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By Adam Parsons

Despite its status as a banned substance, marijuana use among NFL and NBA athletes has been rampant for decades. Regular drug testing, player suspensions, and drug education programmes have failed to curtail its popularity. Instead, many believe that cannabis use in professional sports is at an all-time high.

Professional athletes use cannabis for a multitude of reasons. However, the leagues they play in still remain ignorant of marijuana’s potential to improve their quality of life. This refusal to be more understanding and accommodating has derailed the careers of several promising young athletes, and has earned the NFL much criticism over the years. Despite this, the NFL continues to supply its athletes with addictive opioid painkillers, while prohibiting the use of marijuana.

Cannabis is primarily banned by the NBA (National Basketball Association) and NFL (National Football League) because of its federal status as an illegal drug. Moreover, arguments have been made that it may function as a performance-enhancing substance. As such, in order to remain in-line with federal regulations, and to preserve the credibility of their respective sports, the NBA and NFL have banned marijuana use among their players.


Marijuana has been banned in the NBA since 1999. However, many believe that, when it comes to marijuana, the NBA’s lenient discipline system is just for show. NBA drug testing is more likely to be performed during the season, although it can be performed at any stage during the year. Moreover, unless they fail a test, players can only be tested a set number of times each year. Critics of the NBA’s discipline system allege that the system is too accommodating to players, and not authoritative enough.

It seems very likely that the NBA does not really want to prohibit marijuana at all. According to ex-NBA commissioner David Stern, the only reason testing started in 1999 was due to player complaints regarding other players playing high. The league seems to believe that the current discipline system is enough to discourage players from blazing up before hitting the court, while still allowing them the freedom to use it during their time off. In a recent interview, Stern stated that if he were still commissioner of the league, marijuana would not be a banned substance at all.

Banned Cannabis


The NFL has earned itself a reputation as an organisation run by old, rich, white, and uncompromisingly conservative team owners. A recent survey found that the average NFL team owner was approximately 69 years old, and that most had recently made financial contributions to the US Republican Party. Unsurprisingly, NFL owners have stuck to federal guidelines on drug use, prohibiting players from using marijuana, even in states where it is legal.

Similarly to the NHL (National Hockey League), the NFL has never alluded to marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug. The league does not believe that cannabis gives players an advantage on the field. They are merely sticking to federal law and conservative principles as closely as possible.


The NFL and NBA have very different discipline programmes for marijuana use violations.

In the NBA, first-time offenders are enrolled in a drug treatment programme and are subjected to more regular testing. Second-time offenders are subjected to a $25,000 fine, and third-time offenders are forced to serve a 5-game suspension. Any additional violations will add 5 games to the suspension total. So, for example, a 5-time offender would be looking at a 15-game suspension.

By comparison, the NFL is much more strict, and much harsher when it comes to testing and punishment. Under the league’s current policy, first-time offenders will be subjected to much more frequent testing over a 24-month period. Successive failed drug tests will result in game suspensions. Second-time offenders are suspended 2 games, third-time offenders are suspended 4 games. Further failed tests will lead to 10-game suspensions and eventual banishment from the league. Players are also subjected to fines, as well as missed game cheques for the games they miss due to suspension. Because the league’s season is only 17 games long, this can mean losing a significant chunk of income.

According to a 2016 report by CNBC[1], in 2016 the NFL fined 20 players more than $10 million for substance-related infractions, most of them stemming from cannabis use.



One of the primary reasons that athletes use cannabis is for short-term and long-term pain relief. In an interview with BBC[2] last year, 14-year NBA veteran Matt Barnes admitted to regularly using cannabis throughout his career to manage back pain, to help him relax, and to help him sleep.

Barnes’ one-time coach Steve Kerr likewise admitted to regularly using the substance to ease back pain. Retired athletes use marijuana to manage chronic muscle and joint pain resulting from years of playing at a professional level.

Athletes also use cannabis because it is a suitable alternative to other painkillers that may be addictive or may cause serious side effects with regular use. Cannabis products like sprays, topicals, and CBD oils exert their effects without getting you high. After former NBA all-star Al Harrington got tired of using over-the-counter painkillers, he turned to CBD. In a recent interview with NBA.com[3], he claimed that creams and oils gave him the same pain relief without the side effects, and without getting him high.

Many athletes use cannabis products recreationally in their time off. During his recent BBC interview, Matt Barnes claimed that smoking cannabis in the mornings gave him “peace of mind”.


Through their interaction with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), the cannabinoids found in marijuana are able to regulate functions like pain and mood. In a recent interview with CBS[4], retired Miami Dolphin Larry Chester stated that he was able to overcome his opioid addiction through the use of cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid subject to much investigation regarding its potential effects on pain and inflammation.

