There are 123 teams between the four major sports leagues in the United States/Canada. 45 of those teams are located in states or provinces where recreational marijuana is legal. 56 teams are located in jurisdictions where medical marijuana is legal. Overall, 101 out of the 123 professional sports teams between the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB are located in an area where their employees can legally purchase either medicinal or recreational marijuana.

This poses the question: can professional athletes utilize medical or recreational cannabis? For the overwhelming majority of them, the answer is no.

What about the use of Cannibidiol (CBD)? It’s become a prevalent topic, and you can likely find CBD oil at a number of gas stations, pharmacies and convenience stores located in your neighborhood. The answer – maybe. Should they use CBD? Are there repercussions?

Professional sports provide a glimpse of greatness into the games most of us played as children. Professional athletes run faster, skate harder, jump higher and strike the ball farther and more accurately than the rest of us could ever hope to accomplish. Because of this, they are paid vast sums of money with the opportunity to earn even more in off-the-field endorsements. It’s no surprise that, over the last 30 years, we’ve seen an increase in athletes going to extreme measures to gain a competitive edge, such as steroids, blood doping and any number of other performance enhancing drugs. But what about a drug that isn’t a performance enhancer, at least not in the typical sense? What if a professional athlete used CBD oil, specifically hemp-derived CBD oil, with less than .3 percent THC in it, to help them sleep? To reduce inflammation? To calm their anxiety? Are they risking their livelihood? If they were suspended, fined or banned – would they have any recourse?

To analyze this, we must first answer the question: what is CBD? It is the second most prevalent of the active ingredients of cannabis (marijuana). CBD is present in all cannabis, but for our purposes, our discussion will focus solely on “hemp-derived CBD.” The 2018 Farm Bill briefly removed hemp, defined as cannabis and cannabis derivatives with very low concentrations (no more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis) of THC, from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act.

Unlike THC, CBD does not produce the “high” effect that many associate with marijuana use. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized the significant public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, particularly CBD, but noted the existence of many unanswered questions about the science, safety, and quality of products containing CBD and is still investigating the drug’s merits. Other than Epidiolex, which is used to treat rare, severe forms of epilepsy, the FDA has not approved any CBD products. This is the case for a number of reasons, namely a lack of long-term studies.

Unlike drug products approved by the FDA, unapproved CBD drug products have not been subject to FDA review as part of the drug approval process, and there has been no FDA evaluation regarding whether they are safe and effective to treat a particular disease, what the proper dosage is, how they could interact with other drugs or foods, or whether they have dangerous side effects or other safety concerns. As a result, the FDA has warned companies selling CBD products they claim are intended to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, psychiatric disorders and diabetes. The FDA also tested the chemical content of cannabinoid compounds in some of the products they analyzed, and many were found to not contain the levels of CBD they claimed to contain.

So what do professional athletes stand to gain by using hemp-derived CBD oil? In a recent article, ESPN writer Tom VanHaaren delved into golf’s increasing acceptance and use of CBD oil. As Mr. VanHaaren noted, PGA Champions Tour players used CBD oil for various reasons, including sleep, recovery, anxiety and inflammation[1]. On the PGA Tour, he noted that one of the biggest proponents was professional golfer Bubba Watson, who stated CBD helped with the inflammation in his body and having a better night’s sleep.[2]

The PGA places CBD in the same category as other permitted supplements. However, they warn there is little FDA guidance and that players need to be aware of anything they put in their body or risk repercussions.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its list of banned substances. Organizations such as the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, all International Federations, and the USADA all utilize WADA policy. Despite this acceptance, the governing bodies of some of the major sports leagues in North America still ban the use of CBD.

CBD is banned by the NFL. In the NBA, cannabis use has been banned since 1999. Even in states with licensed medical marijuana programs, players cannot use cannabis. If a player tests positive for marijuana, he must comply with treatment and subsequent testing. The interesting question is whether hemp-derived CBD would trigger a suspension. Players are randomly tested four times a year and must not exceed the THC threshold of 15ng/ml. Hemp-derived CBD contains .3 percent THC or less. If a player consumed hemp-derived CBD oil with less than .3 percent THC and less than 15ng/ml of THC, would the NBA still suspend them?

The NHL does not ban the use of cannabis because it is not considered performance enhancing.

So where does this leave us regarding the use of hemp-derived CBD oil by professional athletes. Are there pitfalls with using CBD oil if your league’s guidelines are not clear?

As always, any professional athlete should be wary of what they put in their body. Knowing what your organization allows and does not allow is the starting point. Additionally, since the major sports leagues have collective bargaining agreements, the inclusion of certain banned substances would likely prevent the basis for a lawsuit by a player. However, hemp and its derivatives were legalized and removed from the Controlled Substances Act under the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp-derived CBD contains .3 percent or less of THC, the main cannabinoid tested for by major sports leagues. It’s an interesting question as to whether a professional athlete could challenge a suspension or fine if they tested positive for CBD, but incredibly low or non-existent levels of THC.

Ultimately, it’s likely that the NFL, NBA and MLB all revisit their policies involving the use of not only of hemp-derived CBD oil, but medical marijuana in general in the next three to five years.

Given the dearth of scientific research currently being conducted, the explosion of medical marijuana programs throughout the country and the massive influx of word of mouth testimonials, it is only a matter of time before the major sports leagues get on the CBD wagon. If they continue to ignore the science and force players to turn to addicting opioids, rather than providing a non-addicting alternative, they might face a lawsuit down the line from former players who may develop addictions, overdose or possibly lose their careers due to injuries.