Sports and Cannabis: How The Two Are Evolving

A baseball player mid-swing against the backdrop of a stadium. The player is wearing a red jersey and white pants.

In our June 2023 national news update, we featured headlines about how the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and National Football League (NFL) are revisiting cannabis policies, the latest in a series of advancements for cannabis consumers in sports. In our July 2023 national news update, we brought the news that the National Basketball Association (NBA) has also made significant strides in its cannabis and CBD policies.

For the near-century of cannabis prohibition, collegiate and professional athletes have been barred from consuming cannabis, subject to drug tests and disqualification for positive results. And in some leagues, players were barred from having a financial stake as well. In many cases, though, the trend is shifting toward the acceptance of athletes who consume cannabis — though not all athletic organizations are reforming at the same pace. 

Here, we examine some leading athletic organizations at the collegiate, professional, and international levels and see how their approach to cannabis has changed over the years.

How athletic organizations are changing their cannabis policies

The NCAA and NFL aren’t the only two high-profile sports organizations that have changed their position toward cannabis in recent history. Get to know the cannabis policies of other major sporting organizations.

World Anti-Doping Agency and cannabis

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is closely tied to and heavily funded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), maintains the World Anti-Doping Code, which includes a list of banned substances and recommended drug testing procedures. These recommendations are often used as the standard by athletics associations worldwide when determining cannabis policy.

Under the current WADA rules, cannabis remains a prohibited substance, but the threshold for testing has significantly increased over time. The rules specifically cite delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as a banned substance, but the WADA increased the threshold for THC drug testing from 35 to 150 nanograms per milliliter in 2022. For context, the threshold was just 15 ng/mL in 2013, meaning the WADA has increased the limit tenfold in less than a decade. 

Additionally, the WADA lessened the consequences for athletes who fail a drug test for THC, reducing the length of suspension from its previous two to four years to just one month for competitors who can demonstrate their THC consumption occurred outside of competition and was not related to sports performance. The WADA’s recommendations are based on three criteria, including the drug’s ability to enhance sports performance, the health risk the drug poses to an athlete, and whether a drug violates the spirit of sport. 

The WADA’s past rules have led to some high-profile disqualifications, including for American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who tested positive for cannabis prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which were held in 2021 following the COVID-19 pandemic). However, its repeated increase of the THC testing threshold suggests the WADA is open to reform as cannabis legalization continues to expand worldwide.

FIFA and cannabis

The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) takes one of the hardest lines when it comes to cannabis use in sports. The association permits athletes to consume Cannabidiol (CBD) products but any other form of natural or synthetic cannabinoid consumption remains completely prohibited unless a player has been approved for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) by the association. This also applies to CBD products that contain 0.3% THC, which includes most CBD products derived from hemp. 

FIFA is a sprawling sports organization, governing more than 200 member associations that include 300,000 clubs and 240 million players worldwide. That includes both Olympic soccer and the World Cup. Players that fail drug testing under FIFA policy face months- or years-long suspensions, much like those who fail drug testing for performance-enhancing drugs.

Strangely enough, FIFA’s banned substance list didn’t always include cannabis or cannabinoids. In one incident, Australian soccer officials covered up a player’s cannabis-positive drug test because cannabinoids were not explicitly included on FIFA’s banned substances list. Today, though, the association maintains some of the tightest restrictions out there.

NCAA and cannabis

In June 2023, a panel established by the NCAA recommended the removal of cannabis from the banned substance list for college athletes, stating it is not a performance-enhancing drug. Currently, the NCAA uses the WADA’s recommended drug testing threshold for THC, which is 150 ng/mL in a urine test. However, if the recommendation is adopted, it would represent a major step forward for the NCAA in terms of cannabis reform, breaking with the WADA’s recommended approach to cannabis in sports and regulating it more like the association does alcohol. That decision is expected to be made in Fall 2023.

NCAA rules make a big impact on the sports world. The association governs college sports in 1,100 North American schools. It covers more than 500,000 student-athletes, and these athletes have been tested for THC since 1986. Removing cannabis from the banned substances list altogether would be a major breakthrough when it comes to cannabis in college sports. 

NFL and cannabis

The NFL officially stopped testing players for THC during the offseason in 2021, but cannabis is still considered a banned substance by the league. Players are still required to test for cannabis at the beginning of training camp each year and are subject to a fine if they fail. However, the NFL no longer suspends players for failing these drug tests, either. 

Historically, cannabis consumption could derail even the most promising NFL careers. One of the most high profile cases surrounded Ricky Williams, a running back who played for the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, and Baltimore Ravens during his time in the NFL. Williams famously missed two NFL seasons after failing drug testing for cannabis five teams, despite setting the record for total rushing yards in 2002.

Williams isn’t the only big name NFL player to face suspensions for cannabis consumption, either. Players including Josh Gordon, Darren Waller, Martavis Bryant, and Randy Gregory have all faced similar suspensions. Although the NFL still considers cannabis a banned substance, the league has signaled a willingness to relax penalties for failed drug tests and perhaps may not be so likely to force suspensions so readily.

Most recently, the NFL and NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) announced an additional $500,000 in funding to support the effects of CBD for managing symptoms in players who have suffered concussions. The program was initially launched in 2022 and funded with $1 million, offering the promise of a future NFL in which cannabinoids are seen as therapeutic rather than performance-enhancing. Concussions and conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have plagued the league, leading to highly negative media attention and providing significant incentives to find a solution.

MLB and cannabis

Major League Baseball was one of the first major sports organizations to remove cannabis from its list of banned substances in 2019. Professional baseball players in the league are now permitted to consume cannabis in their personal lives. Players who are caught consuming cannabis will be referred to a treatment program, but the MLB will not impose any consequences for players who fail to attend.

Meanwhile, several teams as well as the MLB have even signed sponsorship deals with CBD businesses. Players, however, are prohibited from endorsing cannabis products. Additionally, under the MLB’s current rules, players can still be banned for possessing and selling cannabis, as well as driving under the influence of cannabis. The MLB consists of about 1,100 players from 22 countries and territories. 

NBA and cannabis

As of June 2023, the National Basketball Association and its players’ union signed a collective bargaining agreement removing cannabis from the league’s banned substances list. The new rules also permit players to endorse CBD products and invest in the growing legal cannabis industry, provided they are not majority owners of a cannabis company.

Similar to the MLB’s rules, NBA players can still be penalized for a felony involving marijuana distribution or driving while under the influence of cannabis. The consequences can include mandatory treatment programs, and failure to complete these programs may result in additional disciplinary action including a $5,000 per day fine for non-compliance. These penalties can escalate for players who enter a treatment program but display “a mindful disregard” for their responsibilities under the program. 

World Rugby and cannabis

World Rugby and the International Rugby Board currently consider all cannabinoids a banned substance in competition but permits their consumption outside of competition. However, even if consumption occurs outside of competition, a player can still face suspensions if they test positive once competition begins. For a first offense, players face up to three months suspension if they can demonstrate their cannabis consumption was not related to sports performance. Those consequences may increase if a player repeatedly fails drug testing or cannot demonstrate their cannabis consumption was unrelated to sports performance. World Rugby rules govern more than 8 million players and 132 national member federations, including USA Rugby.

Cannabis reform makes uneven progress in the sports world

While many high-profile athletic organizations have relaxed their rules regarding cannabis consumption for athletes, some maintain strict policies with severe consequences for those who fail drug tests. Still, signs of progress abound for athletes who consume cannabis as legalization expands and changes attitudes toward the plant. Follow CWCBExpo as we keep an eye on all things cannabis, including how it’s impacting athletics, by subscribing to our email newsletter or following us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.

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