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The Changing Landscape of the NFL’s Cannabis Policy

By Danyal Swan September 10, 2023
NFL's Cannabis Policy

For years, American football, represented by the National Football League (NFL), has been the favorite sport in the United States. The league, with its 32 teams and thousands of players, has been undergoing a transformation with the emerging acceptance of cannabis. As marijuana gains legal status in more states, there's growing curiosity about whether the NFL will revisit its own cannabis guidelines.

Spoiler alert: they already have.

Unpacking the Rising Popularity of Cannabis

As more states have adopted medical and recreational cannabis programs, the plant's acceptance and approval has skyrocketed. Anecdotal stories, once hidden in Reddit and other anonymous sites now abound on more mainstream social channels. Marijuana is referenced and notated on many healthcare websites, though always with the caveat that more testing is needed (which, it is). The acceptance of cannabis in mainstream society has surged for various reasons, including:

  • Growing concerns about opioid overuse.
  • Legalization of recreational marijuana in 23 states, widening its consumer base.
  • Diminishing stereotypes about cannabis being exclusively for "slackers," leading to its mainstream acceptance as a medical aid.

As of the most recent data, 36 states along with Washington, D.C., have given the green light to medical cannabis. Additionally, 18 states, including newcomers like New York and Virginia, have fully legalized marijuana.

With this shift, the NFL has taken note. The burning question is: will the league's stance on marijuana change?

NFL’s Evolving Cannabis Policy in 2023

In March 2020, the NFL made headlines by announcing changes to its cannabis policy, owing to a new collective bargaining agreement. The NFL, in partnership with the NFL Players Association, decided that its cannabis regulations should support rather than punish players for marijuana use.

The NFL is now more lenient, allowing medical cannabis prescriptions for players, provided it's essential for their treatment plan. Moreover, a medical review board evaluates THC-positive tests to determine appropriate action. Players can also defend their marijuana use if they can prove it's medically warranted, avoiding penalties.

Overall, players are no longer tested for THC from April through August, with an increase in the levels found during testing, a boon compared to previous rules:

The Pre-2021 Scenario

Prior to these updates, the NFL had a stringent policy—each positive marijuana test led to game suspensions. A sixth positive test could even result in a lifetime ban. Several players received suspensions, which is unsurprising due to the fact that they were tested at random, and could not exceed 35 ng/mL.

Rationale Behind the Policy Changes

The NFL's policy alterations stem from both scientific evidence and public sentiment. Research suggests cannabis can alleviate chronic pain, a common issue for football players. Public opinion has also shifted, making it difficult for organizations like the NFL to maintain harsh cannabis rules.

However, the NFL hasn't given a carte blanche for cannabis use. Players can still face disciplinary action if their THC levels exceed 150 ng/mL.

Cannabis: A Game-Changer for Athletes?

Marijuana offers several benefits that are particularly relevant for football players:

  • Anti-Inflammation: Cannabis helps in reducing inflammation, accelerating recovery from injuries.
  • Pain Management: Chronic pain is part and parcel of the sport, and cannabis offers a viable solution.
  • Mental Health: Cannabis has shown promise in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression, common among athletes.

It's these benefits that have lead current and former players to speak up, advocating for cannabis and CBD use for players year-round.

What’s Next for Professional Sports?

With these changes, the NFL has paved the way for a more progressive approach to athlete health, potentially transforming sports medicine. It's a development that other sports leagues are likely to follow — though they are behind the NBA.

In 2021, the National Basketball Association announced they would no longer penalize players for cannabis use. This progressive stance on the plant will hopefully trickle down to other professional-level sports, including football. We'll keep you posted.

Digital Content Manager for MÜV Florida and Zen Leaf Dispensaries. A cannabis connoisseur with a passion for explaining the miraculous possibility of the plant, Swan began her journey with cannabis as a recreational user and quickly realized its positive impact on her depression and severe anxiety. She joined the cannabis industry as Receptionist and MedTender and witnessed first-hand the immense potential of the plant for a wide variety of ailments, deepening her passion for alternative medicine. Swan is dedicated to self-education on the plant and sharing its potential with all. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa.

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