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The NFL and Cannabis

A cannabis leaf beneath an NFL football on a turf football field.

On September 9th, the National Football League’s regular season will commence, bringing about months of primetime television. But this season is unlike any other and we’re not talking about the 17 game season. The League’s new cannabis rules—negotiated under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) back in 2020—went into action during training camp, starting in late July.

Under the new rules, football players can no longer be suspended for positive marijuana tests. Furthermore, the NFL brought other drug policies into the 21st century: the League can only randomly drug test athletes (for any substance) during the first two weeks of training camp. The League will also adopt a rehabilitation approach to drug abuse, doing away with decades of punishment-based policy.

2020’s CBA was jointly negotiated and approved by both the NFL and the NFL Players Association, known as the NFLPA. In July of this year, the League further announced up to $1 million in grants to cannabis research.

As you can see, the NFL is changing its approach to cannabis. It only makes sense: NFL players have long argued that marijuana is a safer alternative to opioids and other pain management medications. NFL players are subjected to a higher level of physical abuse and need more advanced pain management options than other athletes.

The NFL’s new cannabis rules have implications for the future of cannabis and CBD in sports. And with other leagues—like the NBA and MLB—approving more liberal marijuana policies, it’s only a matter of time before cannabis takes center field.

What is a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)?

Collective bargaining agreements, known as CBAs, are labor agreements between the NFL and NFLPA. In this case, the “NFL” is represented by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners of all 32 teams; the “NFLPA” is represented by the union representing all NFL players. The NFL and NFLPA negotiate terms on things like maximum practice time length, code of conduct, and more. In 2020, the CBA changed virtually all of the NFL’s previous cannabis policy.

New Cannabis Guidelines Under Last Year’s CBA

  • NFL players can no longer be suspended for marijuana use.
  • The League extended the THC drug test threshold from 30 nanograms to 150 nanograms.
  • NFL players can only be randomly drug tested during the first two weeks of training camp (late July for the 2021 season).
  • If an athlete tests positive for any substance during the two-week period, their test is reviewed by a board of medical professionals; this board is appointed by both the NFL and NFLPA. The board then decides if the player needs treatment for substance abuse.

NFL Cannabis Rules Before the Change

The NFL previously operated on a “don’t get caught” marijuana policy, for better or worse. Some players navigated the old rules swimmingly, using cannabis throughout the regular season (and even in the Super Bowl). However, on paper, the NFL’s previous cannabis terms were shaky, at best:

  • NFL players with no previous cannabis violations were randomly drug tested once during the offseason, a period of about four months.
  • For NFL teams with player violations, 10 players per team were randomly drug tested each week.
  • A positive drug test for marijuana meant a referral to a substance abuse program.
  • Subsequent violations carried punishments of multiple-game suspensions, lost game checks, and even a ban of up to one year.

Josh Gordon: NFL’s Marijuana Story

If you’re unfamiliar with the NFL or their old cannabis policies, then let’s put it into perspective. If you’re an NFL fan, you already know where we’re going with this.

Josh Gordon was most recently a superstar wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. He played college football at Baylor and spent time with both the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.

However, it’s not Gordon’s athletic accolades that pin him as a controversial figure in the NFL. Instead, it’s his often-misunderstood attitude and consistent marijuana use. To date, Gordon has been suspended by the NFL five times. He was conditionally reinstated in December of 2020 (right before the Seahawks went into the playoffs), but his reinstatement was revoked just a month later.

The League’s explanation? Josh Gordon didn’t meet the requirements of his conditional reinstatement. Some media outlets suspected cannabis use as the reason, but no concrete reports ever came forward.

However, was Gordon rightfully denied reinstatement, or did he fall victim to the NFL’s previous, unjust marijuana policies? Under the new CBA, Gordon may not have been suspended for marijuana use at all. With his current 5-suspension track record, it’s possible he remains banned from the NFL indefinitely. Gordon’s story is evidence that the NFL needed to change its approach to marijuana policy.

Where Else is Cannabis Policy Changing?

The NFL isn’t the only place where cannabis changes are lighting up. In fact, the MLB removed cannabis from its list of banned substances in 2019. Additionally, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA removed their policy of randomly drug testing athletes for marijuana; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated recently that this change may become permanent. Furthermore, U.S. track sensation Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympic marijuana coverage highlighted much-needed changes in the international sports community.

If all of this wasn’t enough to spell it out, let me do it for you: cannabis is accepted now more than ever. Society has turned a new (marijuana) leaf, so to speak. The NFL, MLB, and NBA generate over $20.4 billion annually, reaching an estimated 24.8 million viewers every week. Needless to say, they have influence over a large audience, bringing progressive cannabis viewpoints to an international viewership like never before.

Outside of sports, the U.S. government is working to legalize recreational cannabis initiatives at the federal level.

What’s Next for Cannabis in Sports?

The new CBA guarantees a brighter, cannabis-infused future in the lives of NFL players throughout the League. However, the NFL is taking it one step further, offering upwards of $1 million in grants for cannabis-related research.

Around Thanksgiving, the League says it will choose up to five recipients, who will split the grant money. The NFL has said that it hopes to help uncover research into cannabis’ potential for pain management, especially as an alternative to opioids.

Opioid addiction is a prevailing issue among athletes, who are often prescribed a concoction of medications to tackle pain. The NFL is a rough industry, so players need all the help they can get—just another reason marijuana and CBD could have a significant impact within major league sports.

From here, we need additional research into cannabinoids like CBD, THC, CBG, and more. These cannabinoids are continuing to surprise scientists with new and exciting use potential. With increased funding and decreased cannabis stigmatization efforts from major institutions like the NFL, who knows what we’ll discover next about the wonderful effects of natural cannabis!

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