By: Gabriella Diaz*
The NBA is often regarded as the nation’s most progressive sports league, so is it only a matter of time until its current marijuana policy is repealed? As of November 2017, twenty-nine states and Washington D.C. allow medical marijuana use, while eight states and Washington D.C. allow recreational use of the drug. Moreover, eighteen of the thirty NBA teams are located in states allowing marijuana use on some level. However, exactly zero NBA players are allowed to use marijuana for any purpose, but former Chicago Bulls guard and Duke standout, Jay Williams, believes that about eighty-percent of players use the drug.
Players (both current and retired), coaches, and even the former Commissioner are calling for a change. Currently, penalties for marijuana use under the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement include entrance into the marijuana program for the first violation, a $25,000 fine for the second violation, and a five-game suspension for the third violation. The league has remained firm on the policy in the past, but it seems that as the nationwide opinion shifts toward acceptance of the substance, the NBA may look to do the same.
In July 2017, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sat down with C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trailblazers to discuss the state of the league. When asked about any foreseeable changes in the NBA’s stance on marijuana use, Silver stated that at that point, there was no need for changes to the league’s policy. He also noted that players’ constant travel in and out of states whose marijuana laws differ could lead to issues.
Just weeks later, Silver commented during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” that he is “very interested in the science when it comes to medical marijuana.” He then went on to clarify for SLAM Online that the league actually is open to allowing players to use marijuana for medical purposes, so long as the science indicates efficacy. He believes regulation should be similar to that of other medications for pain management.
This past October, former NBA Commissioner David Stern spoke to retired NBA player, Al Harrington, in the documentary, The Concept of Cannabis, to discuss marijuana reform for medical purposes within the league. In contrast to the stance he took during his tenure as the NBA’s leader, Stern is now advocating for a change in the Collective Bargaining Agreement regarding marijuana use. He believes marijuana should be removed from the ban list and players should be allowed to abide by state laws alone, rather than a league-imposed restriction on the drug.
It appears that with or without the restriction, NBA players use marijuana for medical purposes, arguing that it is a better alternative to heal pain than the typically prescribed medications. Coaches are also speaking out on the issue. Golden State Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, did not hold back in discussing his trial run with medical marijuana to treat his chronic pain. Stan Van Gundy, head coach and president of the Detroit Pistons, is adamant that although it may be tough, the league must look into a policy change soon.
It would be drastic for the league to drop marijuana regulation entirely, but it is possible that an exception could be made for medical marijuana. If scientific studies prove that medical marijuana safely does exactly what its proponents are arguing, the NBA may categorize the substance as another pain medication and remove the penalties associated with its use. If marijuana allows for a better, quicker recovery amongst players, then it seems that everyone has something to gain, including the teams, the league, and the fans.
* Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2020, Villanova University School of Law.
 Jade Scipioni, Fmr NBA Player Jay Williams: 80% of Players Use Marijuana, Fox Business (Mar. 16, 2016), http://www.foxbusiness.com/features/2016/03/16/fmr-nba-player-jay-williams-80-players-use-marijuana.html.
 Nihal Kolur, Former NBA Commissioner David Stern: Marijuana ‘Probably Should be Removed From Ban List’, Sports Illustrated (Oct. 25, 2017), https://www.si.com/nba/2017/10/25/david-stern-al-harrington-marijuana.
 Chris Haynes, Steve Kerr Says He Used Marijuana for Back Pain, Hopes Leagues Soften Stance, ESPN (Dec. 4, 2016), http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/18190785/steve-kerr-says-used-marijuana-back-pain-hopes-leagues-soften-stance.
 Vince Ellis, Detroit Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy: NBA Faces Complex Issue on Marijuana, Detroit Free Press (Oct. 28, 2017), http://www.freep.com/story/sports/nba/pistons/2017/10/28/detroit-pistons-stan-van-gundy-marijuana/810087001/.