• Pratiksha Pathak

Marijuana Use in NFL: Reform or Reversion?

Doping in American football has been in practice for a very long time. Use of steroids and drugs dates back to 1960s in the National Football League (NFL) and still remains a contentious topic for the League. The NFL came up with a labour agreement, famously known as the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which carries out negotiations between NFL Players Association and NFL team owners. It states different types of benefits such as pension and medical claims, classifies distribution of league revenues and puts forth health and safety standards for players in the League. The agreement kept on changing in accordance with the demands of the concerned parties, who have negotiated seven different agreements since the first time the CBA came into effect in 1968. The current active agreement was agreed upon and ratified on March 15, 2020, which extends through the 2030 season. This has been approved by a narrow majority vote of 51.5 per cent.

The newly ratified CBA has several notable changes such as increasing regular season to 17 games, a shortened preseason, a change in revenue split, change in drug policies, disciplinary changes, increase in roster size from 53 to 55 players and many more. In this article, I will precisely focus on the issue of drug policies specifically related to marijuana guidelines. The new CBA has relaxed these guidelines in a few areas. Firstly it has reduced the window for testing of players from four months to two weeks at the start of a training camp. Secondly, players would no longer be suspended even if they are tested positive for marijuana test. Thirdly, the permissible limit for tetrahydrocannabinol or THC level has also been increased from 35 nanograms to 150 nanograms per millilitre of urine.

Marijuana, also known as Cannabis among many other names, is a psychoactive drug prepared from the mixture of dried flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant. It comprises of around 483 compounds, of which the THC is the main psychoactive compound that gives the ‘high’ when a person intakes the drug. Just like a coin, marijuana also has two sides, a good and a bad one. Specifically focusing on the effects it has or may have on players, we can see how it can benefit players and at the same time, can also have a negative impact on their performance. Football is a very active game and so the chances of athletes being hurt are very high. They are at serious risk of suffering from physical injuries such as chronic pain, traumas, concussion etc. Marijuana can be a pain reliever to athletes suffering from injuries. The cannabidiol (CBD) in marijuana helps in easing out muscle and joint inflammation. Lester Grinspoon, Harvard professor and an advocate of marijuana use by athletes, strongly believed that marijuana should be adopted in competitions such as NFL.

Grinspoon had written a letter to Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, stating the benefits of marijuana, also keeping in mind the violent nature of the sport. Therefore, requesting to lift bans on its use by athletes. Grinspoon also explained in the letter, “A processed form of marijuana can be relieved of any toxicity and doesn’t come with any of the psychoactivity associated with regular drugs” (Miller, 2019). Sporadic muscle spasms are very common among athletes, which hampers their performance on the field and their quality of life. According to a report prepared by National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in 2017, marijuana has proved to be helpful in minimizing such spasms. The violent nature of the game has also resulted in a number of mental problems like stress, anxiety and depression that are the top ones in the list. According to a study published in Nature Medicine in July 2017, low doses of THC can help in restoring cognitive functions in mice. In addition, there are fitness experts who believe that marijuana lets them be in the ‘zone’ with their workouts. The CBD in marijuana can help reduce mental stress, deal with traumas and enable players to focus and perform better in the game. It also helps in achieving better sleep and boosts recovery from injuries. This is, of course, a short-term benefit of the drug but this particular benefit can be a long-term problem if the player gets addicted to the substance.

Addiction, in the long run, would cause anxiety, psychological dependence for the substance, memory loss etc. Marijuana may weaken memory power, the ability to think and reduce motor skills. Decision-making and motor coordination can severely be affected and can lead to difficulty in performing certain activities. An obvious adverse impact of smoking the drug would be respiratory-related problems. The physical work capacity of a person consuming marijuana can be reduced. Regular and prolonged use of marijuana can also result in Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome in some people, in which the patient would experience regular cycles of acute nausea, dehydration and vomiting. All these will adversely influence their performance on the field and can reduce their efficiency. A short-term consequence of marijuana use would be the increased risk of a heart attack. Within minutes of consuming it, a person’s heart rate speeds up and if combined with sudden physical exertion it can be very dangerous to the player.

