Ex-NBA Commissioner Favors Medicinal Cannabis. What’s Next?

The times, they sure are a-changin’— even in professional sports, where players may soon be able to frequent medicinal cannabis dispensaries like many of their fellow athletes.

Consider the surprising change of heart of former National Basketball Association commissioner David J. Stern on the use of medicinal cannabis by league players.

“If marijuana is now in the process of being legalized,” Stern recently said, “I think you should be allowed to do what’s legal in your state.”

He added that he thought there was “universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”

Stern Supports Medicinal Cannabis for NBA Players

Stern, who spent 30 years as the NBA’s top leader, was an outspoken advocate for the league’s anti-drug program, which despite some players’ protests, has long prohibited marijuana use for any reason, including medicinal.

Though marijuana among college and pro athletes is still illegal, its medicinal use is now perfectly legal in 20 states including California, Washington and Colorado and Washington D.C.

Medical research strongly indicates cannabis could have major benefits for athletes, helping them deal with career-threatening injuries and chronic pain such as aching backs, damaged knees, excruciating headaches, and sleepless nights.

Speaking in an interview with former NBA player Al Harrington, who’s now a medicinal cannabis advocate, Stern said: “If you tell me that it worked for you and it worked for other people, then we should find a way to get that defined and made official and then proceed to educate team docs.”

“This [cannabis] should be a part of that conversation,” he added. “Could you imagine if we could create a situation where every superstar was able to play one additional year?”

Stern stressed his strong feelings about prohibiting the use of painkillers, specifically those that are addictive such as oxycodone and other opioids.

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Current NBA Officials Skeptical, but Hopeful About Cannabis

Adam Silver, who replaced Stern as the league’s commissioner in 2014, awaits more studies on the benefits of medicinal cannabis.

“I would say it’s something we will look at,” said Silver, known as a progressive sports leader. “I’m very interested in the science when it comes to medical marijuana. My personal view is that it should be regulated in the same way that other medications are if the plan is to use it for pain management.”

Currently, marijuana is listed as a prohibited substance by the NBA’s anti-drug program. Players can be fined or suspended for multiple positive tests.

Looking back, Stern said he believes he made the right move to keep a tight rein on the league’s anti-drug use policies, even on marijuana.

“Some of our players came to us and said some of these guys, they’re high coming into the game,” Stern recalled. “At that time, people generally accepted that marijuana was a gateway drug and if you start smoking you’re liable to go on to bigger and better stuff.”

He credited a 2013 CNN documentary hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta for persuading him to change his mind.

“It’s a completely different perception [of marijuana usage],” Stern said, “I think there’s universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell recently declared that he opposes players using the drug recreationally, but that he is willing to listen to the league’s medical experts on the potential value of medicinal marijuana.

“To date, they haven’t said this is a change we think we should make that’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our players,” said Goodell. “If they do, we’re certainly going to consider that.”


A summary of anti-drug policies of the four major pro sports leagues:

NFL: Players not in the league’s substance-abuse program are tested once for marijuana between mid-April and early August. Otherwise, they are not tested.

NBA: Players must submit to four random drug tests during the season, but are not subject to testing during the off-season.

MLB: Players are not tested for marijuana unless their team’s coaches or owners believe there’s a reasonable cause to suspect they are using it.

NHL: Players are not tested for marijuana, though one-third of its players are randomly tested each season for heroin and opioids. Players who test positive for marijuana are not disciplined.

18 of the NBA’s 30 teams are now located in states that allow medical cannabis. Eight states— Alaska, Colorado, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington— have legalized recreational use.

Cannabis Dispensaries Offer Pain Relief to Athletes

Al Harrington, who retired from the NBA in 2014, credits his use of a cannabis cream for reducing pain during the latter stage of his career. Harrington’s expanding company, Viola Extracts, is named for his grandmother, who uses medicinal cannabis to ease her glaucoma. Now Viola Extracts is an established grower that distributes and sells to more than 30 legal cannabis dispensaries around the United States.

Viola Extracts specializes in extracting various parts of the cannabis plant out to make wax and oils. The company focuses on cannabidiol (CBD) a compound found in marijuana which has anti-inflammatory benefits.

“THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is what gets everybody high,” Harrington said. “It works with CBD. It’s like a perfect combination where you can combine the two. But I also understand that some people don’t want that high feeling. So when you use CBD, you don’t feel anything when you take it; you just start to feel the relief of whatever you’re dealing with.”

Medicinal Cannabis Dispensaries Attracts More Mainstream Investors

Harrington started in 2014, providing plants to cancer and HIV patients in Colorado. He became intimately familiar with legal cannabis restrictions in all applicable states, and started his company as a silent investor. Viola Extracts is now vertically integrated; they cultivate, manufacture, package and deliver to cannabis dispensaries themselves.

“I wanted to learn everything on my own without other people influencing,” said Harrington. “I know how to grow this business now.”

The legal cannabis business generated $6.9 billion in sales during 2016, up 34% from 2015, and the rapid growth is attracting more mainstream investors.

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