The National Basketball League’s (NBA) banned substances policy has evolved over the years. NBA drug testing policies were born decades ago out of a reaction to a public perception that NBA players had a cocaine use problem. At the same time that the NBA cocaine abuse perception issue was occurring, American society was in the middle of the ramping up of the War on Drugs. Professional sports, along with lawmakers across America, started to institute polices that took a zero tolerance approach towards many substances, cannabis included.
Those cannabis prohibitionist policies continue into today. The only major sports league in America that does not include cannabis on its list of banned substances is the National Hockey League. A national conversation has been occurring recently regarding cannabis reform in professional sports, with retired professional athletes like 18 year NBA veteran Clifford Robinson leading the charge on the reform side. Cannabis prohibition has never worked in professional sports. That was true when cannabis was first prohibited by professional sports leagues, and it’s still true now.
Retired ex-NBA commissioner David Stern made headlines recently when he announced that he now supports cannabis reform in the NBA. This of course is the same David Stern that championed a league cannabis prohibition policy that harmed a number of NBA players (and their families) over years while Stern was the head of the NBA. Stern claims that he had a change of heart because cannabis is now legal in multiple states for recreational and/or medical use. Stern’s endorsement of cannabis reform in the NBA was not coupled with an apology to the players that were suspended during his tenure overseeing the league’s cannabis prohibition policy. It’s worth noting that cannabis has been legal in some form for medical use at the state level in America since 1996 (California), and for adult use since 2012 (Colorado), and that David Stern served as the head of the NBA from 1984 to 2014.
A number of current and retired members of the NBA community have commented on David Stern’s recent statements, including Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. Below are excerpts of an article posted by Detroit Free Press which detail what Stan Van Gundy had to say:
“I think the NBA is going to be in a tough spot down the road – not just medical – but as more states legalize marijuana even for recreational use,” Van Gundy said after Friday’s practice at the Galen Center on the USC campus.
“That doesn’t mean you have to allow it. There’s still some businesses who test for it, but you let people be impaired by alcohol because it’s legal, how are you going to draw that distinction with marijuana in states that it’s legal?
“To me, that’s a tough one.”
The Uncle Cliffy team believes that the NBA is already in a tough spot, and has been since the NBA first started prohibiting players from using cannabis while simultaneously embracing alcohol. Cannabis is 114 times safer than alcohol. Prohibiting cannabis while at the same time embracing alcohol is extremely hypocritical. The NBA’s cannabis policy should be driven by science and compassion, and not the harmful, hypcritical political views of a handful of league officials.
Cannabis reform in the NBA is not as complex an issue as league officials and cannabis opponents are trying to make it out to be. What benefit does cannabis prohibition provide to the NBA? David Stern claimed that one of the reasons the NBA banned cannabis in the first place was that players were coming to league officials and complaining that other players were showing up to games under the influence of cannabis. If that is indeed true, then why prohibit all cannabis consumption by NBA players at all times, with zero exceptions? Why not institute a less-sweeping (and less harmful) policy that prohibits players from showing up to work under the influence of cannabis?
Cannabis can stay in a person’s system for up to 100 days. Just because an NBA player has cannabis in his system does not mean that he was impaired at the time of practice or competition. For that matter, just because an NBA drug test shows that a player has cannabis in his system does not mean that the player personally consumed cannabis. A study from 2015 found that someone who was simply around other people consuming cannabis could test as high as 50 ng/mL, which is more than three times the THC metabolite threshold that the NBA currently has in place.
The NBA needs to balance whatever justification it has for keeping cannabis prohibition in place (valid justifications so far being elusive) against the harms that cannabis prohibition has had on so many players. If it has been determined that an NBA player consumed alcohol in a private setting 100 days ago without any incidents, should that player be suspended? Of course not. So why is it happening with cannabis, especially considering that cannabis is so much safer? This of course doesn’t even touch on the fact that cannabis can provide a number of wellness benefits to players, which is further justification for ending cannabis prohibition in the NBA.
Ending cannabis prohibition in professional sports leagues should not be a tough decision. Cannabis prohibition has failed, and it’s time that leagues took a more sensible approach to cannabis use by players. Studies show that such a move would be welcomed by a strong majority of sports fans. The momentum for cannabis reform in the NBA and other professional sports leagues continues to pick up steam, and that is a great thing. It’s great for players who should no longer have their careers ruined because of cannabis prohibition, for the affected players’ families, and ultimately for the professional sports leagues themselves who should want their athletes competing on the court or field, and not serving a suspension for a beneficial plant that is safer than alcohol and pharmaceuticals.
News broke earlier this week that ex-NBA commissioner David Stern now supports ending cannabis prohibition in the National Basketball League (NBA). While his comments were a welcomed change from the stance he took while he was the head of the NBA, it was disheartening that the endorsement of NBA cannabis reform from David Stern wasn’t coupled with an apology for supporting failed NBA cannabis prohibition for so long. The Uncle Cliffy team is hopeful that it will happen in the near future.
Stern’s endorsement of cannabis reform in the NBA generated a lot of comments from current and former members of the NBA, including current Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. Kerr previously stated that he had used cannabis while recovering from a recent back surgery. At the same time that he confessed to having used cannabis to deal with the surgery-related pain, he also stated that he hoped that the NBA would soften its stance on cannabis use among NBA players.
Kerr repeated his support for cannabis reform this week in response to questions about David Stern’s new cannabis revelations. When asked if he thought that the NBA would eventually allow cannabis use by players for medical purposes Kerr answered with, “I think it’ll happen.” Kerr went on to express concerns related to fan perceptions regarding cannabis reform in the NBA. Per The Mercury News:
The tricky part in the institution of the drug, according to Kerr, will be the perception of the drug by the league’s fanbase. However, Kerr admits there’s one thing that may overrule the opinions of the fans.
