mlb cannabis

State of Play: The Evolving Relationship of Cannabis and Pro Sports

With the upcoming Super Bowl, along with the Waste Management Phoenix Open Golf Tournament and Spring Training happening right here in Arizona, we’ve got athletics on our minds. Specifically, the fast-moving evolution of sports in the time of cannabis. These boom times have seen dramatic changes in the way that athletes, fans, and major league sports view cannabis. With legalization measures sweeping the country, the game has definitely changed. So what’s the state of play?

The Big Leagues

Major League Baseball (MLB) announced last month that they are changing how they treat their players who use cannabis. The organization and the players association agreed on the changes which include the removal of marijuana from the list of “drugs of abuse” and the beginning of testing for opioids. Prior to this announcement, according to Marijuana Moment, “a positive test resulted in mandatory treatment, and failure to comply was punishable by a fine of up to $35,000.”

Beginning in the spring of 2020, players will no longer be penalized if they test positive for THC. Instead, they’ll be judged on how they conduct themselves after cannabis use. The MLB press release stated: “Going forward, marijuana-related conduct will be treated the same as alcohol-related conduct under the Parties’ Joint Treatment Program for Alcohol-Related and Off-Field Violent Conduct, which provides for mandatory evaluation, voluntary treatment and the possibility of discipline by a Player’s Club or the Commissioner’s Office in response to certain conduct involving Natural Cannabinoids.” In straight talk, it means that if there is no drug-fuelled chaos, there is no problem.

The shift in MLB policy is a welcome one—and one that will be keenly watched by other professional sports bodies. Notably, the Professional Golfers Association (PGA), earlier this year suspended tour player Robert Garrigus after cannabis turned up in a drug test.MLB cannabis

It’s possible that the NFL may soon implement a similar update to their cannabis policy, especially as more and more players seek alternatives to opioid pain management. The league is currently in negotiations with the players union, which is the only time frame in which owners can make policy changes regarding cannabis and other banned substances. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones raised eyebrows during a recent interview when he said, “We always need to be careful when looking at our behavior,” on marijuana and how MLB is dropping it from tested drugs. “I think that you should expect and will expect an adjustment.” In May of last year, the NFL and players’ union agreed to study the potential use of marijuana for pain management.

Separately, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had long prohibited any type of cannabis use among professional athletes. In recent years, however, both have updated their policies to allow for CBD, provided it has a negligible amount of THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive cannabinoid.

Training and Recovery

Amazingly, pro sports seem to be just catching up to what many athletes already know. A study last year on marijuana and exercise habits—the first of its kind—suggested that cannabis and athletic activity may go better together than one might assume. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that about 70 percent of people who imbibed before or after a workout believed that it made their physical activity more enjoyable. Some 80 percent felt it enhanced their recovery, while more than half reported that it helped motivate them to get out and be active. A smaller segment of the study’s participants even reported that it actually enhanced their performance.

Runners in earlier studies claimed that cannabis and cannabis products make distance running more enjoyable, and researchers say there may be some scientific support for this. Marcel Bonn-Miller from the Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine studies cannabinoids and says that from a physiological standpoint, there is overlap between the parts of the brain activated during exercise—the “runners’ high” and those triggered by THC. “Both of those involve activation of the endocannabinoid system, so it’s not too surprising that THC might be used to enhance the runner’s high that’s gained from endurance exercise.”

Moreover, runners studied said that cannabis products help them to recover from hard workouts and races faster, and other researchers studying cannabinoids have echoed these claims. “One [reason for cannabis use] is to enhance your ability to train. The other is recovery-oriented,” says Bonn-Miller.

For people looking to ease the soreness, inflammation, and injuries that come with intense training and exercise, CBD offers a positive alternative to steroids or opioid pain management. Runner’s World magazine touted it as a natural alternative to ibuprofen, an antidote to anxiety, a sleep aid, a post-workout recovery booster and report that a growing number of athletes consider it a key part of their regimen.  Dr. Stuart Titus from Medical Marijuana Inc. thinks that the compound could be even more beneficial than vitamins found in supplements that many people already use to keep muscles and joints functioning optimally. “CBD seems to have a much greater antioxidant effect than vitamin C or vitamin D, so many athletes are using this to deal with inflammation,” he says.

Athlete Advocacy

Much of the recent advocacy for cannabis has come from high-profile athletes themselves. More and more often, they are apparently turning towards cannabis as a pain-management solution — especially as after battling with more highly addictive substances that have burned many careers to the ground.

Although research is still scant—because of the federal restrictions on marijuana testing—scores of retired and active pros have gone public with their affection for cannabis. Quite a few are even developing or promoting cannabis businesses. According to the Washington Post, the list includes former NFL players, mixed martial arts fighters, golfers, Olympic athletes, surfers and hockey players. Among them are retired NHL players Riley Cote and Ryan VandenBussche; retired NFL players Steve Smith, Tiki Barber and Rob Gronkowski; retired NBA players John Salley, Kenyon Martin and Matt Barnes; Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones and golfer Bubba Watson. The list continues to grow as the stigma and rules surrounding cannabis fall away.


Watch this space for more on the topic as it happens!