NBA Extends Moratorium On Testing
What do the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), and now the National Basketball Association (NBA) all have in common? America's biggest sports leagues are shifting their opinion about weed in sports.
One of the latest to the pro-cannabis party is the NBA. At the end of 2020, the NBA announced it intends to maintain its relaxed approach to cannabis drug testing until further notice. While it may cite the ongoing pandemic as the reason, the NBA's changing position on cannabis fits into a larger societal transformation.
Anti-Cannabis Positions Slowly Changing
Major sports associations have long been against drug use of any sort amongst their players. Traditionally this has spanned a broad scope of substances, from performance enhancers to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of scheduled substances.
Not all scheduled substances are performance enhancers, of course. Cannabis is the leading example of that. But most of these organizations painted all drugs with a broad brush until very recently.
Cannabis, and even cannabidiol (CBD), received a lot of attention in sports over the years. Most major sports leagues had implemented a random drug-testing protocol, with serious penalties for players who tested positive.
But, there have been significant shifts in how America views cannabis, especially at the state level. With cannabis available in more states than not these days, even the most conservative sports organizations have had to reassess their anti-cannabis stance.
What has also helped shift opinion is the growing body of research demonstrating that cannabis is not a performance enhancer. If anything, it seems to diminish performance under certain situations and is a valid option for many therapeutic applications.
According to a 2018 nonsystemic review published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, "there is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes. The potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve further attention."
Player unions, athletic organizations, and sports leagues have all had to reassess their historically strong anti-cannabis stance.
COVID-19: An Easy Explanation Leading to Long-Lasting Changes
With change on the wind, several major organizations have already adjusted their policies. Early in 2020, the MLB removed cannabis from their list of banned substances (although later clarified that players can't come to work under the influence).
In April 2020, the NFL stepped up and loosened their cannabis regulations in a new labor agreement. Players only faced testing for two weeks a year, and the baseline for a positive test was raised significantly.
Last year, the NBA also announced it was relaxing its rules around cannabis. As a sports commentator, Ben Dowsett explained, "Sources say this decision is largely based on COVID safety – just another way of limiting unnecessary contacts. However, there's also significant expectation from many in the league that the entire marijuana testing program is on the way out in the near future."
Now, with the pandemic still messing up sports-as-usual, the NBA has expanded its initial ruling. In December 2020, a National Basketball Players Association spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports, "Due to the unusual circumstances in conjunction with the pandemic, we have agreed with the NBPA to suspend random testing for marijuana for the 2020-21 season."
A New Progressive Stance Towards Cannabis in Sports
Paul Haagen, co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University, hits the nail on the head in his interview with the New York Times: "There is a generalized sense that the fans don't care about the issue." Sports organizations, including the NBA, can increasingly adopt more progressive stances without fan backlash. While the NBA may claim COVID-19 is the real reason they are adjusting their anti-cannabis policies, they are still testing for all other drugs. Will it affect players? How will fans react? This tentative policy change is clearly a test.
What the sports industry is experiencing now is a tipping point. Social opinion, regulatory changes, and player demands have finally come together to agree about cannabis. Cannabis doesn't act as a performance-enhancing substance and may even have beneficial properties for recovery. Many agree that change is needed.
Many of these temporary and tentative first steps towards cannabis in major league sports will likely transform into more robust, longer-lasting policies.
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