Is The NBA Getting Closer To Changing Its Marijuana Policy?

By Kelly Burch 10/27/17

The former commissioner has had a recent change of heart about medical marijuana's place in the NBA. Is the league ready to make a change?

a basketball player shooting the ball into the hoop in a crowded arena

The NBA has become the latest professional sports league to open discussion over its marijuana policy after long-time NBA commissioner David Stern said that he believes the drug "probably should be removed" from the list of substances that are banned by the league. 

Stern was speaking with former NBA player Al Harrington in a 15-minute documentary that is available on YouTube.

"I think all of the (sports) leagues are now appropriately focused on player training, structuring of the right parts of their body, player rehabilitation in the case of injury, player nutrition ... (marijuana) should be a part of that conversation," said Stern, who retired from the NBA in 2014 after running the league for 30 years.

However, the NBA executive vice president of communications Mike Bass told USA Today that the league is not considering a policy change any time soon. 

“While [current NBA] commissioner [Adam] Silver has said that we are interested in better understanding the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana, our position remains unchanged regarding the use by current NBA players of marijuana for recreational purposes,” he said. 

Even still, the long-time commissioner’s comments show that the conversation around use of medical and recreational cannabis for athletes is becoming a mainstream consideration. 

Harrington played in the NBA for 16 years, and admits to using marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes. He now runs the cannabis extract company Viola Extracts. He says that despite the fact that marijuana is banned under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, use of the drug is prevalent. 

“I would say that over 70% of athletes in all major sports smoke marijuana,” Harrington said in the documentary, according to Merry Jane. “I think it’s that big. Not only the players, but I think coaches consume, I think the owners consume. I think in sports it’s very prevalent and it’s right there.”

Stern admitted that marijuana use was prevalent when he was at the league, which resulted in a crackdown on use of the drug. 

"Some of our players came to us and said, 'some of these guys are high coming into the games.' We began tightening it up, and at that time, people accepted the generally held wisdom that marijuana was a gateway drug,” he said. 

However, he acknowledged that times have changed and that the league might have trouble banning a substance that is otherwise legal. 

“I think we gotta change the collective bargaining agreement and let you do what’s legal in your state. If marijuana is now in the process of being legalized, I would think you should be allowed to do what’s legal in your state. Now I think it’s up to the sports leagues to anticipate where this is going and lead the way.”

He was particularly open to the idea that medical marijuana could be beneficial to players and the league. 

“I think that if medical marijuana is available, then it’s up to the individual team doctor,” he said while speaking to Harrington, who said that he used medical marijuana after a botched knee surgery. “You tell me it worked for you and it worked for others that you know, then we should find a way to get that defined and made official … Could you imagine if we could create a situation where every superstar was able to play one additional year?”

People associated with the NFL have also been discussing the role of cannabis. In August the league reached out to the Players Association about studying medical marijuana together. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.