What Does Legal Cannabis in Canada Mean for Professional Sports?
Canada will legalize marijuana on Wednesday, which means that more teams in North American sports are going to have weed legalized within their territory. Of the major North American pro sports leagues, nine more teams will now be located in cities where recreational marijuana use is legal (with three teams based in Toronto).
So, what exactly does this looming legalization mean for the NHL, MLB and NBA? Here's what you need to know about the existing marijuana policies across the NHL, MLB and NBA.
The NHL is standing pat on its lenient policy
Hockey doesn't look like it wants to change anything policy-wise, instead opting to keep players informed on what they're using.
"The Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program for decades has been educating players on using drugs, legal or illegal," commissioner Gary Bettman said, via The Associated Press.
"That process will continue and we will consider what changes, if any, in our program have to be made. But right now, we think based on the educational level and what we do test for and how we test, at least for the time being, we're comfortable with where we are."
The NHL is already relatively flexible as far as marijuana use goes. It takes a large amount found in a player's system for that player to be referred to any form of rehabilitation. Players found with trace positives aren't disciplined by the league like they are in other major sports. Instead, their positives are used for data given to the NHL and NHLPA's Performance Enhancing Substances Program Committee to re-evaluate testing going forward.
"What we feel was an important element is at least educating the players better on the current marijuana landscape both from a legal and illegal perspective and what's permitted and not permitted," Bettman's deputy commissioner Bill Daly added, per The AP.
"But also: 'What are the products out there?' Because there's probably publicly a great misconception of what marijuana is, how it's used, what it's used for to what the reality is."
The NHL is encouraging research on the topic
Of course, much has been made about the medicinal effects of marijuana, but NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said that that research is "at best in its infancy and is going to develop over time," per the AP.
With that in mind, the NHL isn't damning the use of marijuana -- but it is advising that players exercise caution, especially as research on the topic is still incomplete.
In a game that can cause the head trauma that hockey can, the NHL is encouraging players to do what's best for them. And although marijuana is technically banned by the NHL and the World Anti-Doping Agency without medical exemptions, the NHL is at least leaving the door open for players to experiment with it and see if it works for them.
The NBA's testing policy is mostly used for optics
The NBA is lax in its own way on marijuana. If it were up to ex-commissioner David Stern, it wouldn't be on the banned substances list. In fact, the only thing that made the NBA start testing was when players complained that other players were playing high, according to Stern in an interview with "Uninterrupted" last year.
The NBA may have instituted drug testing, but it's not really meant to "catch" anyone. The tests are never performed during the regular season, and players are tested four times per year.
After the fourth time, they're done until the next October, no questions asked. Former NBA player Kenyon Martin told Bleacher Report that he estimates 85 percent of the NBA smokes weed. Yes, it's an anecdotal, ballpark number, but it shows the NBA isn't trying terribly hard to catch players when it's so rare players to see players punished.
It's hard to get in too much trouble for weed in the NBA. Unless you're Larry Sanders,who was suspended numerous times for testing positive for marijuana among a host of other off-the-court problems, the NBA finds ways to accommodate players. For the first infraction, players enter (and complete) a substance abuse program. The second infraction is a $25,000 fine. The third is a five-game suspension, with every infraction after that stacking five games onto the suspension. $25,000 isn't nothing, but it's not a terribly harsh punishment.
Adam Silver is content with the current policy
Although Stern wants to see weed removed from the banned substances list, Silver said last October that he is OK with the current policy. After Stern's comments, the NBA replied via USA Today that "while commissioner Silver has said that we are interested in better understanding the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana, our position remains unchanged regarding the use by current NBA players of marijuana for recreational purposes." Obviously with the Raptors representing just one team, Canada's legalization is unlikely to change that stance. Much like the NHL, Silver seems to be waiting on the results of research to see if marijuana is truly beneficial.
MLB tests based on cause, not chance
While minor leaguers are tested regularly and face steep punishments if caught, Major League Baseball has other things to worry about. Marijuana is tested on the basis of reasonable cause, rather than random administration.
If a player is suspected of partaking in the use of a banned substance, a member of the Health Policy Advisory Committee is called. Evidence of the use is presented, and and a majority vote is called on whether the player should be tested.
All in all, it's unlikely that we'll see sweeping changes from any of these leagues. All three of them already have a "don't ask don't tell" policy of sorts in regards to marijuana use.
However, the league that will theoretically be the most impacted with Canada's legalization is the NHL. With seven professional teams having their cities legalize marijuana use, the data for positive tests might end up looking a little different. With that being said, the league wasn't doing much to deter them in the first place.