Marijuana Testing for Professional Athletes: Time for a Change

The NFL has progressed since Akron won the league in 1920, but on cannabis, it still has a long way to go.
The NFL has progressed since Akron won the league in 1920 but, on cannabis, it still has a long way to go.

The National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and Major League Baseball all prohibit their players from using marijuana, even if recommended by a doctor for medicinal use and even if marijuana use is lawful in the state in which the team sits. This means that three out of the four major professional sports leagues in North America prohibit cannabis use in any form and for any reason, regardless of whether such use somehow affects a player’s performance. The only notable exception is the National Hockey League which tests for recreational drug use, but has removed marijuana from its list of banned substances. With the advent of the legalization of marijuana for recreational and medical use, we have previously written about why there shouldn’t be any employer drug testing unrelated to job performance, and it should be no different for professional athletes.

The NFL is the worst offender when it comes to how it treats players who use cannabis. Nobody disputes that playing pro-football takes a significant toll on a player’s body (except maybe the kickers). Many (most?) players need pain relief after every game and using prescription painkillers for an extended period of time can lead to abuse and addiction. Repeated head trauma is common in football and that can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, with possible  memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, confusion, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, depression and suicide.

The NFL is currently battling former players in court against conspiracy claims against NFL doctors for allegedly having illegally provided players with painkillers without prescriptions to ensure that players could and would play through severe injuries. And earlier this year, the NFL settled a class action lawsuit by paying up to 5 million dollars to each former player with serious medical conditions linked to brain injuries from league play. That settlement could exceed 1 billion dollars. But if a player consumes cannabis, even if for medical purposes or to treat a head injury, he can expect to be suspended from play and/or fired altogether.

When it comes to cannabis, the NFL (and other sports leagues) continue to ignore science and progress. A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found medical marijuana was effective in treating chronic pain and the National Center for Biotechnology Information found THC has neuroprotective effects and may actually lower mortality for those suffering from brain injuries. Marijuana can serve as an alternative to highly addictive and destructive pain killers, and can potentially treat brain injuries.

NFL Players know the medicinal benefits of marijuana and many are willing to violate league policy to achieve them. A recent Bleacher Report survey of 16 active NFL players revealed that 15 of them had used marijuana and most said that a majority of NFL players also consume. Our cannabis lawyers hear similar numbers from former NFL players now involved in the cannabis industry. Those who admitted to using said that they did so to recover after a hard practice or game or to help deal with head injuries.

So, what’s the good news here? Professional athletes will soon have a lot of power to strike down their league’s retrograde cannabis rules. The NHL has stopped testing for cannabis and hell has not frozen over nor has the ice on their rinks melted. A number of NBA players are also talking about wanting to address medical marijuana testing in 2017, when their current collective bargaining agreement expires. Major League Baseball players may elect to do the same in 2016. NFL players could also fight for marijuana use in 2020 when their existing agreement expires.

Though workers in more mundane workplaces continue to fight to try to change employers’ perception of marijuana to at least accommodate performance-based drug testing, a large number of professional athletes are facing the same fight. It is going to take the will of the players and the overwhelming science to change current drug policies in major league sports.