In a groundbreaking and long-awaited move, the landscape of collegiate and professional sports is witnessing a seismic shift as the era of cannabis testing comes to a close. Gone are the days when athletes faced the constant anxiety of scrutiny and penalties for cannabis use outside of competition.
As society's understanding of cannabis evolves, sports organizations are finally acknowledging the need to realign their policies with the changing attitudes and laws surrounding this once controversial substance. In this blog, we delve into the significance of ending cannabis testing in sports, exploring the implications for athletes, sports culture, and the broader movement toward progressive drug policies. Welcome to a new chapter in the realm of athletics, one that champions athlete well-being and embraces the spirit of modernity.
History of Cannabis Testing in Sports
Cannabis consumption has been prevalent for thousands of years in various cultures for medicinal, recreational, and religious purposes. However, the issue of testing athletes for cannabis did not become a significant concern until modern organized sports began to establish anti-doping policies in the mid-20th century.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established in 1999 to coordinate and monitor the global fight against doping in sports. In 2004, WADA prohibited the use of cannabinoids, including cannabis, during competitions, leading to the implementation of testing programs across various sports organizations.
The WADA had initially included cannabis on its list of prohibited substances not because it enhances performance but because of its potential to mask pain and anxiety during competition or to provide a calming effect that might be advantageous in certain sports where anxiety and stress management are critical (e.g., shooting or archery).
The inclusion of cannabis on the list of banned substances has been a subject of controversy. Critics argue that cannabis may not enhance athletic performance and should not be categorized alongside performance-enhancing drugs. Some also contend that marijuana use for medical or personal reasons should be separate from athletic competition.
In recent years, there has been a growing acknowledgment that cannabis may not pose a significant threat to the integrity of sports and might not warrant its classification as a banned substance. This has led some sports organizations and leagues to reevaluate their cannabis testing policies and consider removing it from their list of prohibited substances.
First Round Changes
The first major sports league to start easing requirements on cannabis testing for their athletes was the National Football League (NFL). In March 2020, the NFL and the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) announced significant changes to their drug testing policy, including the elimination of suspensions for positive tests for marijuana.
Under the revised policy, the THC limit was raised from 35 nanograms to 150 nanograms and players who test positive for THC, above 150 nanograms, will no longer face suspensions. Instead, fines and other interventions are put in place for those who repeatedly test positive. This move was a significant departure from the previous approach that imposed harsh penalties, including suspensions, for cannabis use.
The change in the NFL's drug testing policy reflected a shift in attitudes toward cannabis in society and an acknowledgment of the evolving landscape of marijuana laws across various states in the United States. It was seen as a step towards a more lenient and understanding approach to cannabis use among professional athletes, focusing on the health and well-being of players rather than punitive measures.
Taking It Up a Notch
Taking notes from the changes made by the NFL, the NBA and its players came to a preliminary agreement about how the league should move forward with the subject of cannabis. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, cannabis would be completely removed from the league’s list of banned substances and players would even be able to promote or invest in cannabis companies.
The new CBA would solidify temporary policies as a permanent fixture after the initial suspension of cannabis testing in 2020. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated, “We decided that, given all the things that were happening in society, given all the pressures and stress that players were under, that we didn’t need to act as Big Brother right now. I think society’s views around marijuana have changed to a certain extent.”
While various professional sports leagues have made progress in this direction, the NBA stands apart by allowing players to actively promote and invest in cannabis companies, demonstrating a progressive and open-minded approach towards cannabis integration in the world of athletics.
Trickle Down Effect
As the world of professional sports and athletes begins to change its attitude towards cannabis testing, the NCAA has taken note and is looking to implement its own changes in collegiate sports. The NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports has expressed its backing for the removal of cannabis from the Association's list of banned drugs and testing protocols.
This matter was brought before the committee during a meeting held in Indianapolis, prompted by Divisions II and III, which sought a reevaluation of the NCAA's cannabis policy. They raised the question of whether drug testing should exclusively target performance-enhancing substances.
To remove cannabis from the list of banned drugs, all three NCAA divisional governance bodies would need to introduce and approve relevant legislation.
Additionally, the committee intends to seek support from the NCAA Board of Governors to cease cannabis testing at NCAA championship events while the legislative process is underway.
The decision to consider this change was largely influenced by the conclusions drawn from the December 2022 Summit on Cannabinoids in College Athletics. The consensus reached during the summit was that cannabis does not enhance athletic performance and that a harm reduction approach should be applied at the institutional level. The rationale included focusing drug testing on substances that truly confer an unfair advantage, embracing a harm reduction philosophy similar to alcohol, realigning testing to support campus efforts in identifying problematic cannabis use, educating student-athletes about contemporary cannabis risks and consumption methods, and providing harm reduction strategies to those who legally consume cannabis.
In addition to policy and testing adjustments, the committee is also in favor of developing a comprehensive communication and education campaign to guide member institutions in their approach to cannabis-related matters.
A Win For All Cannabis
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The Future of Cannabis in Sports
In the wake of a groundbreaking decision to end cannabis testing in both collegiate and professional sports, the world of athletics is embarking on a new chapter defined by compassion, progress, and athlete well-being. By removing the stigma that once surrounded cannabis and recognizing its limited potential as a performance-enhancing substance, sports organizations are aligning with the shifting attitudes and laws surrounding this age-old plant. This historic move not only signifies a victory for individual rights but also marks a significant step towards a more understanding and empathetic approach to the physical and mental demands placed on athletes. As we witness the barriers of outdated policies crumble, we embrace a future where athletes can focus on their passion, push their limits, and achieve greatness, without the fear of unjust repercussions. Together, we stride confidently towards a more inclusive and enlightened era, embracing change, and celebrating the human spirit that continues to push the boundaries of human achievement.