With our focus on March Madness in this issue, we decided to look at the marijuana policies of five major sports leagues in the States. Some of this information is surprisingly hard to find, but don’t worry, we’ve gathered up the highlights of each policy for you. The times are changing quickly and soon, some of these policies may need to be revisited as special circumstances arise. Weed is now legal in four states as well as the District of Columbia, and 23 states now have access to medical marijuana, so what happens if a player is legally smoking weed? Or legally using medical marijuana to relieve pain or stress from playing at the professional level? Some leagues are ahead of the others in this area, but there’s still a ways to go before we reach a fair policy for our athletes.
The MLB is still stringent in its marijuana policy, but they at least seem to understand that marijuana is not the most serious drug out there. Players can be randomly screened at a couple points throughout the season and even during the off season. Players who test positive for drug use are put into a treatment program which involves extra screenings.
Where the MLB differs is in their punishment for repeat offenses. Repeated drug use of any drug besides marijuana, hash, or other THC-based drug results in suspensions: 15-25 games for the first offense, 25-50 games for the second, 50-75 for the third, and one year for the fourth violation. Repeated marijuana use after entering a treatment program generally will only result in a fine of no more than $35,000 except for in extreme circumstances.
Ah good, another policy which actually makes some sense. The NBA puts players through four random drug tests throughout the season. If a player is found to be using performance enhancing drugs, they are given a 10 game suspension and are entered into a drug treatment program. A second offense results in a 25 game suspension, a third offense results in a one year suspension, and a fourth offense disqualifies the player from the NBA.
The NBA also tests for “Drugs of Abuse” which include amphetamines, LSD, cocaine, opiates, and more. These drugs come with a zero tolerance policy: just a single offense results in dismissal and disqualification from the NBA. The interesting thing is that marijuana is also listed as a Drug of Abuse, yet a positive result for marijuana carries its own lighter penalties. For the first offense, the player is simply put into a marijuana treatment program. The second incurs a $25,000 fine and reentry into the program. The third offense carries no fine, but results in a five game suspension and reentry into the program, and any subsequent offense simply adds another five games to their suspension.
The NFL relaxed its policy on marijuana a couple years back, but it’s still the harshest one out there among professional sports leagues. Players are only tested once per year, but the cutoff level for THC metabolites is only 35ng/mL of blood, up from the old level of 15ng/mL. To put this in perspective, the Olympic games have a cutoff level of 150ng/mL.
The NFL even takes marijuana use more seriously than cocaine, which has a cutoff level of 150ng/mL, and amphetamines and opiates which both cut off at 300ng/mL. If you’re not blown away by these numbers, you should be. If you’ve ever had to pass a drug test before, you should know that THC doesn’t leave your system very quickly. At the level that the NFL tests for, a casual user could test positive several days after smoking, and a regular user could still test positive even after a couple of weeks. On the other hand, amphetamines are generally out of your system in less than a week, even for a frequent user. Not only is the NFL’s drug test biased to test for weed, but, as you all are aware, weed isn’t exactly what you would call a performance-enhancer.
Assuming an athlete tests positive for a drug, the NFL will place the player in an intervention program which involves extra drug testing, possibly up to 10 times per month, and repeated positive test results can result in a 10 day suspension or even banishment from the NFL for up to one year.
Even harsher than the NFL, the NCAA has a cutoff level of 15mcg/mL in urine for active THC or 5ng/mL for THC metabolites. While active THC will leave your body quickly, THC metabolites can stick around. This is the same level that Colorado tests for for impaired driving and I’m sure you all remember the backlash that the state received when that level was announced. Depending on a person’s metabolism, a one-time user could still have 5ng/mL in their system for a couple of days after smoking. Just a single offense for drug use
Finally, a sensible policy. While the NHL does test for marijuana, it’s really only to monitor player’s overall wellbeing. If a player tests positive multiple times, they may get a call from the union making sure they’re doing ok, but that’s about it. No treatment program, no suspensions, no fines. Compare this to their policy on performance enhancing drugs, which can result in a 20 game suspension for the first offense, and a 60 game suspension for the second, and you realize that the NHL is actually pretty far ahead of its time. They only punish the players who use drugs to cheat, not the ones who want to relax in their free time or the ones who need a little help easing the pain.