While cannabis legalization in Canada and some states in the U.S. may have opened doors to further research into the plant’s health benefits, one area where it is still not accepted is in professional sports leagues—for now.
A growing number of professional athletes are coming forward as cannabis advocates, pushing for softer penalties or none at all for using the drug, and highlighting its benefits for pain relief compared to current options, such as opioids.
World Anti-Doping Agency not down with dope
Cannabis is currently a banned substance in the eyes of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which fights the use of drugs in sports. They consider it performance-enhancing and harmful to an athlete’s health.
However, the organization has loosened its stance on cannabis over the year.
In 2013, WADA raised the threshold of allowable cannabis in an athlete’s system to 150 nanograms per mililitres in 2013. That is compared to the 15 nanograms the National Basketball Association (NBA) checks for.
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports (CCES) has pushed the organization to remove cannabis from its banned substances list.
NHL lenient towards cannabis
Cannabis is not on the National Hockey League’s (NHL) list of banned substances, but is one of the many drugs tested for under the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.
The NHL currently tests all players at least two times a year for performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids, and in 2017 began testing all players for illicit drugs, such as cannabis or cocaine.
Greencamp spoke to former NHL player Grant McNeill, who played for the Florida Panthers in the 2003-2004 season, on his experience using cannabis while in the NHL.
McNeill says that cannabis use is rampant in the NHL. He estimates that 50 to 70 per cent of players use the drug.
“There’s a ton more players who use it than [management] thinks,” McNeill said. “There’s a lot of guys who just don’t talk about it and use it.
“It is definitely not something guys will talk about in the dressing room, it is very low key, hush hush.”
McNeill says that the NHL often turns a “blind eye” to cannabis, and is the most lenient professional sports league towards it, or perhaps second to the Canadian Football League (CFL), which does not test for cannabis because it does not consider it a performance-enhancing drug.
“It is more the stigma the GMs and coaches look at it with.”
McNeill explained that management in the NHL has an “old school mindset” towards cannabis, such as believing it is a gateway drug.
Since the NHL makes investments into players, cannabis use can be seen as a black mark that could have consequences depending on the coach, McNeill said.
These consequences include sending you to the minors or limiting your chance of making an NHL team if caught using cannabis in the minors.
“It’s not necessarily penalties or fines, it’s more you’re limiting your opportunities if they know you use it,” he said.
While many players may use cannabis in the NHL, the league currently has no plan to outright allow it.
“Right now, we think based on the education level and what we do test for and how we test, at least for the time being, we’re comfortable with where we are,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement in October 2018.
A harsh stance in most leagues
Other leagues have a harsher stance towards cannabis than the NHL.
The National Football League (NFL) can suspend players for cannabis-based infractions after two positive tests. After a first positive test, a player is put in NFL’s “Stage Two” intervention program, which means for up to 24 months the player may be more frequently tested. Regularly though, drug testing only happens between April and August.
In the National Basketball Association (NBA), players are fined $25,000 USD if tested positive for cannabis twice, which is followed by a suspension of five games, then 10 and so on for each subsequent positive test.
For Major League Baseball (MLB), a player can be fined up to $35,000 USD if on a 40-man roster and found to use cannabis, and those not on the roster can receive 50 and 100 game suspensions for second and third positive tests, respectively.
One league, however, has gone a different direction on cannabis. BIG3, which features 3-on-3 basketball with former NBA players, became the first U.S. pro league in 2018 to permit CBD for pain management and recovery.
Cannabis as an alternative to opioids
Potentially the best use of cannabis in sports is for recovery and pain relief, especially when considered next to the current use of opioids.
McNeill explained that treatment for pain was a big reason he turned to cannabis, which has been found to have anti-inflammatory effects.
“I never liked taking oxycontins and Tylenol 3s, it was something that made my body feel very bad, and I also knew the potential addictions to those drugs,” McNeill said. “I used cannabis to offset the pain tolerance … I felt cannabis was a more natural way.”
The problem with using opioids is that it can easily lead to addiction.
The U.S. is currently under an opioid epidemic, where in 2016 there were around 16,800 overdose deaths from prescription opioid overdoses.
A 2011 survey by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found more than half of former NHL players reported using opioids during their career, and 71 per cent reported misusing them.
“It’s crazy to me the hypocritical situation where it is okay for guys to drink themselves out of pain or take 2-10 oxycontin to get through a night, yet if you smoke a joint you’re a complete drug addict,” McNeill said.
Brain injuries and cannabis
One professional athlete ailment cannabis may prove useful is in treating chronis traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that is caused by repetitive brain trauma, such as consistent blows to the head, and has been suspected of playing a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.
