The NBA Is Done Testing Players for Marijuana. At Least for Now.
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The National Basketball Association and the NBA Players Association have reached an agreement that will not test players for marijuana use for the entirety of the 2020 to 2021 season, which starts December 22. It's a continuation of a policy used during the unusual "bubble" arrangement for the 2020 NBA playoffs in Orlando.
In announcing the decision, NBA officials pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as a motivator. NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement, "Due to the unusual circumstances in conjunction with the pandemic, we have agreed with the NBPA to suspend random testing for marijuana for the 2020 to 2021 season and focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse."
In announcing the decision, NBA officials pointed to the coronavirus pandemic as a motivator. NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a statement, “Due to the unusual circumstances in conjunction with the pandemic, we have agreed with the NBPA to suspend random testing for marijuana for the 2020 to 2021 season and focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse.”
The announcement is another milestone in the ever-evolving relationship between professional sports and cannabis. Earlier this year, the NFL announced that players will face fines, not suspensions, when testing positive for marijuana use.
How long will the new policy last?
The NBA's decision is of interest to people in the cannabis business because sports often reflect broader cultural trends. It's also another case of businesses having to recalibrate drug testing policy in light of marijuana legalization taking place in states across the country.
That second issue has become even more of a debate in light of a recent study that found marijuana use on their own time does not impact employee performance.
For the current decision, NBA officials apparently wanted to reduce the number of unnecessary contacts with players to reduce the chances of spreading COVID-19. The league plans to return to play in the team's home cities this year, with varying rules in different places about fans' attendance.
As of early December, forty-eight players out of 546 had tested positive for COVID-19 as the NBA started what it calls its “initial return-to-market testing phase.” So, while the current situation is unusual, speculation continues about whether cannabis testing will return in future seasons or how, like the NFL, the association might alter how it tests.
Professional sports leaders have been slowly changing policies on weed.
Professional leagues have started to change policies that hurt players in the not-too-distant past. For example, NFL running back Ricky Williams lost two of the prime years of his career in the first decade of the century because of a positive weed test. His stance on marijuana use made him an outcast then. Now he looks like a man ahead of his time.
While no league has pushed too far forward, they have scrapped old policies. Major League Baseball took what is arguably the biggest step, removing cannabis from its “drugs of abuse” list. Up until then, major league players got tested for “reasonable cause,” but minor leaguers often faced random tests for weed use. A positive finding could seriously hurt a player’s career.
The NBA—often considered the most progressive of the major sports leagues—recently changed their policy to penalize players for their first positive marijuana test. The second positive test resulted in a $25,000 fine, and the third resulted in a five-game suspension. From there on, each positive resulted in a suspension five games longer than the previous one.
All that is out for the upcoming season, and what happens in-season might determine what the league decides to do going forward.