David Stern says that when he was the commissioner of the National Basketball Association from 1984 to 2014, it was “generally known” that many players smoked marijuana. Due to the prevailing wisdom of time, “that marijuana was a gateway drug,” he says he was instrumental in tightening NBA marijuana rules in order to keep players getting high before stepping on the court.
But now, he says, things have changed.
Citing what he calls “universal agreement” that marijuana should be completely legal for medical purposes, Stern says the NBA should remove pot from its list of banned substances.
During a recent interview from a documentary by UNINTERRUPTED, Stern told former NBA player and current marijuana entrepreneur Al Harrington that there is now a “completely different perception” regarding marijuana, and that “it’s up to the sports leagues to anticipate where this is going and maybe lead the way."
"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, (and) player nutrition,” he said. “(Marijuana) should be a part of that conversation.”
Harrington, who launched a cannabis extraction company after retiring from the league in 2015, says he started using medical marijuana after a botched knee surgery during his playing days — and four subsequent surgeries to clean out a resulting staph infection — left him taking a slew of pain medications. A nurse saw all the pill bottles, and asked him if he’d ever tried cannabinoids. Harrington tried them and says he “immediately felt a difference.”
Later, Harrington convinced his grandmother to try CBD to treat her diabetes and glaucoma. She also felt immediate relief, and it was as that point that Harrington says he started viewing cannabis “as just medicine.”
“It’s not about rolling a joint,” he says. “It’s bigger than that.”
Harrington took a form of CBD that didn’t show up on drug tests, and which allowed him to extend his career without ever testing positive or being suspended. Former Portland Trail Blazers sixth man Cliff Robinson wasn’t so lucky.
During his 18 seasons in the NBA, Robinson was suspended three times for breaking NBA marijuana rules. When he left the league in 2007, he became an advocate for marijuana legalization, and has since entered into a partnership with a Portland-based company called Pistil Point Cannabis to launch a line of sports cannabis products. He has also joined Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and city Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in supporting a bill that would allow people to smoke or vape cannabis in social settings away from their homes.
Like Harrington, Robinson believes that using marijuana helped extend his playing career. He says the drug helped him deal with anxiety, as well as focus in all aspects of his life.
"I had a little anxiety sometimes. I definitely didn't like pharmaceutical drugs, as far as how they made my stomach feel, so I would use [marijuana]. But you couldn't be really consistent with cannabis use, because of the way they tested," he told the Willamette Week last year. "I put myself in a position where I had to be taken off the court, which you're never proud of. But at the same time, I did feel that cannabis was helpful for me. I took the risk."
Like Stern, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr thinks NBA marijuana rules should be tweaked to allow current and future players to use marijuana without the penalties risked by Harrington and Robinson.
“I think the world is starting to understand that opioids are way worse for you than anything, and right now, in professional sports, we’re quick to write a prescription for Oxycontin or Percocet when your shoulder hurts or your knee hurts or whatever hurts,” Kerr said during a recent post-game press conference.
Kerr says that while we’re learning “that medical marijuana is much healthier than those alternatives,” it remains a “tricky issue” — especially when it comes to selling the game to the fans. Still, he says, the health of the players should be the most important thing “by far,” which should motivate the league to come up with a way to regulate players’ use of the drug.
“It makes sense to use (medical marijuana) for specific injuries, and I don’t know how that happens or manifests itself, but the league would be wise to look into it,” he says.
Current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver agrees. He told Slam that if the science of medical marijuana checks out, the league “will look at” accommodating it by publishing new NBA marijuana rules.
“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,” he says. “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.”
Former Commissioner Stern surmises that the reason the league hasn’t moved faster on the issue is because it hasn’t had “a proper spokesperson for this subject.”
He says the league needs to define what constitutes proper use of the drug by its players, make the NBA marijuana rules official, and then start educating doctors about how to best use cannabis to treat injuries and other conditions. All of that starts, he says, by reconciling current state law with the league’s current collective bargaining agreement.
"I think we have to change the collective bargaining agreement and let you do what is legal in your state,” he says. “If marijuana is now in the process of being legalized, I think you should be allowed to do what's legal in your state.”
The role of the commissioner is huge here. Silver understands the situation, and is in a position to act. Stern has watched the issue evolve — as well as his own position on it — and can serve as a unique and powerfully ally to Silver.
Perhaps he’d be interested in that spokesperson gig, as well.