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Will The NBA Reform Its Cannabis Policy?

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The National Basketball Association (NBA) is popular all over the globe. What once started as a North American sport has spread across the planet, resulting in the NBA now being comprised of players from countries from all over the world.

Look at any team’s roster and you will see players from a number of different countries, all of which have huge followings in their home countries. Because of that, cannabis policy reform in the NBA would provide a huge boost to cannabis reform efforts in every country that is represented by players in the league.

Currently, the NBA prohibits players from consuming cannabis with THC in it. As calls for cannabis reform in professional sports leagues have ramped up in recent years, along with the explosion in popularity for CBD products, there has been some confusion as to whether CBD is prohibited by major professional sports leagues.

For professional sports leagues that prohibit cannabis, drug testing policies are in place that seek to detect the presence of THC, and not CBD. Some CBD products contain trace amounts of THC, and that could result in a player failing a drug test due to THC build-up, but the failure would be due to the presence of THC, not CBD.

The current drug testing threshold for the NBA is very strict – a mere 15 ng/mL of THC metabolites. To put that number into perspective, Olympic athletes are held to a standard of 150 ng/mL. An NBA player that violates the league’s cannabis policy can be forced into a mandatory drug rehab program, and/or fined, and/or suspended. There are no exemptions for medical cannabis in the NBA.

The NBA commissioner that instituted the cannabis prohibition policy that is currently in place in the league is David Stern. While Stern served as the commissioner of the NBA he suspended players like retired NBA Allstar Clifford Robinson for cannabis use.

In Robinson’s case, he was suspended multiple times by the NBA for his cannabis use and was the recipient of a ridiculous amount of stigma from the league that still lingers to this day. Clifford Robinson was a featured speaker at our event in Portland, Oregon last year.

David Stern has since changed his stance on cannabis and is now calling for the NBA to reform its cannabis policy. Per CNBC:

“I think it’s time to take a whole new look at it,” Stern, 77, said in an interview Wednesday with CNBC at the SeventySix Capital Sports Innovation Conference in Philadelphia.

Stern said his feelings about marijuana have shifted with the recent surge in medical use of THC and CBD — the two main compounds in cannabis — to treat pain, anxiety and other ailments.

“In many cases in sports,” Stern said, “the opioid crisis begins with players being prescribed pills for their pain, and if there is another substance, whether it be CBD or THC that eases pain, then I’m all for it.”

David Stern joins a growing list of people (including regulators and politicians) that have had a change of heart when it comes to cannabis policy but only after they are no longer in a position to directly act on it. To date, David Stern has yet to issue an apology to the players that he punished for their cannabis use, or for any role that he may have played in contributing to the opioid crisis that he mentioned in his recent interview.

The NBA’s anti-cannabis league policy goes beyond just testing for THC. If a player is the subject of a cannabis offense away from the team, such as an arrest for cannabis possession, they can also be punished.

That policy perpetuates institutional racism, which is obviously unacceptable. If a player of color is statistically far more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession in society, and the league punishes players when they are subjected to those situations by law enforcement, then that same player of color is statistically far more likely to be punished for cannabis by the NBA compared to their caucasian peers.

Commissioner Stern may or may not be sincere in his calls for NBA cannabis reform, but regardless, his voice will hopefully provide a boost to reform efforts in the NBA, which will, in turn, provide a boost to reform efforts elsewhere if reform in the league is achieved.

When will the NBA end its harmful cannabis prohibition policy? Hopefully sooner rather than later, however, there is no current timetable for such a policy change. A lot of words have been said by the current NBA commissioner, however, meaningful actions have remained elusive.

Sport cannabis is a new frontier for the emerging cannabis industry, and if leagues like the NBA get on the right side of history, it will open up huge opportunities for players via endorsement deals, for cannabis companies that create products and services that cater to athletes, and ultimately the league itself will no doubt benefit via receiving a sizeable stream of new advertising revenue and revenue from partnership deals from the cannabis industry.