Cannabis legalization has been spreading rapidly through the United States over the past few years. It has been legalized for recreational use in 10 states and legalized for medical use in 33. However, cannabis is still federally illegal and also still not allowed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), even in states that allow legal cannabis. March Madness, one of the biggest NCAA events of the year, will ensure that the NCAA and its antiquated rules against cannabis (among other problems) is a topic of discussion.
The NCAA can trace its beginnings to 1905, when 62 universities became charter members of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). The IAAUS was officially established in 1906 and took its present name, the NCAA, in 1910. The NCAA has banned cannabis for over 30 years, although it only tests for cannabis during championship events, such as football bowl games and basketball tournaments. School athletic departments can also administer their own tests on top of the NCAA’s.
Potential draft prospects have seen their draft stock plummet due to cannabis consumption. Laremy Tunsil was the projected 1st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but fell to the 13th pick after a video surfaced of Tunsil smoking with a bong attached to a gas mask, and was posted to his Twitter account minutes before the draft started. Tunsil missed out on an estimated $10-$12 million in potential contract earnings. C.J. Harris, walk-on defensive back for Auburn University, was ruled ineligible to play due to his use of cannabis oil to treat his epilepsy. Auburn, which has its own rules against cannabis use, informed Harris that he wouldn’t be able to compete, not the NCAA.
The NCAA has already taken baby steps at changing how positive cannabis tests are handled, saying in 2014 “street drugs are not performance-enhancing in nature” and reducing the penalty for a positive test from a full season suspension to half a season. Universities such as Rutgers University in New Jersey have already started making amends to their cannabis policy for athletes. According to Rutgers’ policy, athletes won’t face any game suspensions until his or her third positive cannabis test, and it takes a fifth positive test to be kicked off of the team. The World Anti-Doping Agency removed cannabidiol (CBD) from its list of banned substances last year, allowing professional fighters to use CBD for recovery without fear of suspension. Professional fighter Nate Diaz can be seen as a catalyst for allowing fighters to use CBD after his post-fight interview where he infamously puffed on a CBD vaporizer while speaking about the medical benefits of CBD.
“With opiate abuse running rampant in locker rooms across the country, athletes are calling for legal cannabis and CBD as a way to combat the rigors of a long season without having to take handfuls of pills a day.”
Many former and current professional athletes have come out in support of cannabis legalization in sports, particularly the use of CBD. CBD has been hailed as a new “wonder drug,” offering a multitude of health benefits without the high of THC. In addition to preventing epileptic seizures, CBD can help treat anxiety and depression, help with pain management and may help alleviate cancer symptoms and cancer treatment side effects. However, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) doesn’t fully endorse cannabis as a cancer treatment. With opiate abuse running rampant in locker rooms across the country, athletes are calling for legal cannabis and CBD as a way to combat the rigors of a long season without having to take handfuls of pills a day. In 2016, the University of Miami was given a $16 million grant to study the effects of using CBD to treat concussions, with researchers believing a “concussion pill” can help treat the post-injury brain cell inflammation, headaches and other symptoms associated with concussions.
Retired professional players have recently come out saying that they were consuming cannabis not only during the season, but most of the time during the day of a game. Matt Barnes, who played in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for 14 seasons, has said that he was medicated for all of his best games and former National Football League (NFL) player Shaun Smith said he would smoke two blunts before a game. Other former NFL players, such as Eben Britton and Eugene Monroe, have vocalized their support for allowing cannabis to treat injuries and others, like Joe Montana and Jack Ham, have invested in the cannabis industry. Former NBA player Al Harrington now owns his own cannabis company, Viola Extracts. In a 2017 interview regarding cannabis use by NBA players with David Stern, NBA commissioner from 1984 to 2014, Stern told Harrington that he believes cannabis should be removed from the banned substances list and that Harrington had persuaded him.
As legalization continues to sweep the United States, the stigma surrounding cannabis is beginning to dissipate. More research has come out demonstrating the positive effects cannabis and CBD can have on athletes. As student-athletes prepare for life after college sports, the NCAA should look into cannabis as a healthy alternative rather than giving athletes handfuls of pills and causing long-term health problems.