As marijuana advocates gear up for what many predict will be the biggest year in cannabis history, professional sports appears in for major changes when legal adult use hits its major markets.
Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, recently called 2016 “the most significant year” in the battle to repeal prohibition, predicting a bright future for prohibition repeal at the ballot box. If, as expected, voters react favorably in California, Arizona and Massachusetts, while Canada also goes ahead with legalization, 1 in 3 of North America’s Big Four sports franchises will suddenly play in cities where fans can legally toke, up from fewer than 1 in 17 today.
Meanwhile, many of the celebrated athletes living in those newly legal communities will still face employer-based punishment within their collective bargaining agreements for even medicinal cannabis use.
With adult cannabis use now legal in Washington, Oregon and Colorado, currently seven of the Big Four’s 122 franchises play home games in legal pot jurisdictions, or 5.7 percent. Denver has the National Football League’s Broncos, the National Basketball Association’s Nuggets, the National Hockey League’s Avalanche and Major League Baseball’s Rockies; Seattle has the Seahawks and Mariners; Portland has the aptly-named Blazers. Just 23 months ago, it was merely a quirky reporting angle that the only two out of 32 NFL teams from legal pot towns immediately met in the Super Bowl.
That Super Bowl, of course, was played in New Jersey, where adult use is not yet legal. Very soon, however, the various leagues’ championship series may play back and forth in legal pot towns.
First, there’s California with its 15 franchises in the four leagues, a whopping 1 in 8 of all pro teams. That number upticks to 16 if Los Angeles regains a relocating NFL franchise from someplace like St. Louis. Most observers predict Californians will legalize the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) later this year.
If California’s the eighth, Arizona and Massachusetts, two other states on track to legalize in 2016, are more gram-sized within the overall ounce, bringing four teams each to the party, as both Boston and Phoenix are home to a team in each league.
Canada, whose new prime minister has announced plans to legalize recreational cannabis, brings nine more; it’s home to seven NHL franchises in addition to MLB’s Blue Jays and the NBA’s Raptors.
Beyond legalizing pot for adults, 2016 is a huge year for medical marijuana. If both Florida and Missouri voters along with Pennsylvania’s legislature legalize medicinal marijuana later this year, the number of Big Four teams playing in states that have at least medical laws will jump by a full sixth, from just above half now to over 70 percent.
Among the four leagues, only the NHL does not ban marijuana for its players. Instead it tests, and if players fail repeated tests, NHL veteran John Mitchell told the Denver Post, the league and players union will offer counseling. The NHL’s policy has been praised as forward-thinking and a template for other leagues to adopt.
That’s good, considering the league is on the verge of having 12 more of its 30 teams join the Colorado Avalanche (seven in Canada, three in California, one each in Arizona and Massachusetts) as franchises whose local adult fans may consume legally. If expansion occurs, as has been rumored likely, Las Vegas, Seattle and Quebec are the leading candidates. Almost overnight, half the league would play in front of legally stoned fans.
By contrast, each of the NFL, NBA and MLB punish its players for testing positively for cannabis, and each league’s collective bargaining agreement sets terms for testing and sanctions for violation. Baseball’s current labor contract expires later this year. Basketball’s agreement is due for renewal next year, in 2017. The NFL is halfway through its 10-year contract.
Although prohibition is ending in an ever-larger number of places, employers everywhere may still discriminate on the basis of marijuana use. Naturally, that includes within professional sports as well as within many professions undertaken by sports fans. Pro sports is enough of an American cultural institution to amplify social issues when they matter, which it does to people when they are punished by their employer for pursuing legal activities that don’t cause others harm.
The NFL, which would have seven teams in legal marijuana cities after the Patriots, Cardinals, Raiders, 49ers and Chargers join the Broncos and Seahawks in that status, may be slowest to adapt, despite the best efforts of former players who lead the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition.
At a minimum, NFL players argue, the testing thresholds should be raised even more than the 35 nanograms of THC per milliliter of urine to which they were raised from 15 ng/ml in September 2014. For comparison, the World Amateur Doping Agency, which oversees the Olympics, has raised their testing threshold to 150 ng/ml.
“Someone like myself, who uses marijuana fairly frequently, I will have anywhere from 100 to 200 nanograms in my body at any one moment.” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told USA Today. “So those who regularly use cannabis, they would fail this test with flying colors all the time.”
Expect a key fight in upcoming league versus union CBA negotiations to be scaling back or entirely removing cannabis from testing and punishment. When the elite can’t have what the common man can have, it’s a good time to bet on that situation not lasting.
Should pro sports teams change their cannabis policies as legalization continues to spread across the nation? Tell us what you think.