“The perception of the fans is important,” said Kerr. “In terms of selling our business, but the health of the players should be the most important thing.”
Fortunately for Steve Kerr, and for the health and wellness of NBA players, a growing body of polling shows a significant level of support for cannabis reform from sports fans. Marist College, in conjunction with Yahoo, conducted a poll in which sports fans were asked the following question – ‘Would you have more or less respect for your favorite sports athlete if you learned they used marijuana in their personal life? If it makes no difference please say so.’
A substantial 68% of poll participants expressed that if their favorite sports athlete consumed cannabis that it ‘makes no difference’ to the level of respect that they have for the athlete. An additional 3% stated that they would have more respect. Only 28% of poll respondents stated that they would have less respect for an athlete that consumes cannabis.
A combined 71% of poll participants would have equal or more respect for a professional athlete (including NBA athletes) if they found out that they consumed cannabis, and not just for medical purposes. That’s significantly more than the support for national legalization (64%) by American voters, and the same as the level of support for medical cannabis legalization in the NFL among its players (also 71%).
Another poll, conducted by PRRI, found that, “A majority (54%) of the public believe professional athletes should not be prohibited from using marijuana if they live in a state where it is legal.” Currently 8 states and Washington D.C. allow cannabis for adult use, and 29 states allow cannabis for medical use. Another 17 states allow at least the use of CBD-specific cannabis products for certain conditions. Only four states in America currently have full cannabis prohibition in place – Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Kansas, none of which have NBA teams. In the case of the Toronto Raptors, they are located in a country that has not only legalized cannabis for medical use, full legalization is on the way in mid 2018.
Polling has even shown overwhelming support for cannabis reform in professional sports leagues among sports media members. A poll conducted by The Big Lead looked specifically at the level of support for cannabis reform among sports media members. An astounding 76.5% of poll participants stated that cannabis prohibition should end. Fan perception is a valid concern for professional sports leagues like the NBA that have an image and reputation to maintain. But as polling clearly shows, there is nothing to worry about. Hopefully this data helps members of the NBA like Steve Kerr embrace cannabis reform even more. Free the plant!
image via Wikimedia
The National Basketball Association’s (NBA) current cannabis policy is extremely strict, as proven by the 15 ng/mL THC metabolite threshold for player drug testing. That threshold is the lowest out of all of the major professional sports leagues, with the exception of the National Hockey League, which does not include cannabis on its list of banned substances. To put the NBA’s threshold into perspective, Olympic athletes are held to a threshold that is ten times greater than what NBA athletes are held to.
Clifford Robinson was the victim of the league’s harmful cannabis policy on multiple occasions, having been suspended for cannabis use no less than three times during his career, including a 5 game suspension during the playoffs. Robinson knows first hand that the NBA has been on the wrong side of history for a long time, which is why he has been leading the effort to bring reform to the NBA. As it stands right now, the NBA has no current plans to reform its harmful cannabis policy.
That could change with news breaking today that retired NBA commissioner David Stern now supports taking cannabis off the NBA’s list of banned substances. Per excerpts from an article posted by Sports Illustrated:
“I’m now at the point where, personally, I think [marijuana] probably should be removed from the ban list,” Stern said. “I think there is universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”
“It’s a completely different perception,” Stern added. “I think we have to change the Collective Bargaining Agreement and let you do what is legal in your state. If marijuana is now in the process of being legalized, I think you should be allowed to do what’s legal in your state.”
David Stern served as head of the NBA from 1984-2014, which includes the entire 18 year period in which Clifford Robinson played in the league. David Stern’s endorsement of cannabis reform in the NBA is a great thing, and should be celebrated, but it begs the question, ‘why now and not sooner?’ After all, medical cannabis has been legal at the state level since 1996 when California votes approved medical cannabis legalization. Since that time a number of states have followed suit. Cannabis became legal for adult use in Colorado (home of the Denver Nuggets) in 2012. If David Stern’s reasoning is that players should be able to do what’s legal in their state, then why didn’t that reasoning apply previously when Stern was in a position to actually do something about it? Why is he only now getting on the right side of history?
The Uncle Cliffy team is definitely happy to see David Stern endorse cannabis reform in the NBA, but it’s bittersweet given the fact that so many players were harmed by the NBA’s cannabis prohibition policy during Mr. Stern’s tenure, including and especially Clifford Robinson. Players like Cliff had to endure a tremendous amount of stigma because they were penalized by the NBA for consuming cannabis, and many continue to deal with that stigma still to this day. The opportunities to coach, make official league appearances, and be hired in league media roles that non-sanctioned players are regularly presented with are not offered to NBA players that have been branded with the ‘cannabis scarlet letter.’ Why is that?
It is yet to be seen what effect David Stern’s endorsement will have on NBA league policy, and that of other leagues’ cannabis policies. The National Football league is in the midst of an ongoing conversation about cannabis reform, and the endorsement of a retired commissioner from another major league could possibly carry some weight in those conversations. All professional sports league policies, including the NBA’s, need to be based on science and compassion for players, and not on the harmful political views of a handful of league officials.
League policies need to go farther than just allowing medical use by players in states that have legalized medical cannabis. Professional sports leagues need to completely end cannabis prohibition, including the practice of punishing players for cannabis arrests that take place away from the team. Anything less than that will likely lead to selective enforcement, and in many cases, the perpetuation of institutional racism. Kudos to David Stern for finally getting on the right side of history, albeit after the fact. Hopefully this helps increase the momentum for freeing the plant in the NBA and beyond.