David Stern was the NBA‘s commissioner in 1999, when the league’s owners pushed in collective bargaining negotiations for a “stiffening” of the player conduct policy that wound up including a ban on marijuana, along with mandatory once-a-year drug testing. Now, some 18 years later and nearly four years after stepping down from his post atop the league, it seems the former commish has had a change of heart.
In an interview with longtime NBA player-turned-cannabis entrepreneur Al Harrington for the new UNTITLED documentary short “The Concept of Cannabis,” Stern said he thinks the time has come for sports leagues to open the door to athletes using marijuana to help them cope with the physical strains that come with high-level athletic competition and a rigorous schedule. On top of that, Stern said he believes marijuana should be removed from the NBA’s banned substances list altogether, and that players who live and play in states where recreational marijuana use has been legalized should be allowed to use the substance in accordance with the laws of those lands.
Harrington entered the pro ranks straight out of high school in 1998 and spent 16 years working as a dynamic scoring forward for seven different teams. He has said he began to use cannabinoids, or CBDs, as an alternative to Vicodin and other medications he’d been taking following multiple surgeries to clean out a staph infection in his knee that developed after what he calls a “botched” procedure to repair a torn meniscus in the summer of 2012.
Years later, his NBA days now in the rear-view mirror as he embarks on a post-playing career heading up the medical cannabis company Viola Extracts (named after his grandmother), Harrington said he wanted to sit down with Stern because “he was the commissioner during the roughest time of the NBA for drugs.” Moreover, he wanted to find out if Stern was even open to the possibility of allowing players to use marijuana while maintaining a ban on what the league’s collective bargaining agreement has termed “drugs of abuse.”
Stern recalls the league’s efforts to enforce tighter restrictions on players smoking weed as a natural move given the “generally held wisdom that marijuana was a gateway drug, and that if you start smoking, you’re liable to go on to bigger and better stuff.” That public perception has since changed dramatically, and so has Stern’s.
“I think that pretty smart people don’t know what’s right and what’s not right,” Stern said. “But I think there’s universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal.”
Though he noted that sports leagues have been slow to move in the direction of loosening restrictions on players using marijuana — “appropriately so,” he added — Stern said he didn’t believe that the NBA and its teams would shy away from considering such a change for fear of public and media backlash.
“I don’t think there’s been a proper spokesperson for this subject,” Stern said. “I think that if medical marijuana is available, then it’s up to the individual team doctor. You tell me it worked for you and it worked for others that you knew, then we should find a way to get that defined and made official, and then proceed to educating team docs.
“And I think all of the leagues are now appropriately focused on player training, structuring of the right parts of their body, player rehabilitation in the case of injury, player nutrition, player this, player that. This should be a part of that conversation.”
As Stern put it, the potential benefits of improved player pain management and reduced issues related to inflammation could vastly outweigh any blowback: “Can you imagine if we could create a situation where every superstar was able to play one additional year?”
When Harrington shifted the conversation from using marijuana for medicinal purposes to using it for recreational purposes, provided a player lived in a state where doing so had been legalized, a smile played across Stern’s face.
“And you might be violating the collective bargaining agreement, right?” Stern asked.
“Right,” Harrington said.
“I think we’ve got to change the collective bargaining agreement, then, and let you do what’s legal in your state,” Stern replied. “If marijuana is now in the process of being legalized, I would think you should be allowed to do what’s legal in your state. So now it’s up to the sports leagues to anticipate where this is going, and maybe lead the way […] I think it’s a very interesting subject, and I think it’s a place where the leagues have an opportunity to do something, led by their players unions and the league offices.”
Stern then tied the matter to other questions regarding the monitoring of players’ health and well-being.
“If they’re supposedly discussing whether players should be wired during games and whether that’s good for their health or not, they should be discussing this, if this is as you say it is,” Stern said. “[…] I’m now at the point where, personally, I think that it should be removed from the banned [substances] list.”
Word of Stern’s new view met surely prompted an arched eyebrow or two from those who were in the league during his 20-year reign:
Oh now he says that! He wasn’t talking like that when he was commissioner https://t.co/6kyGmD9408
— Jared Dudley (@JaredDudley619) October 25, 2017
But it’s inarguably a new day when it comes to the national conversation on weed. Twenty-nine states now have some form of law legalizing marijuana on the books. Eight have passed legislation OK’ing recreational marijuana use, within certain limits; so, too, has the District of Columbia. Eight NBA teams play in those states: the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and Washington Wizards.
Several former NBA players, including Harrington, have become involved in the ongoing marijuana movement, and the burgeoning industry surrounding it, in recent years. Ex-Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, Kings and Clippers guard Cuttino Mobley announced plans in 2011 to finance a medical marijuana dispensary in Warwick, Rhode Island; his Summit Medical Compassion Center opened in 2014. Former Blazers, Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets forward Clifford Robinson opened his own weed-growing operation in Oregon in 2016.
Ex-Pistons, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Lakers big man John Salley became a shareholder in the Canadian cannabis company Tweed. Hall of Fame point guard Oscar Robertson threw his support behind a campaign aimed at legalizing medical marijuana in Ohio. (That campaign failed.) When even the Big O’s on-side, it’s maybe worth thinking about which way the league should be moving on this.
And while the NBA doesn’t exactly have the most stringent and punitive pot-test system in the world — players can test positive for marijuana twice without punishment before triggering a five-game suspension with a third strike — the league is thinking about which way it should be moving. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Stern’s former deputy and successor, said as much back in August in response to a question about possibly allowing players to use marijuana for medicinal purposes in the future.
“I would say it’s something we will look at,” Silver said. “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. And it’s something that needs to be discussed with our Players Association, but to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we’ll be open to it. Hopefully there’s not as much pain involved in our sport as some others, so there’s not as much need for it.”
Judging by some estimates of how many players turn to weed for pain management, sleep aid and recreation — 70 percent, per Harrington; 75 to 80 percent, says Jay Williams; “everybody,” according to Stephen Jackson — Silver’s wrong about that. And as players from David Harrison to Larry Sanders to Harrington have argued, the reasons why go beyond just liking to get high, and the benefits could include more than just not having players turning to post-game binge-drinking and sleep deprivation.
The NBA has worked hard to develop its reputation as the country’s most progressive major sports league, and has leaned harder on it during Silver’s tenure. Whether that means we’re nearing the removal of marijuana from the no-no list remains to be seen, but if as famous a hardline ruler as Stern has now gotten on board, maybe that day really is closer than we thought.
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