NFL had a firm stand concerning its position on marijuana rules and was not ready to show any leniency up until the recent CBA. Many states have already legalized marijuana along with other leagues, such as the Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association etc.; have already relaxed their respective rules about marijuana use. All of this has somewhat pressurized NFL to relax its policies too. NFL justified its stand and had hopes with the federal government’s treatment of considering marijuana as a controlled substance.


Benefits of the relaxation would be all the above-mentioned perks of the herb. On the other hand, relaxation of marijuana use for the players is not a complete win for them. Under the old CBA, players faced suspension if they failed their fourth test but under the new CBA, in lieu of suspension, they will be fined if they were tested positive. This fine would depend on the number of violations the player committed, but it may range from somewhere around a half-week salary to three weeks’ salary. Players who are tested positive for the first time would have to go through a league-mandated treatment program. Those who refuse the test or clinical care might be suspended for three games after their fourth violation. The new CBA rules regarding substance abuse policy will not be applicable to players who have already been suspended. Moreover, under the old CBA, the testing window was not very oppressive. Players were tested only once a year if they did not have a drug violation history previously. If they passed this annual test, they could consume marijuana and get away with it until the next year. But, under the new CBA, the testing window is very short. Henceforth, in regard to marijuana use, due to all these reasons, the new agreement was approved by a very narrow margin of 1019 to 959 votes.


Marijuana has been a controversial topic for a very long time throughout the world. On one hand, there are states that have completely termed marijuana as an illegal substance and on the other hand, there are states that have legalized or at least relaxed their laws in relation to marijuana consumption and still the mandate is not very clear. This is mainly because of all the positives and negatives of marijuana that it is difficult to shake the balanced boat full of pros and cons on both sides.

Sports organizations embrace and enforce drug use rule for three main reasons: (a) drugs may act as means to enhance performance (b) it jeopardizes health and well-being of players (c) drug use and abuse threatens the organization’s reputation. However, there is no concrete proof that marijuana undoubtedly checks all the above criteria. The rules relating to marijuana has both medical and social underpinnings. Thus, the NFL’s decision to relax its rules for marijuana use would make the league better align with contemporary America and other leagues who have already moderated their rules.

As discussed above, marijuana has quite a lot of side effects, especially if it is consumed for a long time and becomes an addiction but this is not to say that we ignore the positives of the drug, more so for players in a rough sport like football. All drugs, be it alcohol or caffeine, has side effects and studies claim that marijuana is much safer. Marijuana is not a physically addictive drug and the withdrawal symptoms are mild. With regard to being a performance enhancer, marijuana, unlike anabolic steroids, would not make players stronger or help them run faster, jump higher or produce more red blood cells. On the other hand, according to Gary Wadler, an expert in the field of drug use in sports, “the drug could help an athlete by decreasing performance anxiety— but if that’s enough to put something on the verboten list, sports leagues out to prohibit massages, smooth jazz, and afternoon tea with lemon and honey as well” (Hruby, 2014). The question that comes next is how do players then manage ‘pot and performance’.

They do not get intoxicated just before or during practices and matches. Nonetheless, some players may misuse the drug irresponsibly if the ban is lifted*. A much bigger and dangerous problem within the NFL is the problem with prescribed painkillers, which are way too harmful than marijuana. Chronic pain and physical harm are very common and inevitable in a vigorous sport like football and hence it is very normal for team doctors to prescribe painkillers. Amanda Reiman, Policy Manager of Drug Policy Alliance, witnessed that medical marijuana patients are consciously using marijuana to subside pain instead of prescribed drugs. She said, “They kept saying, 'I don't think I'll get addicted to this like my Vicodin. I'm not worried about overdosing like with my Oxycontin.' I probed further and they were even using it as a substitute for alcohol. The side effects were a lot less" (Hruby, 2014). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention claims that narcotic pain medication has led to a high amount of overdose deaths in 2008 with the numbers going as high as 14800. The strictness of policies regarding marijuana has cost the careers of famous players such as Ricky Williams, Randy Moss, Tyrann Mathieu etc. who faced controversies and suspensions due to consumption of weed.

As discussed above, marijuana has been a controversial topic for a long time having varied opinions and mandates among different States as well as people. Talking specifically for athletes, the drug does not necessarily produce a negative effect if used in a responsible manner. Although opinions are pouring in from all directions on the NFL’s decision regarding relaxation of marijuana rules the outcome of the step remains to be seen.

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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