The Current State of Cannabis in the NFL

It seems like hardly a month goes by without news of a professional athlete getting “caught” for cannabis use, even though this plant is now fully legal in 23 of the United State’s 50 states, with an additional 13 states considering legalizing it by 2024.

That means within about a year, we could see as many as 36 out of 50 states have some type of legalized cannabis industry, yet the NFL is still holding out on testing players during the season and handing out penalties for those “caught” using this medicinal herb.

Notable players who have been targetted by the NFL’s cannabis policy include:

  1. Ricky Williams: Ricky Williams, a former NFL running back, openly discussed his use of marijuana and faced multiple suspensions during his career due to positive drug tests.
  2. Josh Gordon: Josh Gordon, a wide receiver, has had several suspensions throughout his career, with some related to violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, including marijuana use.
  3. Martavis Bryant: Martavis Bryant, a former wide receiver, has also faced multiple suspensions, including those related to marijuana use.
  4. Randy Gregory: Randy Gregory, a defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, has had multiple suspensions due to violations of the league’s substance abuse policy, including marijuana use.
  5. Martellus Bennett (Football): Martellus Bennett, a former NFL tight end, admitted to using marijuana during his playing career and openly discussed its benefits for pain management.

The problem extends far beyond the NFL, though, with most all major professional sports leagues still enacting draconian cannabis policies on their star money makers. Outside of the NFL, these include:

  1. Michael Phelps (Swimming): Michael Phelps, an Olympic gold medalist swimmer, was photographed smoking from a bong, which led to a suspension from USA Swimming and loss of sponsorship deals.
  2. Ross Rebagliati (Snowboarding): Ross Rebagliati, a Canadian snowboarder, tested positive for marijuana during the 1998 Winter Olympics. Although he initially faced disqualification, he was later reinstated due to a technicality.
  3. Nick Diaz (Mixed Martial Arts): Nick Diaz, a former UFC fighter, has faced multiple suspensions for testing positive for marijuana. He has had several instances where he tested positive after his fights.
  4. Matt Barnes (Basketball): Matt Barnes, a former NBA player, was suspended for five games in 2008 after testing positive for marijuana.
  5. Josh Howard (Basketball): Josh Howard, a former NBA player, admitted to smoking marijuana during an interview, which generated controversy and scrutiny.

What is the NFL’s Current Policy on Cannabis Use?

Technically the NFL’s suspension policy is a “THC Suspension Policy,” not cannabis, so things like CBD and Delta-8 may potentially go unpenalized. Vapes, edibles, and even topicals containing THC, however, could trigger a positive test result.

The old NFL policy tested players for up to 4 months prior to the official NFL season and then tested them throughout the season “at random.” Any contract player with over 35 nanograms per milliliter would result in disciplinary action.

Getting caught could result in a fine and/or suspension from one or multiple games, which could cost players millions in take-home salary. To complicate matters further, THC can stay in the bloodstream for 3-30 days, depending on the potency and frequency of use, among other metabolic factors.

Due to multiple complaints and high-profile cases in which public opinion has clearly sided with the offending players, the NFL has relaxed its THC policy ever so slightly in recent years.

The threshold for league action in terms of THC has increased from 35 ng/ml to 150 ng/ml. Given that an average one-gram joint will result in blood THC levels of 90-150 ng/ml, this move was praised within the league and outside the league as a step in the right direction, as it meant that players could consume cannabis more easily during the offseason and pre-season without fear of serious disciplinary action.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, when a player is tested and does exceed 150 ng/ml, that player is first referred to a league medical expert who can review the player’s case and help decide whether or not disciplinary action is necessary.

This is an obviously pragmatic approach as the entire reason cannabis has been legalized in the first place is for medical applications pertaining to pain relief, of which most NFL players suffer at some point in their career given the stringent training regiments and on-field in-play injuries that occur.

What Percent of NFL Players Use Cannabis?

There isn’t an official or widely recognized statistic regarding the percentage of NFL players who use cannabis. Due to the nature of the topic and the privacy surrounding players’ personal habits, it is challenging to obtain precise data on the prevalence of cannabis use among NFL players.

It’s worth noting that attitudes and regulations regarding cannabis use have been evolving, both within the NFL and society as a whole. Some players have openly discussed their cannabis use, while others may choose to keep it private. The league’s substance abuse policy includes testing for marijuana and penalties for positive tests.

That said, there have been a few brave pioneers who have been publicly candid about the percentage of players that use the herb. These include:

“Anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the league’s more than 1,600 players currently use cannabis”

-Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs

“These days, at least 80 percent of NFL players smoke weed; I don’t think they’re smoking before games – I think there might be one or two guys on the team. But especially this day and age, it’s everywhere, it’s so easy, and the NFL only tests once during training camp.”

-Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins

“I want to say about 89%

-Martellus Bennet, Green Bay Packers

“I would probably say around 80% of the guys in our league use cannabis”

-Tavarres King, Denver Broncos

If we take all of the public comments from actual NFL players into account and average them out, the average percentage of NFL players estimated to use cannabis is 78.5%.

Given the severity of punishment, both financially and publically, we suspect this figure is a conservative estimate as there will inevitably be players who keep their cannabis use entirely private for fear of financial or professional repercussions.

A Brighter Future for Cannabis Use In the NFL?

The future of the NFL’s cannabis policy is uncertain, but there are a few potential directions it could take based on evolving attitudes and changing regulations surrounding cannabis use:

  1. Policy relaxation: The NFL may consider revising its policy to be more lenient towards cannabis use. This could involve increasing the threshold for positive tests or reducing the severity of penalties for players who test positive for marijuana.
  2. Medical exemptions: The league might adopt a more nuanced approach by allowing players to use cannabis for medical purposes if they have valid prescriptions or recommendations from healthcare professionals. This approach recognizes the potential medical benefits of cannabis while still maintaining certain regulations.
  3. Focus on alternative pain management: With the increasing interest in alternative pain management methods, including cannabis, the NFL could explore incorporating non-psychoactive cannabinoids such as CBD into their policies. CBD is known for its potential therapeutic properties without the intoxicating effects of THC.
  4. Collaborations with medical experts: The NFL may collaborate with medical professionals and researchers to study the potential benefits and risks of cannabis use among players. This research could inform future policy decisions and help shape guidelines prioritizing player health and safety.

HerbCEO only hopes that these policies might be adopted or that cannabis use in the NFL might become entirely non-tested in the future, given how therapeutic it can be and given that federal legalization doesn’t seem all that far away.

Heck, as recently as 2021, the NFL was actually providing funding to research groups that were looking at medical marijuana use for pain treatment. These signs point to a bright future, but as many former and active NFL players can probably attest, change cannot come soon enough.

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