CTE has been found to be prevalent among professional football players. The Journal of the American Medical Association found in a study that out of 111 NFL players examined, 110 had CTE.
Another study found 99 per cent of deceased NFL players had CTE.
Cannabis may provide a way to tackle CTE since it has been found to have neuroprotective qualities.
One study done in 2000 by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences on rats found that cannabis had neuroprotective qualities as an antioxidant. Another study done in Israel also found endocannabinoids can reduce brain damage in rats and mice.
In 2014, Harvard psychiatry professor Lester Grinspoon wrote an open letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about cannabis’ neuroprotective properties.
“Cannabis … can indeed provide significant protection against the damage of repetitive concussions,” he wrote.
The evidence may be having an effect on the NFL. In 2017, the NFL offered to work with the NFL Players Association to examine the science behind cannabis as a pain-management tool for players.
Is cannabis performance-enhancing?
The debate is ongoing whether cannabis is performance-enhancing or not.
WADA defines performance-enhancing drugs as ones that meet two of three criteria: it has the potential to enhance sports performance, it represents an actual or potential health risk to an athlete, and/or it violates the spirit of the sport.
According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), cannabis can enhance sports performance because it can allow muscle relaxation, reduce pain post-workout, and decrease anxiety and fear, allowing athletes to focus better while under pressure and lead to a better performance.
To USADA, cannabis can present a health risk because of its negative effects on the lungs, its ability to cause a higher heart rate that could lead to heart attacks, and its known connection to mental illness such as paranoia and psychosis.
In terms of the spirit of sport, since cannabis is still illegal in many countries and states, it infringes on the moral and ethics judgment that upholds the spirit of the sport.
McNeill did say that he used cannabis to calm his nerves after a game.
However, while cannabis may calm athletes’ nerves, it does affect motor control, balance, reaction time and coordination, which are all needed in athletic performance.
Some studies also show that cannabis can disrupt the REM cycle during sleep, which releases growth hormones needed for muscle growth.
A study by McGill University concluded that “there is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug,” and said that “the potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve attention.”
Over the years, a growing number of professional athletes have come forward advocating for cannabis, with a few facing consequences for doing so.
“It helps with the healing process and inflammation, stuff like that,” he told the room full of reporters at the time. “It’ll make your life a better place.”
The move landed Diaz a public warning from USADA, but not a suspension, even though cannabinoids were banned from use up to the time of competition, which includes up to six hours after a fight.
Diaz said though that the incident ended up working in his favour and he “bank out” in the cannabis industry after it.
In the NFL, running back Mike James was prescribed opioid painkillers in 2013 after injuring his left ankle. Within weeks he developed a dependency on the drugs, and to end that dependency he turned to medical cannabis for the pain.
Since his injury, James made history as the first player to file for a therapeutic use exemption specifically for cannabis.
The therapeutic use exemption allows players to circumvent the league’s policy if a substance is needed to treat a diagnosed medical problem.
James was denied the exemption by the NFL, but said he will not stop pushing for cannabis use to be allowed in the sport.
In 2014, former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson wrote an op-ed for the New York Times advocating for cannabis to be used for pain relief rather than opioids, one of the first to do so.
Before retiring, Baltimore Ravens running back Eugene Monroe publicly called out the NFL for not allowing players to use medical cannabis in a New York Times article, and also donated $80,000 to When the Bright Lights Fade, a campaign that funds research on cannabis’ potential for athletes.
Monroe was later cut by the Ravens, who mentioned his cannabis advocacy in their departure announcement.
In 1998, Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliatti won gold in the giant slalom at the Nagano Wnter Olympics in Japan, but was stripped of the medal after testing positive for cannabis.
Rebagliatti said he hadn’t smoked cannabis in almost a year leading up the games but may have intaken second-hand smoke at parties in Whistler, B.C., and 36 hours later he was given the medal back.
One of the more outspoken names in favour of cannabis is former Philadelphia Flyers player Riley Cote.
Cote helped form the group Athletes for Care, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving current and retired athletes’ lives through alternative medic and better health care, and founded the non-profit Hemp Heals Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting cannabis and hemp as something that can improve people’s lives.
McNeill is an associate of the organization.
Cote told Leafly that he has found cannabis to be helpful in managing pain naturally, much like McNeill’s testimony.
As an enforcer for the Flyers, Cote says it helped him calm his nerves as well after games.
A possible role in sports
While professional sports leagues may have an outdated perception of cannabis, the evidence is coming in of its unique benefits for sports’ unique issues, such as injuries and pain. W
hen taken into consideration next to opioids, it does seem like there could be a place for cannabis within the official rules, but when that might happen could be a matter of the drugs’ slow acceptance into society, more research and further legalization in different states and countries.