CBD has also been investigated to determine if it could help in the treatment of substance withdrawal. Several drug rehabilitation treatment centres have recently been experimenting with THC and CBD as withdrawal aids. These cannabinoids are being studied for their potential in conditions such as anxiety, depression, nausea, and pain, making them interesting candidates for drug withdrawal research.



The NFL is no stranger to the opioid crisis that is currently rocking North America. Painkiller addiction is a well-known issue among current and former football players. The brutality of the game and the punishment that it inflicts upon players’ bodies makes the use of painkillers almost a necessity. However, NFL teams, and their respective doctors, have come under fire for making dangerously addictive painkillers easily accessible. Moreover, it has become apparent that the league is not prioritising player safety, but rather using painkillers to force players on the field, giving the fans what they want.

A 2011 peer-reviewed study[5] of former NFL players found that over half of players surveyed admitted to using opioid painkillers throughout their career. Moreover, over 70% of them claimed to have abused opioids during their career. The study found that, when compared to the general population, NFL players were four times more likely to abuse opioid painkillers. Over 60% of the study’s participants obtained their opioids from a source other than a regular physician. The fact that players don’t even need prescriptions in order to abuse painkillers speaks volumes about the prevalence of opioid use in the NFL.

The opioid issue recently boiled over into a lawsuit filed with a US district court in California. There, over 1,800 former players filed a lawsuit against all 32 NFL teams, alleging that they perpetuated a culture that facilitated the abuse of opioid painkillers. Players allege that teams did not properly educate them on the risks of using opioid painkillers. Instead, the teams’ main priority was getting players back on the field as quickly as possible.

By comparison, NBA players are far less likely to abuse opioid painkillers, though many still struggle with pain and addiction well after their careers are over. This is because, by all accounts, opioids are not as widely and easily accessible in the NBA as they are in the NFL. However, even if they are not taking opioids, athletes who deal with chronic pain still have to treat it somehow.

Those players who do not take prescription painkillers often find themselves regularly consuming over-the-counter anti-inflammatory painkillers like ibuprofen. While certainly not as harmful or destructive as opioids, these medications can still cause serious problems in the long-term. The regular consumption of NSAIDs like Advil has been known to cause severe digestive issues including gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers.


The refusal of these leagues to reverse their stance on marijuana, even in the face of an opioid crisis, has resulted in a media debate over the behaviour and intentions of these associations. When it comes to the NBA, the league’s lax policy results in few suspensions and seems to only mildly annoy fans. However, NFL fans are incensed with the league’s refusal to be more understanding. Many are beginning to grow tired of watching star players miss games due to cannabis suspensions. Public perception of marijuana has changed dramatically and quickly, leaving many to wonder when the league will finally catch up.

Moreover, questions have been raised over the effectiveness of the NFL’s drug policy. Football analyst Mike Florio recently stated his belief that close to 95% of players know how to not get caught using marijuana. The same questions could rightfully be asked of the NBA’s drug policy. Despite using marijuana constantly throughout his 14-year career, NBA veteran Matt Barnes only failed two drug tests.


To make things worse, the NFL’s real reasons for keeping marijuana prohibited have recently come to light. The league has recently indicated that it is willing to use marijuana prohibition as a bargaining tool between itself and the NFLPA (NFL Players Association). In other words, the league plans to hold the marijuana issue hostage as a means to extract concessions from the league’s players. With the league’s current collective bargaining agreement expiring in 2021, negotiations are expected to begin next year.

The NFL’s behaviour with regards to this issue has rightly earned it criticism in the mainstream media. Its harsh treatment of players for a seemingly minor infraction has soured its image with the general public. Of particular note has been the fact that the league typically punishes very few players, but punishes them very severely. Fans believe that players who repeatedly fail drug tests should be helped and rehabilitated, not punished—even more so when it comes to cannabis. Instead, the NFL seems content to single out young men who get high, using that as a reason to destroy their careers, or at least to extract concessions from the players association that represents them.

External Resources:
  1. Why isn’t marijuana an option for professional football players? https://www.cnbc.com
  2. Cannabis and sport: NBA winner Matt Barnes 'smoked before games' - BBC Sport https://www.bbc.com
  3. Al Harrington wants to help NBA see benefits of medical marijuana | NBA.com http://www.nba.com
  4. Why isn’t marijuana an option for professional football players? https://www.cnbc.com
  5. Injury, pain, and prescription opioid use among former National Football League (NFL) players - ScienceDirect https://www.sciencedirect.com
This content is for educational purposes only. The information provided is derived from research gathered from external sources.

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