The NBA Needs to Rethink Its Stance on Cannabis

The League’s Impromptu Hiatus Provides Opportunity to Reflect on Its Cannabis Policy

  • NBA players are pushing for a change. They believe it’s time to erase the stigma around cannabis use among athletes. Graphic Joey Bruce

During an appearance on All The Smoke, a podcast hosted by retired NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, NBA superstar Kevin Durant said the league needs to take cannabis off its banned substances list.

The league’s impromptu hiatus provides an opportunity to reflect on its cannabis policy.

Kevin Durant is right.

An 82-game season is gruelling. Between travelling, training, games, and the stress of playing in a high-pressure, high-scrutiny environment, NBA players put their bodies and minds through a lot.

Opiates, physical therapy, and other measures are used in pain management and recovery and cannabis, particularly CBD, can be another tool in the kit. It may not be the go-to for everyone, but players should at least have the option available to them.

Cannabis is legal for medical use in most states that have NBA teams, and a third of the league’s teams are in jurisdictions with recreational legal cannabis. The legal aspect is not a stumbling block.

In fact, the year after Canada legalized recreational cannabis, its only NBA team won their first ever championship. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but do with that information what you will.

Whether Charles Barkley liked it or not, NBA players are role models, and pundits argue that players openly using cannabis could send the wrong message to impressionable young people or encourage unhealthy behaviour.

That rings hollow when it is nearly impossible to tune into a broadcast without receiving some advertising about alcohol or artery-clogging fast food. The problem is not health but image.

The NBA has positioned itself as the “wokest” of all the major North American sports leagues, with decisions like pulling the 2017 all-star game from Charlotte because of discriminatory legislation against transgender people. But at the end of the day, it is a business.

The stigma around cannabis is slowly fading but still exists especially in its association with the Black community. In a league where the players are mostly Black there have been efforts to gentrify its image to appeal to a wider (re: whiter) audience.

In the early 2000s former Commissioner David Stern instituted a controversial dress code that banned durags,hats, large jewelry and other clothing associated with Hip-Hop culture in an attempt to rehabilitate it’s image. Its cannabis testing policy—which only started in 2000—is a holdover of that era.

No one is asking the NBA to start making player-card rolling papers—as cool as that would be. By simply taking the substance off the banned list, the NBA can stop punishing players for something that is within their legal right to do and does not affect performance. In fact, before his death earlier this year, Stern also came out to support cannabis as a pain management tool for players.

The gag is, NBA players already use cannabis. Barnes and Jackson spoke on the same podcast episode about how using cannabis helped them recover during their playing careers, and more former players have spoken elsewhere about cannabis use not just among players but around front office and coaches as well.

It’s huge that a player of Durant’s calibre—a former MVP, four-time scoring champ, two-time champion, and future hall-of-famer—has made this statement. Steve Kerr, Durant’s former head coach, extolled the positive qualities of cannabis in helping him deal with his back pain.

Durant is one of the faces of the league and having him come out and support taking cannabis off the list of banned substances could generate more support for this in the NBA’s players association as the next collective bargaining agreement approaches.

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