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Policy Changes on Cannabis Usage in Professional Sports

May 22, 2020 in Cannabis Law

I can well imagine that those of you who are big sports fan are missing the excitement of attending live games and of watching televised games, all canceled as a result of the pandemic. I thought you might enjoy an article explaining some of the changes in cannabis usage policy that American sports leagues are implementing…or will be implementing when sports games resume.

Players have used cannabis for the following reasons:
1. Reduces their acute and chronic pain and inflammation due to overuse injuries
2. Helps them recover more quickly after games, during trainings and after work-outs
3. Sleep aid
4. Improves mental health
5. Reduces performance anxiety
6. Aids recovery from Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy (CTE), caused by head injuries. Many NFL players suffered with early onset dementia, depression and brain damage after years of playing football. Jim McMahon, former member of the Chicago Bears, suffered several concussions during his career. He became one of the first professional NFL players to advocate for medical cannabis usage.

National Hockey League

The NHL tests for both performance-enhancing drugs (PED), which does not include cannabis, and for drugs of abuse. The punishment for PED is much more punitive than for cannabis. If a player’s test indicates extremely high THC levels, the player is assessed by the doctors working for the NHL Players Association’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program. They decide whether or not to send the player to a mandatory substance-abuse treatment program. According to Riley Cole, former Philadelphia Flyers Enforcer, this rarely happens.

Major League Baseball

MLB’s current cannabis policy is one of the most progressive of the major American sports leagues. In December, 2019 cannabis was removed from the list of banned substances by the MLB.

However, the League has warned players and team officials who “appear under the influence” during any of the games, practices, workouts, meetings and any other Club activities that falls within their range of employment. If they engage in cannabis-related conduct, they must undergo a “mandatory evaluation” for a possible treatment program. They may also be subject to disciplinary action.

In addition, any player who breaks cannabis laws which includes possession and distribution and driving under the influence may be subject to punishment.

Clubs are prohibited from prescribing, dispensing or recommending the use of cannabis or any other cannabinoid. No cannabis may be kept at club facilities.

The good news is that MLB and the MLBPA (Players Association) are collaborating with the NSF International, an American product testing, inspection and certification organization, to create a testing and certification process for hemp-based CBD products.

Minor League Baseball

Players are no longer suspended for cannabis use.

National Football League

51.5% of the members of the NFL Players Association ratified a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) on Saturday, March 15, 2020. As a result, the NFL will no longer suspend players for cannabis violations. The threshold for a positive drug test will be raised from 35 nanograms to 150 nanograms of THC. Violations for cannabis possession are unlikely to result in suspensions.

The NFL will stop testing players after the first two weeks of training camp. Cannabis violations will henceforth be treated as a health care problem with no punitive outcome. If a player tests positive, a board of medical professionals will review the test and determine if any kind of treatment is warranted.

National Basketball League

The NBA lags behind the other 3 major sports leagues by keeping cannabis on their list of banned substances. However, the changes in some of the other leagues is pushing the NBA to reconsider its policy on cannabis. Commissioner Adam Silver is more progressive on cannabis usage than his predecessor; he thinks cannabis helps players manage their mental health and he does not believe it is a performance-enhancing drug. He has signaled that he may be open to removing cannabis from the banned substance list. The strength of the NBAPA may help the players push for a relaxation of policies surrounding cannabis usage.

The players are subject to four random tests during the regular season. The threshold of THC for a positive test is up to 15 nanograms/ml. With the first positive test, there is no penalty but the player is required to enter a treatment program. With the second positive test, there is a $25,000 fine and readmission to a treatment program. With the third positive test, there is a five-game suspension/treatment program and a further five-game suspension/treatment program for each additional violation. There is no testing during the off season.

Very few NBA players have ever been suspended for cannabis usage.

Professional Golfers Association

The PGA doesn’t have a hard and fast rule regarding cannabis usage. Recreational cannabis usage is banned, but players can ask for an exemption for medical cannabis usage.

Testing of players for cannabis usage is allowed before, during and after competitions, without giving them previous notice. They use both urine and blood samples. The testing levels are maintained at a high enough level so that there won’t be any “accidental exposure.”

The bad news is that if PGA players test positive for recreational cannabis, they can be disqualified from the competition, lose their prize money, be fined up to $500,000 and be suspended from the tour.

Suspensions may range from one year for the first offense, up to five years for the second offense and a permanent ban from the tour for the third offense.

The good news is that these consequences are almost never enforced.

Ultimate Fighting Championship

Per changes to the World Anti-Doping Agency Code during the anti-doping conference in Poland, there will be a reduction in sanctions for violations of recreational cannabis. The changes were immediately accepted by the US Anti-Doping Agency. The new policy calls for a reduction of punishment; a suspension for as little as one month to waiving it altogether. In order to avoid punishment, a fighter must show that the cannabis usage was for recreational purposes only and outside of the competition rather than for performance-enhancement. However, attendance and completion of drug awareness courses would be mandatory to avoid any repercussions.

The times they are a’changin!

Sources:, This is the PGA Tours Marijuana Policy for Professional Golfers, Calvin Hughes, Marijuana, Recreational Drug Penalties Reduced in Recent UFC Anti-Doping Policy Changes, Nov. 27, 2019, NFL Owners Soften Their Stance on Marijuana Use in Latest Collective Bargaining Proposal, Feb. 24, 2020, David Jagielski, MLB Officially Removes Marijuana From Banned Substances List for Baseball Players, Dec. 12, 2019, Kyle Jaeger
thenationalmarijuana, What Is The NHL’s Drug Policy for Marijuana? Steve Black
thenationalmarijuana, What Is The NBA’s Drug Policy for Marijuana?

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