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Cannabis Restrictions by Sports Leagues Continue To Loosen

Leslie kahn

I know that many of you are anxiously awaiting the return of professional sports and are eager to receive any sports related news. Just for you, here is a round-up of the current, new and changing cannabis usage policies by six different sports organizations. Some of them were about to be implemented before the pandemic blew everything up. Once it is safe for them to play again, these policies will go into effect. Others signal progress towards changing attitudes.

Major League Baseball 

MLB and the MLB players union announced in December, 2019 that they reached an agreement to remove cannabis from the list of banned substances. Both parties agreed that steps must be taken to handle drug misuse through a treatment-focused model, rather than by simply imposing penalties. 

Natural cannabinoids will be removed from the list of Drugs of Abuse. Cannabis-related conduct will be treated in the same way as alcohol-related conduct. This includes mandatory evaluations, voluntary treatment and a possibility of discipline by a Player’s Club or the Commissioner’s Office.

During the 2020 and 2021 seasons, educational programs regarding the dangers of opioid pain medications and practical approaches to cannabis use will be mandatory for all Players and Club Personnel. 

In the past, players who tested positive for THC were required to enroll in a mandatory treatment program. If they refused, they faced a fine up to $35,000. The new policy only imposes disciplinary action for those whose violations are “related to unsanctioned conduct while under the influence.” 

The changes were to take effect during 2020 Spring Training.

National Football League 

As of March, 2020 the NFL will stop suspending players for cannabis usage. An agreement was reached by a majority of members of the NFL Players Association and the NFL. The cannabis threshold for a positive test was raised from 35 ng/ml to 150 ng/ml. Those caught with cannabis in their possession are unlikely to be suspended. 

The new focus is on health rather than on punishing the players. Any player that tests positive will be under review by a medical professionals board. If they deem it necessary, a player will be referred to a treatment program.

Also, the NFL will no longer test players for cannabis after the first two weeks of training camp.

National Hockey League

The NHL has a more relaxed policy regarding cannabis use compared to other leagues, due to the fact that there are many Canadian teams in the League. Canada treats drug usage much differently than the US does. It views it as a health care problem rather than a criminal one.

The NHL also has a 2-tiered drug policy; performance-enhancing drugs, which does not include cannabis, and drugs of abuse. Its list of banned substances, which is not clearly defined, follows the standards of WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency. However, the NHL and the NHLPA reserve the right to decide which substances are on the list and have made a distinction between the two categories of drugs when it comes to imposing sanctions. 

The Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program (SABH) was created in 1996. It monitors drug abuse of both types and decides if a treatment program is warranted if a player’s test shows a high percentage of an illegal substance. The player is given the opportunity to explain himself in a meeting. While the NHL does not condone the use of cannabis by its players, it typically doesn’t punish them for using it. 60% to 70% of NHL players are reported to use cannabis. 

National Basketball League
The NBA has the least progressive cannabis policy of the four major sports leagues. Cannabis is still on the NBA’s list of banned substances. However, there seems to be a shift in attitudes towards cannabis usage by the current NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver. He is much more open to investigating the positive benefits of cannabis usage for players than were previous commissioners. He does not consider it to be a performance-enhancing drug. The NBA and the NBAPA are currently collaborating in investigating the benefits of cannabis.

However, as things currently stand, players must agree to four random tests during the regular season. The threshold for a positive test for THC is up to 15 ng/ml. If a player exceeds that amount, he is subject to the following:
1st positive test: Mandatory treatment program
2nd positive test: $25,000 fine and re-entry into a treatment program
3rd positive test: 5-game suspension and re-entry into a treatment program
For each additional positive test: 5-game suspension and re-entry into a treatment program 

Players are not subjected to drug testing in the off season
Professional Golfers Association

The cannabis policy of the PGA is rather lax. Recreational cannabis use is banned but players may be granted an exemption for medical use if they request it. Its illegal status seems to be the driving force behind the ban. The PGA does not view cannabis as a potential performance-enhancing substance. However, the fact that cannabis may be used to reduce anxiety before a competition may be perceived as giving a player an edge.

Players are tested for cannabis before and after as well as during competitions with no advance warning. Failing a PGA drug test can result in disqualification from competition, the loss of prize money, up to a $500,000 fine and suspension from the tour. Suspensions range from one year for a first offense, up to five years for a second offense and a permanent ban from the tour for a third offense.

While these repercussions certainly are serious, they are also rarely imposed.

Ultimate Fighting Championship

The World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) recently issued a statement regarding changes to its World Anti-Doping Code. The US Anti-Doping Association (USADA) follows their guidelines. There will be a reduction in consequences for a positive test for recreational cannabis during competitions. It may be no longer than a one month suspension, but may be waived entirely. 

James Fitzgerald, WADA spokesman, stated that the shareholders recognized that the use of cannabis was typically not related to sports performance. This conclusion was reached after an exhaustive two-year review process which resulted in the new code, set to be implemented in 2021. There is no prohibition of recreational cannabis usage outside of competitions. However, there was recognition by WADA that players who are tested before competitions may test positive even though the usage happened long before the competition.

The priority of WADA is to protect the health of their athletes over imposing long-lasting sanctions, if it is thought that an athlete has a drug problem.

The USADA has already implemented these guidelines even though WADA will not officially adopt them until 2021.

Progress is being made!

Sources:, 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?, 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