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Harsh Judgement a Larger Issue than Major League Cannabis Use

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Today, the league continues to issue harsh punishments to athletes who are found using the herb.

While three of the four major sports leagues have loosened their stance on cannabis, there is still much work to be done in the NBA. Over the past 12 months, the MLB and the NFL have taken large strides in updating their cannabis policies to reflect modern societal opinion on the drug better. Today, these leagues, along with the NHL, no longer punish players who test positive for cannabis use, but rather focus on helping them receive treatment if it seems that they might have a substance abuse problem. 


The NBA, on the other hand, continues to treat and categorize marijuana use like that of harsher drugs. Throughout the regular season, players are subject to four random drug tests. After a first positive test result, a player will be enrolled in a drug program, while a second positive test results in a $25,000 fine. In the case of a third violation, a player will be suspended for five games, and will then be suspended for an additional five games for every test failed after that. 


In 2019, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver went on record stating that while he feels the NBA’s policy on cannabis should be relaxed, that the issue is complicated. The complication? Too many players are smoking what he believes is “too much” cannabis. To Silver, this is problematic because he feels the high amount of usage is directly correlated with the mental wellbeing of his athletes. He claims that many NBA players have told him directly that they are smoking a large amount of pot because they have a lot of anxiety and are struggling.

"There are guys in the league who are smoking a lot of pot,” said Silver. “Then the question becomes, ‘Well, why are you smoking a lot of pot?’ And that’s where mental wellness comes in. Because I’ve directly talked to players who say I’m smoking a lot of pot because I have a lot of anxiety and I’m struggling.”

With all due respect, Commissioner Silver, but if you are genuinely concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of your players, why are you causing them to live in constant fear of being reprimanded for their cannabis use? If a player is successfully using cannabis to deal with the stress and anxiety they are facing, and are still performing at a high level on the court, what’s the issue? Is your harsh stance on cannabis not just adding to the mental anguish of these players? Is it not creating an environment of mistrust on both sides?


What I feel Commissioner Silver and other members of the NBA brass have failed to realize is just how cultural and helpful cannabis use has been — and continues to be — for so many NBA players, especially those who come from backgrounds like mine.


More than any other sports league, the NBA is dominated by Black athletes, with more than 75 percent of rosters made up by African American players. Given this statistic, I feel it’s also important to highlight that 45.8 percent of Black youth in America are living in poverty. This means that many athletes entering the NBA are coming from underprivileged backgrounds. The effects of such circumstances do not disappear just because you’re now playing in the pros, and making it does not magically assimilate you to who they would like you to be in order to sell more tickets. 


When you’re growing up in Black America, you can be sure of a few things: it’s normal to be raised by your grandmother and grow up without your parents, you were taught to fear authority, and domestic and economic hardship is to be expected. Another thing you can be sure of is that smoking cannabis is completely commonplace, just a way of life. For those of us who come from these environments, smoking cannabis to start your day or to unwind in the evening is as normalized as having a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine with dinner. For me and so many others, not only has cannabis always been part of our culture, but it has also allowed us to cope. 

Imagine for a second that you grow up in one of these marginalized communities. You struggle alongside those you love from the day you are born, and one day it’s discovered that you have a gift. Your gift is so great that it has the potential to break you and your loved ones out of the poverty cycle and change your lives forever. You work hard, and against all the odds, you make it. You sign your first pro contract. You are finally able to buy your mother a house. You can buy your sister a car. You can provide for your father in the ways he was never able to provide for you. And your Granny? You’d love to give her the world, but she doesn’t want much beyond being able to make a good donation to the church.


Suddenly, this great big check is allowing you to mend family relationships and save everyone from their grim circumstances. From the outside, it looks like all your problems have been solved; but they’re not; you’ve just inherited a brand-new set. 


Now the pressure is on. You want to make the right decisions, and you surely don’t want to let anyone down. You must tread carefully, though, because while this money is more than you could have ever imagined, it’s not infinite. You have to keep performing. You have to keep winning. You cannot ever go back to sleeping in an unfurnished apartment where the electricity keeps getting cut off. Compound this pressure and these fears with the aches, pains, and wear and tear on your body from going hard day in and day out; you need to continue to prove yourself to those who gave you a chance. Sounds pretty stressful, right? 


Once I got to the NBA, cannabis provided me relief from these new anxieties the same way it provided me comfort when I was growing up on Wesley Street in Flint, Michigan. For me, cannabis has never been about getting high; it has been about relaxing and letting go of crippling stress so I can focus on performing and improving my life.

An example of an athlete who felt strongly about the positive effects he received from regular cannabis use is former NFL player and Heisman Trophy winner, Ricky Williams. Williams played 12 seasons in the NFL, and while he continuously performed on the field, he also consistently failed drug tests. Under the NFL’s former policy on cannabis, Williams found himself suspended multiple times, and in 2004, walked away from the NFL to take better care of his health and wellbeing. Part of taking better care of himself? Cannabis.

Now retired, Williams has made a new career for himself in the field of cannabis, in which he considers himself a healer who provides a natural form of medicine to those in need.

While major leagues’ cannabis policies are improving, I long for the day when the benefits are understood and celebrated instead of blacklisted. If executives like Commissioner Silver are genuinely concerned about the mental wellbeing of their athletes, they should focus less on punishment and more on truly getting to know their players on an intimate level.

I’ll be the first person to tell you that athletes do not suddenly start smoking cannabis when they make it to the major leagues. Using cannabis is something many have been doing for years. If an athlete has been able to perform at a high enough level to receive a major league contract all while smoking cannabis to manage stress and anxiety, they have demonstrated that they can successfully manage their usage. I struggle to understand why cannabis should be demonized while pharmaceutical-grade anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications are embraced.

I encourage NBA executives to look beyond punishing players for cannabis use and seek to better understand the individuals who test positive. Rather than automatically sending players to a treatment program as if they have an issue, consider that perhaps the real issue is casting blind judgment and not taking the time to understand who these players really are and all the ways in which cannabis has enriched their lives.

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