It’s time. The NBA should take cannabis off its banned substances list and dissolve the marijuana counseling program it runs for repeat offenders, or assimilate that program into the one for addictive drugs, or “drugs of abuse” in the NBA’s parlance.
The perception about cannabis has shifted, and with it the need for the NBA to cling to anachronistic notions of what’s injurious to players, especially in comparison to legal narcotics like alcohol and painkillers. More than that, though, the NBA’s banning of cannabis runs counter to their place as a progressive league that doesn’t kowtow to antiquated, largely debunked legislation like the nearly half-century old Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1971, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, with a high likelihood for abuse and no accepted medical benefits.
Cannabis’ benign status is already implicit in the syntax of the NBA’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement, where it differentiates between marijuana and a “drug of abuse.” In Article XXXIII Section 1b of it’s “Definitions,” the CBA states (emphasis ours), “‘Come Forward Voluntarily’ shall mean that a player has directly communicated to the Medical Director his desire to enter the Program and seek treatment for a problem involving the use of a Drug of Abuse or Marijuana.” This distinction begs the question: If cannabis isn’t a drug of abuse, then why the hell is it banned?
The NBA’s punishment for a positive cannabis test is another example of how innocuous the league already feels about the psychotropic plant. If a player who has been in the league for at least a year tests positive for a drug of abuse, they’re immediately suspended for at least two seasons. There’s no getting around this, but players can be reinstated after those two years are up and further drug testing proves they’re clean. Chris “Birdman” Andersen is an example of one such player who was reinstated after testing positive for a drug of abuse in 2006.
Conversely, after a first positive cannabis test, players are simply required to enter the Marijuana Program. That’s it. For a second positive test, players are fined $25,000 and forced to re-enter the same Marijuana Program if they aren’t currently still in it. For a third positive test, the player is suspended for five games and forced to enter the Marijuana Program again if they aren’t currently in it. For any positive test after that, they’re suspended five games more than their previous suspension –– e.g. if a player tests positive for the fourth time in the same season, they have to go through the Marijuana Program again and they’re suspended 10 games.
When asked for comment, the NBA — through VP of Communications Mike Bass –– says its stance on cannabis as a banned substance hasn’t changed since Commissioner Adam Silver spoke to Bleacher Report back in April of this year, April 20th in fact (Bleacher Report is so subversive).
“Marijuana is on our banned substances list,” Silver said at the time. “We are, however, interested in better understanding the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana.”
Logically speaking, that’s a weird comment about a banned substance. Science has concluded there is no medical benefit to humans who smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, and players aren’t tested for either. That only leaves the legality, so why is cannabis banned in the NBA when it’s now legal in eight states and the District of Columbia?
Silver’s quote to Bleacher Report is verbatim what the NBA said after former NBA Commissioner David Stern –– in full-on, “I’m-retired” mode –– came out in support of loosening the NBA’s current cannabis policy while speaking with Al Harrington in October of last year for the Uninterrupted documentary “The Concept of Cannabis.” There was one additional clause the NBA included in response to Stern: “Our position remains unchanged regarding the use by current NBA players of marijuana for recreational purposes.”
But why? If the NBA truly wants to be the progressive league, it has to take the lead on this issue. Based on the way the NFL has handled nonviolent protests about police brutality towards people of color, the NBA might be the only league with the temerity to do so.
“We've got to change the collective bargaining agreement and let you do what's legal in your state,” Stern said when Harrington asked him about using cannabis recreationally in NBA cities where it’s permitted. Stern acknowledged it was “generally known” –– Charles Oakley famously said over half of the NBA was smoking pot in 2001 –– a lot of players smoked during Stern’s reign as commissioner, and the league instituted harsher cannabis penalties to combat that perception.
"Some of our players came to us and said, 'some of these guys are high coming into the games,'” Stern said. “We began tightening it up, and at that time, people accepted the generally held wisdom that marijuana was a gateway drug."
But Stern also says today there’s “a completely different perception," and he’s right.
A majority of Americans now support legalization. The NBA doesn’t have a team in the state of Washington anymore (RIP SuperSonics), but they have a four in California, one in Colorado, one in Massachusetts and one in Washington DC. In all cases, cannabis consumption is now legal for consenting adults. On top of that, over half of the United States has legalized some form of medical cannabis, and decriminalized small-time possession.
When we reached out to the National Basketball Players’ Union (NBPA), they said their position on cannabis remains the same as when NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts was asked about it over All-Star weekend in February.
In the interview, she referenced the David Stern comments and the phone calls she got as a result. The Players’ Union is currently sifting through the various studies about the medical benefits of the plant. But, those studies are notoriously hard to conduct even today, with U.S. Health and Human Secretary Alex Azar saying as recently as March of this year that “there’s no such thing as medical marijuana.”
Despite how purposefully opaque the medical benefits of cannabis remain in America, Roberts says her “own view is there are substantial signs that support its efficacy and the value that it has for us, especially pain management. We’re in talks with the league to see where we can go with it.”
However, the NBPA director didn’t mince words when it came to the criminalization of the drug under current U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and what the union will do to protect players from pernicious prosecution.
“The obvious future is that marijuana will be decriminalized probably throughout the country in short order,” she says. “It is a banned substance in our league right now. If we do go down that road, we have to protect our players from — my words — a crazed attorney general who says he will prosecute violations of the law involving marijuana and he doesn’t care what individual states say.
“In other words, I don’t want my guys being arrested at airports in possession of a cannabinoid by some fed. It’s against the law. So, we’ll see.”
There’s no escaping cannabis’ inclusion in NBA culture. The aforementioned Al Harrington, and former Blazer, Sun, Piston, Warrior and Net, Cliff Robinson, have opened their own legal dispensaries — “Uncle Spliffy” for the headband-sporting Robinson. And the recently retired, 15-year NBA veteran Matt Barnes publicly said cannabis played a role in his game-day routine. There’s a common joke among NBA media that you can tell when a player has passed his fourth test of the season because they’re perpetually glassy-eyed at shootaround for the rest of the season.
Cannabis is already here, whether the NBA or the NBPA wants to claim otherwise.