With the professional football season coming to an end, fans everywhere start to look towards next year. We do, too, but we’re wondering specifically where the National Football League will head with its cannabis policy.
As entire nations have legalized cannabis for medical (UK) and recreational (Canada) use, and state after state in the U.S. have followed suit, the landscape around marijuana is clearly changing in a wholesale way. Yet the NFL continues to ban its use, with a first failed test subjecting a player to 24 months of increased testing, and a second failure resulting in suspension.
With recently retired NFL player Martellus Bennett estimating that 89 percent of the league’s players use marijuana (USA Today), two things are clear: 1) the vast majority of players know how not to get caught; and 2) something’s gotta give.
Given the sea change in public attitudes regarding cannabis, and given the fact that their employees inflict physical damage on each other for a living, you might think the NFL would encourage the use of marijuana for pain relief, allowing players to opt for a safe solution without turning to opioids. The NFL may or may not have a marijuana problem, but it definitely has an issue with narcotic painkillers.
The National Hockey League was completely unaffected by Canada’s recent legalization of cannabis. Why? The NHL doesn’t ban its use. While a spokesperson says the NHL does not “condone” the use of marijuana, neither do they test for it, and the sport continues to thrive regardless.
Baseball straddles the line, with random testing and harsh penalties for minor-leaguers, including 50-game suspensions for a second positive test, suspensions that keep violators from playing in the majors as well. Get to the bigs, however, and there’s no more testing. The disparity comes about because MLB’s collective bargain agreement doesn’t extend to players in the farm systems. The focus in the majors, meanwhile, is on testing for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, so they don’t concern themselves with cannabis use. And in contrast to the NFL, these are guys who aren’t getting knocked around like piñatas every game.
So the NFL has an opportunity to show leadership in the fight against the opioid epidemic and keep their players on the field … yet the ban persists. The generally accepted explanation is that the league is more than willing to overlook cannabis use but wants to use that permission in exchange for some other concession from the players’ association in their next collective bargaining agreement. Which is fine, except that the current agreement runs through 2021.
And that sets up a really interesting scenario: as state after state line up like dominoes to legalize medical and/or recreational use of cannabis, does the NFL really have another two years of leeway on the issue? We’re guessing “no,” because as noted above, something’s gotta give.