Medical marijuana has become a big issue in the United States in recent years, especially as it applies to sports. Recently, an extraordinary number of professional athletes spoke out favorably about their use with weed, and even if their self-report data were skewed artificially high, there’s no doubt the number of players using these days is trending upward. Why is it that so many professional athletes today use? And if increasingly more people in America are acknowledging the value of medical marijuana for pain management, should society begin to also have similar views toward those who use simply for recreation — much the same as a person might use alcohol? With upwards of 90% of current NFL and NBA players reporting they enjoy using marijuana, isn’t it time to seriously examine the role of marijuana in American sports?
Don’t ask, don’t tell
An argument can be made that while no current professional league is actively endorsing marijuana use, there are some that are clearly taking a don’t ask, don’t tell approach. For example, the current NFL drug testing policy only tests once a year, allowing players to essentially “clean up” a few weeks before testing, pass the anticipated test, then go back to using again. On the surface, it appears this type of predictable testing, while not advocating for usage, is basically saying we’re not going to look too hard to catch you. In fact, at quick glance it doesn’t appear as though any leagues right now are increasing marijuana testing, though several seem to be loosening their marijuana testing standards.
Ironies of drug testing
Perhaps one of the greatest problems with the current means that athletes are drug tested has to do with, ironically, the actual testing itself. For example, an athlete who regularly uses cocaine or opioids need only lay off for 24-48 hours in order to complete a clean test, while the regular marijuana smoker will need about a month for a similar clean test. Marijuana stays in the system much longer than other drugs, including cocaine, acid, crack, crystal meth, heroine, and every pharmaceutical drug that is used recreationally. What this amounts to is that athletes who use harder, more dangerous drugs will more easily pass drug testing compared to marijuana users, even though marijuana is widely accepted to be a generally less dangerous drug than the other drugs just mentioned
Uses of marijuana in sports
Athletes who use marijuana have reported to me various reasons why they like to use. For some, using marijuana helps with pain management and prevents them from seeker more dangerous, potentially addicting alternatives (i.e. pain pills). Other athletes report that they use marijuana similarly to how people use alcohol as a means to relax and unwind. Some athletes report that marijuana helps with sport performance, and for athletes who struggle with social anxiety and dealing with the pressures of being a visible athletes, it’s been reported that marijuana may help here, too.
Marijuana, like all drugs, does put users at-risk for side-effects that include psychological addiction, as well as potential problems stemming from being inebriated (i.e. reckless driving). When it comes to drugs, there are no free-rides, and even the most supportive users should acknowledge this point. On the other hand, when weighing the various approaches to managing pain and emotional issues, it might be time to critically and objectively examine the merit of medical marijuana against other commonly doled out drugs, including narcotics for pain, SSRI’s for mood state conditions, and psychostimulants for ADD.
Helping athletes get off pain pills
The United States is currently experiencing a pain pill epidemic, and athletes are not immune from this trend. Some doctors and scientists, however, see ways in which marijuana can help both minimize the number of potential opioid users, as well as be used to help wean athletes from opioids. In fact, CNN medical expert Dr. Sanjay Gupta has spoken out quite regularly on this issue, even acknowledging his own flipping of positions as it applies to the utility of marijuana in medicine today. If marijuana can provide the same help to athletes suffering with pain, what is holding America back from making greater strides in this direction?
Marijuana isn’t going away, and more elite-level athletes are not only using, but also speaking out favorably about their personal experiences with marijuana. In response, colleges and professional sport leagues will soon need to make major, potentially paradigm-shifting decisions about the role of marijuana in sports. Will marijuana replace narcotic use in sports, or will future marijuana usage lead to other unforeseen issues and problems? It’s also important to examine marijuana using the same integrity and scientific methods we use for other more commonly used (and accepted) drugs today, including psychotropic medications. What benefits are there by using marijuana, and how do these benefits stack up against potentially dangerous side-, interaction-, and withdrawal-effects? We are definitely seeing a convergence of medicine, social views, and politics coming together and dictating the ways America will see marijuana in the years ahead — including how this directly impacts sports.