The NBA has suspended random testing for marijuana ahead of the 2020-2021 season, the league announced. The NBA cited the “unusual circumstances of the pandemic” as the reason for the move, and added that it will instead focus its random testing on performance-enhancing drugs and “drugs of abuse.”
Marijuana remains a banned substance under NBA rules, and the league will continue to test for it in cases of “cause.” While suspending random testing for this season is a step in the right direction for the NBA, but it doesn’t quite go far enough.
The NBA should take marijuana off the banned substance list altogether.
The benefits of cannabis for athletes are well documented at this point. It can help reduce inflammation, alleviate pain and soreness, and improve sleep. It offers a safe, natural way for athletes to rest and recover, and comes without the dangerous side effects and addictive qualities of prescription pain killers.
In addition to the physical advantages, cannabis can also have mental benefits like easing anxiety. NBA players have been at the forefront of conversations about mental health, with DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love among the athletes who have detailed their battles with depression and anxiety. While cannabis won’t provide relief in those areas for everyone, it will benefit certain athletes who shouldn’t have to feel like outlaws if it does help them.
NBA players have been talking about the benefits of marijuana for years. Former players Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington have talked about how using cannabis helped them during their careers. Most estimates range from 50 percent to 85 percent of players in the league like to use it.
“At the end of the day, we think of it as medicine,” Harrington told NBC Sports earlier this year. “It’s true medicine, not a drug.”
The late David Stern, former commissioner of the league, also went on record saying he thinks cannabis should be removed from the banned substance list.
Marijuana testing in the NBA has always been more lax than in other sports. An initial positive test required the player to go to treatment or counseling. A second positive test resulted in a $25K fine, and a third violation meant a five-game suspension. While there was a time when the league deserved praise for less punitive measures for positive tests, at this point it would do well to scrap cannabis testing completely.
Recreational marijuana is legal in many states with NBA teams at this point, including California, Michigan, Arizona, Illinois, and Oregon, and also Washington D.C. Other states have made the drug legal for medicinal purposes, or decriminalized it. It feels like we aren’t far away from making cannabis federally legal, and expunging all prior convictions that disproportionally targeted people of color.
If the NBA wants to be as progressive as it likes to think of itself, removing cannabis from the banned substance list is a very easy place to start. It’s a move that would be welcomed by the players and generate very little blowback from fans or advertising partners. Suspending random testing for this year is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t go far enough.