Authored By: Alexander Hymowitz
The National Basketball Association and National Basketball Players Association have jointly agreed to continue to refrain from testing players for cannabis for the 2021-22 season. This non-testing policy began in March of 2020 when the league first halted play due to the coronavirus pandemic. The NBA then extended that policy during the league’s bubble play at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Nonetheless, this step is not enough as the NBA could utilize their platform to promote medical marijuana and/or CBD use.
NBA spokesperson Mike Bass recently said in a statement, “Due to the unusual circumstances in conjunction with the pandemic, we have agreed with the NBPA to suspend random testing for marijuana for the 2020-21 season and focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse”. However, it is clear from the NBA’s statement that they are not interested in using their platform to promote medical marijuana; rather, they are interested in making sure their players do not cheat.
As of today, recreational marijuana use is now legal in 19 states and Washington D.C., including New York, where the NBA is headquartered. Furthermore, medical marijuana use is permitted in 36 states, meaning a vast majority of the country can consume cannabis and its related products in some way. In fact, out of the 30 NBA teams, 13 teams are in states that allow for adult-use recreational marijuana usage. Those teams include the Suns, Kings, Lakers, Clippers, Warriors, Bulls, Celtics, Pistons, Knicks, Nets, Trailblazers and Wizards. Nearly half the league is in states that allow for marijuana use, recreationally – the number of teams that are in medical marijuana states increases. Interestingly, the NFL has 15 of their 32 teams located in states that allow for adult-use recreational marijuana. The percentages of both NFL and NBA teams located in recreational states is staggeringly similar.
It is clear that the NBA has an opportunity, they simply are not taking it.
The NBA’s marijuana issue has gotten worse as the sport has become more combat heavy. Over the history of the NBA, the nature of the game has undergone significant changes. Basketball was originally conceived as a noncontact sport, and the rules of the game were based on the idea that “if the offense did not have the opportunity to run with the ball, there would be no necessity for tackling and we would thus eliminate roughness.” Despite its origins as a noncontact sport, basketball has evolved into an increasingly physical game in which contact is accepted and expected. Contemporary coaches teach their players contact moves. Players routinely use their bodies to their advantage—to fight for position, to intentionally draw contact in the air while shooting the ball, for example—and they use their forearms and elbows to ward off defenders. This evolution has predictably led to several injuries to players in the NBA.
In fact, over the course of a 10-year period, there was a 12.4% increase in game-related injuries. These injuries may be due to an increase in contact in professional basketball or the increase in size and speed of the players, as well as the improvement in diagnostic tools. However, no matter what, NBA players are getting more serious and more frequent injuries. Worst of all, the trend is getting worse. All of this leads me to believe that the NBA is not doing enough when it comes to marijuana.
The NBA should take a note from the NFL which recently turned many heads. The pain management committee of the NFL and the NFL Players Association provided $1 million in funding for research into pain management and cannabinoids, the committee announced in early June. The request for proposal is the next step in the NFL’s shift on the use of marijuana by players, some of whom have long maintained that it was safer for them to use marijuana to treat pain than to take prescription medication.
The NBA could take a note from the NHL, which takes their interest in marijuana even further. In 2019, the NHL became the first professional sports organization to stop testing its athletes for marijuana. Several months later, the MLB did the same and removed marijuana and its derivatives from its list of banned substances. Players may not show up high to games or practice sessions, however, nor can they be sponsored by a cannabis company, dispensary, or similar corporate entities.
In other words, the NBA has been behind the eight ball for a while now. In fact, as Brooklyn Nets superstar, Kevin Durant has explained, “In the sports world, it is an undercover thing that players use cannabis … even when they are actively playing.” The NBA is staggeringly behind by just now allowing player’s marijuana usage.
The NBA’s lack of involvement in the cannabis industry is even more puzzling considering the recent efforts to support black development in, and around, the NBA. Take for example, New York’s Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (“MRTA”) which is intended to “end the racially disparate impact of existing marihuana policies and their enforcement.” In fact, most states that have an adult-use recreational marijuana market, legalized cannabis with the intent to remedy some of the past harms the war on drugs created. Considering this, the NBA’s lackluster response to the growing marijuana legalization movement is troubling because it demonstrates that they are not, in fact, interested in helping the players by promoting or allowing marijuana usage, rather, they are simply acquiescing to player pressure.
The NBA could and should be using their platform to promote MRTA and marijuana legalization. Furthermore, in light of the growing number of injuries in the sport, the NBA should be looking to promote medical marijuana usage as a form of treatment.
As Brandon Jennings said, “We’re long overdue for having an honest conversation about the many benefits of this plant — physically, emotionally, psychologically, and creatively. It’s time to bring these discussions out from behind closed doors and call cannabis for what it is — a viable sports medicine.”
 Menke FG. The Encyclopedia of Sports. Vol 160 New York, NY: AS Barnes & Co; 1953 [Google Scholar]
 Drakos MC, Domb B, Starkey C, Callahan L, Allen AA. Injury in the national basketball association: a 17-year overview. Sports Health. 2010;2(4):284-290. doi:10.1177/1941738109357303
 Holmes, B., 2021. Data shows NBA injuries up in condensed season. [online] ESPN.com.
 Youtube.com. 2021. Boardroom. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVskUmFqp8c&t=91s> [Accessed 11 October 2021].
 NBC News. 2021. NBA Foundation created, pledges $300 million to Black growth. [online]
 Quiroz- Gutierrez, M., 2021. NBA grants to Black communities are already making an impact. [online] Fortune.
 2021 Legis. Bill Hist. NY S.B. 854