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There’s One Big Issue With the NBA’s Cannabis Policy

Last Updated: October 19, 2021
The NBA extended its suspension of random cannabis testing, but continues to use the word “marijuana” in official messaging. Let’s talk about why that needs to change.

The NBA and NBPA agreed on Oct. 6 to extend the suspension of random cannabis testing through the upcoming 2021-22 season. This is the second consecutive full season in which this policy change, which first debuted during the 2020 NBA bubble in Orlando, will be in effect.

This policy furthers the notion that the NBA is the most progressive league in American sports — but that doesn’t mean the league is done doing its homework with regards to the words they use when discussing cannabis.

In the official statement announcing the policy’s extension, NBA spokesman Mike Bass used the word “marijuana” rather than cannabis, a scientific term. Make no mistake: his intent was surely not meant to echo the racist history of the word, but it does confirm a blind spot that the league (and countless other entities) needs to address.

Words matter. And the NBA and its players have an opportunity to be a leader on this highly specific but highly relevant topic.

As a term, marijuana (sometimes spelled “marihuana”) can be traced back to what is now Mexico. Spanish conquistadors were the first to introduce hemp seeds to Latin America, and over time, the local inhabitants began to grow cannabis. As one story goes, in order to avoid persecution for the use and cultivation of psychoactive plants, some Mexican growers assigned “Mary” nicknames to their crops, and cannabis gradually became marijuana. The term spread widely after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 spurred a wave of immigration into the United States.

The historical accuracy of the Mary theory is admittedly questionable, but as drug criminalization became formalized during the 20th century, marijuana evolved into a loaded, pejorative term. In a wave of “Reefer Madness,” the word was weaponized to help stoke fears about the foreigners perceived to be responsible for its popularity in the US.

It was upon this kind of racist, fact-free scare-mongering that the so-called War on Drugs and a wide range of predatory “tough on crime” laws were built.

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Sure, not everyone who uses the word marijuana is automatically fueling a racist agenda. And to some extent, we can reclaim or redefine the connotations of the words we use. But words, both colloquial and otherwise, are constantly added and removed from a given era’s lexicon. If increasingly dated slang terms for cannabis like “pot” and “ganja” and “grass” are phasing themselves out, there’s really nothing stopping us from doing the same for marijuana.

And given the cultural influence of so many of its top stars, the NBA can play a serious role in kick-starting this necessary evolution.

We have rightfully made an effort to reconsider terms once used to refer to marginalized communities, and we have the power to do the same here. In doing so, it can help eradicate the negative, generally bogus stigmas surrounding cannabis, thus allowing the march toward decriminalization and legalization to stay fully focused on the core values of justice, equality, and wellness.