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The NBA Ended Cannabis Testing. Now, the Real Work Begins.

“We’re long overdue for having an honest conversation about the benefits of this plant,” Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals tells Boardroom. “It’s time to call it what it is: a viable sports medicine.”

The NBA and NBPA have jointly agreed to continue to refrain from testing players for cannabis for the 2021-22 season, extending a policy that began in March 2020 when the league first halted play due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While random testing continues for what the NBA calls “drugs of abuse” like methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine, and opiates, as well as “performance-enhancing products,” it’s clear that the NBA no longer considers stamping out in-season cannabis use by its athletes is no longer a priority.

The decision has been widely praised and commended in both the cannabis and basketball world, as recreational use is now legal in 18 states and Washington, DC, including New York, where the NBA is headquartered. Doctor-approved medical use is permitted in 36 states, meaning a vast majority of the country is able to embrace cannabis and its related products in some way free of the stigma of prohibition.

“The revision of drug testing policies and a fresh look at the misguided assumptions that led to them in the first place is an essential first step,” Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals told Boardroom. “As we continue to break down stigmas that surround cannabis, governments, corporations and athletic organizations have an opportunity and obligation to drive a cultural shift toward a more tolerant and equitable future.”

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That cultural shift includes how cannabis is perceived in sports and society. But even now, it’s still illegal under federal law and technically still a prohibited substance in the NBA. Major League Baseball no longer has it on its banned substance list, but players remain subject to discipline for possession for testing positive. NFL players are still subject to in-season testing, but can no longer be suspended for positive results.

Yes, those are signs of momentum — but they’re ultimately of the modest variety so far.

June, the NFL invested more than $1 million into research on the viability of cannabis or CBD to treat pain in place of of prescription medications like opioids that sparked a deadly addiction epidemic across America. Professional athletes from leagues like the NFL and NBA have long maintained that cannabis can and should be used to recover from the grueling physical rigor of their sports, as well as to maintain mental health.

One of those players is Brandon Jennings, a point guard who played nine seasons in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and Washington Wizards.

“There are benefits for players during their career that they can use it for,” he told Boardroom. “Hopefully, guys know when and where is the right time to be using it.”

More US states, corporations, and sports leagues are now seeing that the benefits of cannabis plainly outweigh the potential risks, and with that comes destigmatization. For Beals, that development has been a long time coming.

Too long.

“We’re long overdue for having an honest conversation about the many benefits of this plant — physically, emotionally, psychologically, and creatively,” he said. “It’s time to bring these discussions out from behind closed doors and call cannabis for what it is — a viable sports medicine.”

And not only can it be a viable sports medicine, but a viable business as well. Current and former athletes like Al Harrington, Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, Marshawn Lynch, John Wall, and Carmelo Anthony, plus a wide range of prominent musicians from Travis Scott to Justin Bieber, have all ventured into and made investments into a booming cannabis industry.

The 32-year-old Jennings said that while sports leagues relaxing their stances on cannabis is great, they can do a lot more.

“Leagues can help the players take advantage of the business opportunities that are out there, too,” he said. “There should be more conversation around the potential investments and business moves that you can make. “

Jennings believes the conversation should be taken even further, with leagues providing resources and guidance to help current and former players get involved on the business side of the cannabis industry — one that’s valued at $61 billion in the US alone — with legal sales domestically hitting $17.5 billion in 2020.

“We’ve seen guys like Al Harrington have a lot of success building a company like Viola,” Jennings said. “There should be more potential for players to get involved on the business side during their careers too now.”

So, while the NBA and NBPA ditching cannabis testing is an authentically positive step here and now, it’s only the beginning of what could — and truly should — be done.

About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.