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What Does It Say That Pro Sports All Cool with Marijuana?

Loosened marijuana rules in sports
Written by Sarah Friedman

What does it mean that many major professional sports associations are now dropping cannabis from banned substances lists?

The UFC joined other professional sports recently, in taking marijuana off of its banned substances lists; what does this say overall, that pro sports associations are now okay with weed?

Drugs and athletics

It’s not like drug use during sporting events is a new concept. Back in Ancient Greece, where the Olympic games originated, it was customary, according to ProCon, for athletes to drink potions made with wine, use hallucinogens, or eat the hearts and testicles of animals for strength. None of this was considered unethical or illegal at the time. The Ancient Greeks also used something later called ‘doop’ by the Dutch, which is a viscous opium fluid. Its thought that ‘doop’, transformed over time into ‘doping.’

When it comes to drugs and athletics, there are two things to consider: whether the drug is employed to help with performance, or if its simply that the participant is using something generally illegal. Heroin, for example, isn’t known to help with athletic performance, but is illegal in general. A player found on heroin, would be in just as much trouble as a guy taking steroids; which in another, medical capacity, could be legal.

Official international sporting competitions, adhere to both of these ideas, and the use of illicit or performance enhancing drugs, is banned. The international group WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) sets official anti-doping/drug policy, used by the international world, across all professional sports. However, the professional sports associations of the US have their own policies.

WADA regulates marijuana rules for international pro sports
WADA regulates marijuana rules for international pro sports

One of the big debates in the world of drugs and pro sports, is whether marijuana should be considered a performance enhancing drug. It’s currently illegal per WADA, even though different US sporting associations, allow it. To add to the complexity, cannabis and its compounds, are often used therapeutically for sports injuries, making them actual medicines.

UFC latest pro sports group to loosen marijuana restrictions

First off, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is a company, its not a league. NBA, NFL, MLB…they’re all leagues. So it’s not exactly the same thing. However, just like those leagues, it sets its own rules and policies for what’s legal for professional athletes. At the end of December, UFC put into effect a new anti-doping policy; for which further details were released the next week in January.

Part of this announcement was the removal of cannabis altogether from the banned substances list. This is not the first move in this direction by the UFC. In 2021, UFC stopped considering a positive THC test as a violation, unless other evidence suggests that the athlete used it for enhancement, or in some other illegal way.

Beyond cannabis, the new UFC anti-doping rules maintain a drug-testing program for all athletes, which involves no-notice biological sample collection. It also has plans to establish a system that looks at drug amounts found in the system, called Decision Concentration Limits (thresholds). This will differentiate between intentional use and unintentional exposure, when it comes to prohibited substances.

Hunter Campbell, UFC’s chief business officer, explained “UFC’s goal for the Anti-Doping Policy is to be the best, most effective, and most progressive anti-doping program in all of professional sports,” and that “UFC is proud of the advancements we have made with our anti-doping program over the past eight years.”

Marijuana elsewhere in pro sports

UFC is hardly the first pro sports outfit to change its stance on marijuana recently. Back in April, the NBA, as part of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA and the Players Association, changed its stance on weed as well. According to the new agreement, which was subsequently ratified by both sides at the end of April; cannabis will no longer be tested for, or penalized.

Pro sports associations getting more lenient with marijuana
Pro sports associations getting more lenient with marijuana

The NFL also recently loosened policy in its own collective bargaining agreement made before the beginning of the 2020-2021 season. The update still restricts use during the playing season, but no longer polices use in the off-season. A second update also increased the amount of THC needed in the system for it to count as a positive test. The threshold increased to 150ng from 35ng. Plus, players only undergo testing at one time, at the beginning of the season.

MLB is even further ahead of its compatriots, taking cannabis off its banned substances list back in 2019. Players have no issue using it in the off-season. In fact, players aren’t even tested anymore during the playing season; and only run into problems if they seem noticeable high. The association still considers cannabis a ‘drug of abuse.’

The most forward thinking of all the professional sports, however, is the NHL, which never tested for cannabis in the first place, and never held it as a banned substance. It can identify problematic use; however even in these cases, there’s no specific protocol for how to handle the situation. Players have the right to attend or not attend the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program. And NHL won’t know either way.

…Even the NCAA is close to dropping cannabis

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is the non-profit regulating body for pretty much all student athletics in the US. Currently, the NCAA has cannabis on its banned substances list, however, the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS), a committee within the NCAA, brought up the idea of taking cannabis off this list, last year.

In June of 2023, the NCAA released a statement on the matter; but gave no further indication as to whether the recommendation would be taken up, or not. In the last several months, different events and meetings have been held, with this idea spoken of further. However, still, no formal decision made. Given the amount of conversation that’s going on, however, it seems something is likely on the way in 2024.

As the NCAA works with 24 sports in 1,098 universities, has 102 athletic conferences, 19,886 teams, and 90 different championship events; it includes all student sports. A change in policy here, would indicate that cannabis is not seen as dangerous, even for these younger crowds.

Team jerseys
Team jerseys

What does this mean?

Sports are widely associated with the idea of physical fitness; and physical fitness is an understood cornerstone of general good health. Therefore, sports are usually associated (directly or indirectly) with the idea of good health. While athletes don’t necessarily have to be in good health, there aren’t that many cases where they are not.

Aside from the concept of doping – which is meant to increase performance, many athletes won’t use drugs that can hurt their bodies or their abilities; at least not during training seasons. So its not a population where there are large and uncontrollable drug problems, although this isn’t to say that substance abuse can’t be an issue for some.

The backing off of cannabis in US professional and collegiate sports, is a strong indication that there really isn’t much provable danger associated with it. And for this to be accepted in a community of people very into their physical health, also indicates that all the bans and restrictions in place, are just holdovers from the yellow journalism-inspired legislation of the early-mid 1900s. It indicates how the what-should-be-obvious truth of the plant, is now becoming inarguable due to the current cascade of research into the topic.

And it means we’ve gotten that much further in the direction of general and overall cannabis approval and acceptance. Something that indicates we’ll see even more loosening of cannabis restriction country wide, in the upcoming year.


If pro sports associations are okay with marijuana – or at least – not against it, and even the military is looking to drop certain testing restrictions…why is it still illegal at all?

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.