The Ultimate Medical Cannabis Resourse

High score

While many states are making cannabis consumption legal, not all sports teams allow their players to partake.

| Illustration Ingvard Ashby

A high school athlete in Oklahoma can use medical cannabis in most cases, but their Oklahoma City Thunder counterparts face suspensions and fines if they partake.

That is a snapshot of the sometimes-byzantine response in the sports world to legalization of medical cannabis in 33 states and recreational legalization in a handful of others.

Some leagues don’t test players for cannabis at all, while others make it a priority. Here is a look at how medical marijuana impacts athletes in Oklahoma, from high school quarterbacks to National Basketball Association (NBA) point guards.

High school athletes make up the largest group of athletes in Oklahoma with nearly 100,000 students taking part in at least one sport last year, according to a survey from National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations (NFHS).

Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association (OSSAA) is the governing body of the state’s high school sports world, but it does not conduct drug testing. Executive director David Jackson said the organization has left what to do with athletes who have a medical cannabis license to its member schools.

“We don’t have anything in our policies or rules against medical marijuana,” Jackson said. “It’s all handled at the local level.”

How that works can vary, but most Oklahoma City area schools do not prohibit athletes with medical marijuana licenses from participating in sports.

Oklahoma City Public Schools does not test students at all, manager of media relations Arely Martin said.

Edmond Public Schools has not yet implemented a policy on the use of medical marijuana.

“We have been waiting for the completion of this legislative session to see if additional regulations passed which could affect the implementation of the law as it relates to schools,” Edmond Public Schools public information officer Susan Parks-Schlepp said.

In Edmond, students cannot use medical cannabis on campus, but those with a medical cannabis license are not penalized even with a positive test, Parks-Schlepp said.

Yukon Public Schools recently created a policy allowing students with medical licenses to use cannabis on campus, but it cannot be in a smokeable form and must be consumed in a dedicated space.

The same policy applies to athletics. Students are subject to mandatory drug testing to take part in some school activities but aren’t penalized for positive cannabis tests.

“We would treat it like any other type of medication that a student takes other than our nurses aren’t able to administer that,” Yukon Public Schools assistant superintendent Sheli McAdoo said.

That policy mirrors that of Mid-Del School District.

“If a medical card is issued from a physician, we would treat it as a prescription,” director of community relations Stacey Boyer said. “We haven’t experienced anything along those lines.”

Jackson, who served as interim president of NFHS last year, said most states that are legalizing medical cannabis have followed a similar path when it intersects with sports.

“They don’t want to develop anything for the sake of interfering with local district decisions,” Jackson said. “We don’t want to undermine that or create rules that supersede theirs.”

Athletes at University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and University of Tulsa are subject to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) drug testing. Each institution also maintains its own testing programs. Cannabis is banned, and athletes who test positive through in-house testing or NCAA’s program are subject to suspension.

That prohibition includes medical cannabis, though there are signals that the organization is softening its stance. NCAA cut its penalty for positive cannabis tests from one year to six months in 2014. At many institutions, a three-strike rule applies, though Rutgers University allows its football players up to five positive tests before they face being kicked off the team.

The pros

Some professional teams, whether minor or major league, prohibit players from cannabis use.

Oklahoma City Dodgers players are subject to random tests up to four times each year under Minor League Baseball’s drug-screening policy. Cannabis is classified as a “drug of abuse.” Last year, 21 minor leaguers were suspended after testing positive for a drug in this category, but specific results for each are not made public. If a Dodger makes it to the big-league club, they can use as much cannabis as they can handle. While drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and opiates are on the banned list, Major League Baseball (MLB) does not test players for cannabis.

Oklahoma City Energy Football Club (OKC Energy FC) players are not subject to drug testing of any kind because United Soccer League (USL) Championship does not require its participants to be screened.

“The Championship does not currently have a league-wide drug testing policy and defers to the individual clubs and their policies in that regard,” league communications director Scott Stewart said.

OKC Energy FC communications and public relations manager Tyler Vaughn said Energy FC does not test players for cannabis.

Oklahoma City Thunder players cannot use medical cannabis under the NBA’s drug testing policy that, like Minor League Baseball, classifies it as a drug of abuse. Players who test positive for cannabis enter the league’s marijuana program. A second positive test later on results in a $25,000 fine, and a third positive test a five-game suspension. Players who test positive again receive a suspension double that of their previous suspension, according to the policy.

But that might be changing. The NBA players union, one of the most powerful in sports, is pushing the league to allow its members to use medical cannabis.

“My own view is that there are substantial signs that support its efficacy and the value that it has for us, especially in pain management,” National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) executive director Michele Roberts said in an interview with SB Nation last year.

Like Major League Baseball, National Hockey League (NHL) does not test its players for cannabis, though it does test for performance-enhancing drugs. That means NHL players are free to use it medicinally or otherwise. Canada is home to seven NHL teams and legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2018.

National Football League (NFL) takes the most aggressive stance on cannabis. Every NFL player under contract is tested for recreational drugs, including cannabis, between April and late August each year. If players test positive during that period, they enter stage one of the league’s substance abuse intervention program and might be subject to random testing at any point in the season. A second positive test while in the first stage of the program results in advancement to stage two, with more frequent testing, and multi-game fines. If players have four or more tests during a league year, they can be subject to suspension. The league doesn’t make any exceptions for teams that play in states where medical or recreational cannabis is legal, but that could change with the next collective bargaining agreement between the players’ union and league. Two years ago, the league and players’ union partnered for a study on the use of cannabis for pain management.

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