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More and More Athletes Use Cannabis

As the sports world battles the use of performance-enhancing drugs, one substance almost always slips under the radar — cannabis.

But according to the new book “Runner’s High” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) by Josiah Hesse, its use is rife in professional sports.

Former Denver Nuggets basketball player Kenyon Martin estimates that 85 percent of the players in the NBA use cannabis. Ex-Philadelphia Flyers enforcer Riley Cote reveals that at least half the players in the NHL do the same.

Cannabis use appears to be at its highest in the NFL, with one-time Dallas Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett claiming that nearly 90 percent of professional football players rely on it, mostly to manage pain, instead of dabbling in opioids that can lead to serious side effects and addiction.

“Every game you saw me in, I was medicated,” said Dallas Cowboys defensive end David Irving in an Instagram post where he smoked a blunt before announcing his retirement in March 2019.

“I smoked two blunts before every game,” admitted Cowboys’ defensive lineman Shaun Smith in an interview with Bleacher Report in 2019. “When I smoke, I can focus and actually do the job I have. I feel like nobody can stop me when I was out there. It’s the best thing for me.”

Easing pain isn’t the only reason. Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Percy Harvin said he got high before each game just so he could cope with the anxiety he suffered playing in front of huge crowds.

“The only thing that really seemed to work is when I would smoke marijuana,” he told Bleacher Report. “There’s not a game that I played in that I wasn’t high.”

The important “trick” for athletes and cannabis, writes Hesse, is using the substance, or its derivative products like CBD or TCH, at the right level. Not only does the drug’s anti-inflammatory properties soothe injuries, he argues, it also aids recovery after intensive training, helping to mitigate fatigue. Used in the right way, cannabis’ effects do the opposite of what athletes were taught to believe, “that getting high would turn them into useless couch-monsters,” he writes.

Each sports body has its own policies toward cannabis. The World Wrestling Federation, says Hesse, fines a “weed tax” of $2,500 on anyone caught using it. The World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), which sets the rules for more than 650 sports, still lists cannabis as a banned substance for athletes in competition.

In June, the United States Anti-Doping Agency suspended 100m sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for one month when she tested positive for cannabis, costing her a place in the US Olympic team at this year’s Tokyo games. Golfer Matt Every was suspended by the PGA Tour for three months in 2018 following a positive test for cannabis, despite having a legal medical prescription for it in his home state of Florida.

Meanwhile, some leagues have whole-heartedly embraced cannabis. Many competitors in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, such as Derrick Lewis and Nate Diaz, admit they use it. “There’s even a stoned jiu jitsu league, High Rollerz, where fighters share a joint before slamming each other to the mat,” Hesse writes.

The 420 Games, founded in 2014, took it even further. Staged in Boulder, Colo., it brought together those who like to “blend weed and workouts” in a kind of “marijuana Olympics.” The tournament attempted to show that cannabis-loving athletes can be healthy and active, “instead of the ubiquitous perception that we’re all paralyzed trolls subsisting on 7-Eleven snacks and role-playing video games,” Hesse writes.

Based in Denver, Colo., Hesse is an investigative journalist who took to running in a bid to change a life that was spiralling out of control, as he drank “an Olympic pool’s worth of booze every single night.”

His discovery of cannabis “edibles” got him off the couch and pounding the streets, turning him from “a pack-a-day sedentary slug with a drinking problem into an energized antelope who eats 10Ks for breakfast,” he writes. (While smoking cannabis may lead to an increased risk of everything from bronchitis to cancer, ingesting edibles — any food product containing regulated milligrams of THC — in a controlled dosage can be a safer way of consuming it.)

For Hesse, taking 10 to 20 milligrams of THC before each run turned exercise from “pure misery” to “a profoundly meditative, inspiring and downright hedonistic activity.”

This epiphany prompted him to explore scientific evidence showing that cannabis can actually improve athletes’ performance.

Cannabis first fell under federal government control in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. In 1952, harsh mandatory sentences for cannabis-related offenses and other drugs were introduced. The Controlled Substances Act in 1970 officially prohibited the use of cannabis for any purpose, although it also abolished mandatory minimum sentencing — changing possession of cannabis from a felony to a misdemeanor.

For decades, many athletes have tried to dispel the notion of cannabis as dangerous. In the 1970s, NFL star Dave Meggyesy, a linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals, was the chairman of the action group “Jocks for Joynts” which aimed to bring about changes in marijuana policy and sport. His group even once challenged some anti-marijuana players to a game, where they would play stoned and the other side sober. (It never happened.)

Gradually, the idea that cannabis might not be as harmful as, say, alcohol, started to gain traction. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 10 deaths in working-age adults between 20 and 64 in the US is due to excessive alcohol use, while the cost to the US economy from alcohol-related illnesses amounts to almost $250 billion.

The US government, meanwhile, does not even track deaths caused by overdoses of cannabis. Why? Because there has never been one, although “plenty of people have taken too much, suffered anxiety attacks, and shown up at the ER certain they were dying,” writes Hesse.

Such studies have led to major change. Today, 19 US states and Washington, DC, have legalized cannabis use while the use of medicinal marijuana is now legal in 37 states.

In May 2013, WADA raised the threshold for cannabis in an athlete’s system tenfold, from 15 nanograms to 150 nanograms, allowing athletes to partake during training, safe in the knowledge they can easily get down to the required level once competition starts. In 2018, they also removed CBD from their list of prohibited substances — in or out of competition.

The NFL also recently raised the acceptable limit of THC in a player’s system from 35 nanograms to 150 and will no longer suspend players for a positive cannabis test. In June, they announced a new commission, alongside the league’s players union, with an award of up to $1 million in grants for researchers to look into the therapeutic potential of marijuana, CBD and other alternatives to opioids for treating pain.

In 2019, Major League Baseball removed cannabis from its list of prohibited substances following pressure from their players union (although the league still bans players from being high during a game or being sponsored by a cannabis company). And, in 2020, the NBA suspended random testing of players for cannabis.

These changes, Hesse writes, are long overdue, but there is still a long way to go.

“Will pro sports ever drop its ban on cannabis and embrace this lucrative industry the same way they do alcohol?” he asks.

“Or will cannabis culture just have to create its own sporting events?”


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