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Medical Marijuana in the World of Pro Sports


Marijuana has been becoming more and more widely recognized as a legitimate form of medicine and has started to help many people across the country with a variety of conditions and diseases. Even since the start of the century, marijuana acceptance has grown by order of magnitudes. So, if acceptance is growing and most states have legalized medical marijuana, how does this play in the world of sports?

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How Could Marijuana Benefit an Athlete?

We have previously seen the impact marijuana can have on the body. Physiological and mental changes are numerous and profound when marijuana is ingested, and some of these effects may actually be beneficial to athletes. For example, marijuana has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Through an athlete’s rigorous gym and cardio routines, inflammation caused by small injuries are common and can result in lower than average results. CBD, a main cannabinoid found in marijuana, can fight this inflammation, resulting in shorter healing periods [1]. Some scientists also believe that the terpenes found in full-flower marijuana are at least partly responsible for these effects as well [2].

On top of fighting inflammation, marijuana can also help reduce pain and improve sleep. Neuropathic pain, or the type of pain that is caused by damage to the nervous system, has been a constant source of conflict in medicine. The mysterious and difficult nature of the pain has led many patients to simply accepting the pain as part of their life, as it cannot always be fought with common techniques or medicines. This nerve-based pain is also common in athletes, especially in their later years. Marijuana may provide relief to some people in this position, having been found to relieve pain that had previously been untouched by analgesics [3]. 

The importance of sleep has also not been lost on the fitness-obsessed, with current research espousing the benefits of a solid eight hours a night almost continuously. Luckily, this is another area where marijuana can help those having difficulty. THC can help people fall asleep quickly and easily, though this seems to be dosage-dependent [4]. 

However, it is important to know that marijuana can also have less desirable side effects, especially to those who work in professional sports. For example, while marijuana can help people fall asleep easily, it has also been shown to lower the amount of REM sleep a person can get, and this can have a big impact on the body. Low numbers of REM sleep cycles can be linked to increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, and memory problems. 

Physical damage caused by smoking marijuana can also occur. The American Lung Association warns that smoking marijuana can lead to lung damage from the same carcinogens and toxins as tobacco smoke [5]. It goes on to say that this damage can lead to chronic cough, wheezing, and acute bronchitis, all of which can greatly reduce physical potential. 

How the Major Sports Stand on Marijuana Use

  • NFL: Likely the largest professional sports league in the United States, the NFL has had several high-profile marijuana use cases. Its stance on marijuana is also likely the most well-known, strict prohibition. It is also worth noting that the levels considered “positive” in an NFL test are much lower than nearly all other professional sports leagues. However, this may soon begin to change. The NFL and NFLPA have decided that each team will now get a mental health professional assigned and a committee will be formed that will assess alternatives to current analgesics. This comes after former players have started to come forward about their marijuana use to combat past injuries. 
  • NHL: The National Hockey League has recently stolen the limelight when it comes to marijuana in professional sports. There is no doubt that there is a strong link between the NHL and Canada, which has itself has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use. Overall, 28 of the 31 teams in the NHL come from areas where marijuana is legal in one way or another. The NHL also has one of the most forgiving punishments if marijuana is found during substance testing, which is to say, it nearly doesn’t even exist. If an NHL player is found to have high levels of cannabinoids in their system, they will be referred to the Performance Enhancing Substances Program Committee where they may be recommended to enter treatment from there. The player’s name is not made public, and there is no fine attached to the program. 
  • MLB: The MLB has also had its fair share of high-profile marijuana cases but does not include drugs of abuse in their random drug tests. These drugs of abuse, which include marijuana, are only tested for when the league is given reasonable cause. If the player does test positive, they are subject to a fine and may be subjected to a treatment plan. The player is not suspended, however, unless they violate these terms.
  • NBA: The NBA, like the NFL, is stringent when it comes to players and marijuana. The players are randomly tested four times each season between October 1st and June 30th. They are also tested twice during the offseason. If the player has tested positive, the first offence results in a mandatory substance abuse program, a second with a large fine, and the third and above resulting in increasingly long suspensions. 


In Conclusion


Overall, the benefits of marijuana use in professional athletes may be worth considering for some, especially those that have retired or have previous injuries. Modern professional sports are strongly anti-marijuana use, thought this may be changing as more players come forward with their use. It is possible that as acceptance continues to grow, sports associations will notice, and policies may change. 


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