but there’s still a long way to go.