Per reporting by the New York Post, a massive number of professional athletes across a variety of sports have been said to use cannabis, often for pain management. Performance-enhancing drugs like steroids have long been a major topic of conversation and controversy within the sports world, but cannabis use in professional sports has not been as widely discussed in the past.
While many major sports organizations previously banned the substance, some — including the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) — have relaxed their guidelines with regard to cannabis in recent years. According to Insider, numerous high-profile athletes (mostly men) have admitted to using cannabis products, including NFL Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson. Some women have also openly advocated for cannabis use in sports, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe. However, due to the gender pay gap, it has generally been riskier for women to advocate for cannabis use in sports, while men have had more freedom to openly support this controversial issue.
Still, cannabis use is allegedly extremely common in pro sports. According to the Post, one National Hockey League (NHL) player revealed that cannabis use occurred among approximately half of all professional hockey players. A Denver Nuggets player also alleged that roughly 85 percent of NBA players are cannabis users. And a Dallas Cowboys tight end revealed that around 90 percent of NFL players use cannabis, explaining that by turning to cannabis for pain relief, players were able to avoid addictive, dangerous opioid medications.
According to Josiah Hesse, cannabis enthusiast and author of “Runner’s High,” the trick for many pro athletes is determining which cannabis dosage (whether it be CBD or THC) suits them best and produces the most desirable effects. When the appropriate amount is used, cannabis can have many benefits for athletes.
In addition to relieving pain and inflammation, the drug can help expedite muscle recovery after working out. As Hesse rightly notes, the pervasive myth that cannabis turns users into lazy, slothful creatures is alive and well, despite evidence showing that cannabis can actually help athletes fight the fatigue that often follows tough training sessions. At the same time, cannabis does not produce the same effects as certain performance-enhancing drugs like steroids, which give athletes an unfair physical advantage over other players.
In addition to its potential for pain relief, cannabis has also been used by pro athletes to relieve anxiety and tension that hinders their ability to perform, particularly in front of massive stadium crowds.
Some sports associations have embraced cannabis, while others have continued to prohibit athletes from using it. For instance, the World Wrestling Federation continues to punish athletes who are caught using the substance with fines of $2,500. WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, similarly prohibits athletes from using the substance. WADA has jurisdiction over more than 650 sports leagues today.
Other leagues, including the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency, have also taken a hardline stance against the use of the drug. The United States Anti-Doping Agency caused a wave of controversy when they suspended sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson after she tested positive for cannabis, which disqualified her from competing on the U.S. Olympic team. When it was later revealed that Kamila Valieva, a Russian skater, was allowed to compete at the Olympics despite testing positive for a prohibited drug, Richardson, who is Black, stated that she had been the victim of a double standard.
Other leagues, however, have begun to express more openness toward cannabis use by pro athletes. Major League Baseball (MLB) no longer bans cannabis use among its players, although players are still prohibited from using cannabis during games. The NBA used to selectively test players for marijuana, but as of 2020 they no longer do so. In addition, according to the Post’s article, smaller leagues such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship have also adopted a relaxed attitude toward cannabis.
The NFL used to suspend players if their THC levels were above a mere 35 nanograms, but that amount was recently raised to 150 nanograms. They have also launched a new initiative aimed at researching the potential benefits of cannabis-related products for NFL players, as well as other substances that could potentially be used to relieve pain in place of addictive opioid medications.
Even WADA has increased the amount of cannabis that an athlete is permitted to have in their system when tested. The previous amount allowed by WADA was 15 nanograms, but the threshold is now 150 nanograms. Although athletes cannot feasibly use cannabis while performing, they can use the drug during training, and are typically able to sufficiently reduce levels of THC in their system by the time competition rolls around.
WADA, which used to ban athletes from using CBD, now also allows athletes to freely use the substance. CBD is a popular non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana that may be beneficial for treating chronic pain, inflammation, headaches, other physical ailments, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
While some leagues, such as the MLB, have relaxed their cannabis policies, they still don’t allow cannabis companies to sponsor pro athletes. To proponents of cannabis, this feels like a double standard, since many of these same leagues openly embrace adult beverage companies.
While the United States has never recorded a single death due strictly to cannabis use, many individuals die due to alcohol poisoning each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 140,000 individuals perish due to excessive alcohol use in the U.S. alone each year. Still, the notion that cannabis may be a safer alternative not just to opioids, but also to alcohol, has begun to gain traction within the sports world.
As more states legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use, and use of the substance becomes more commonplace, perhaps sports leagues will adopt a more lenient stance toward use of the drug, and recognize the many benefits it has for pro athletes.
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