With cannabis being legal in ten U.S. states and now the entirety of Canada, it’s evident that people are becoming more receptive to the drug. While a large number of U.S. and Canadian citizens can now legally experience the effects of marijuana, the same cannot be said for NHL players. Compared to other professional sports leagues, the NHL is fairly tolerant of its players using marijuana. Despite this, teams still avoid cannabis and continue to use traditional drugs, unaware of their harmful effects. It’s clear that the stigma surrounding cannabis is still very prevalent in the NHL, but the notion that we’ll never see it fully integrated into the league seems doubtful. I believe that the NHL should allow its players to use cannabis as a means for treating physical and mental conditions.
The legalization of cannabis in Canada and certain U.S. states do not affect NHL players who play in those regions. This is because the NHL adheres to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list of prohibited substances and methods, which is an international standard under the World Anti-Doping Code (“Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport”). Despite the recent trend of the legalization of marijuana, the global anti-doping community has maintained cannabis on the prohibited list.
Marijuana is by no means a performance-enhancing drug; in fact, it’s proven to cause many harmful side effects. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can cause breathing problems, hallucinations, and paranoia (National Institute on Drug Abuse). These symptoms are undesirable for a high-performance athlete, as success in their sport is dependent on their health.
With the side effects of marijuana likely having a direct impact on player performance, it’s necessary to consider the perspective of the team owners. The average age of an owner in the NHL is 53.9 years old, so it would be sensible to assume that a majority of them approach this topic from a conservative standpoint (“Marijuana use in the NHL: The times they are a changin’ – Sportsnet.ca”). They have been aware of the negative side effects of marijuana their whole lives, and are just now discovering its potential benefits.
This is a significant learning curve, and considering owners have to pay out $70 million worth of contracts every year, they have a right to be cautious. Signing a player with any known vices that could negatively impact their playing ability is a big risk. If the players did start performing worse, fewer people would go to games, consequently generating less revenue for the organizations.
Due to the substantial amount of research confirming the adverse side effects of using marijuana, it’s unlikely that NHL players would use it expecting immediate improvements in their athletic abilities. Instead, they would likely use it for its secondary effects. Marijuana can be used to relieve pain and concussion symptoms, improve sleep, and stimulate appetite (Barker, 2018).
One of the most common claims about cannabis is that it relieves stress and helps promote relaxation. As a former hockey player, I can attest to the significant amount of stress playing at a high level can cause. A study done at the University of Chicago verifies the stress-reducing effects of marijuana if taken in proper doses. The study’s author, Professor of Psychiatry Emma Childs, stated, “We found that THC at low doses reduced stress, while higher doses had the opposite effect…” (“Does Marijuana Treat Stress, and What Effect Does THC Have on Anxiety?”, 2018). Not only can cannabis help treat physical injuries, but it can also help players mentally cope with competing at an elite level.
Retired NHL enforcer, Riley Cote, used marijuana throughout his career to help him sleep the night before game days. He now spends his days advocating cannabis use in professional hockey. His reason stems from experience, saying he always saw players turn to “destructive substances like alcohol, opioids, [and] sleeping pills” (Dunn, 2018). His goal is to increase the players’ quality of life and give them a more sustainable alternative to traditional protocols.
In 2017, nearly 4,000 Canadians died of opioid overdoses, an increase of 34% from the year before (Young, 2018). On the other hand, there are no known cases anywhere of someone dying from a marijuana overdose. As players become more reliant on traditional painkillers such as opioids, the more likely they are to overdose. Cannabis eliminates this risk, as it provides a more sustainable way to treat pain.
Another harmful substance players tend to turn to for alleviation is alcohol. In 2016, alcohol was responsible for more hospital admissions in Canada than heart attacks (Noik, 2017). Some of the consequences of heavy drinking include liver damage, heart problems, and increased risk of developing certain cancers (“The Effects of Alcohol Use”, 2018). If marijuana became accessible to NHL players, it could replace alcohol in providing all of the same benefits without any of the consequences.
It’s understandable why there’s a concern for the potential of cannabis becoming sanctioned by the NHL. Studies have confirmed that marijuana causes a range of side effects that would hinder a high-performance athlete. This causes concern for NHL team owners, as their player’s on-ice abilities would be impeded, making games less enjoyable for the fans. However, I believe that if the NHL allowed its players to use cannabis as a way to combat physical and mental strain, quality of play would increase. Additionally, there would be less concern about substance abuse as players would receive all the benefits of traditional remedies, but without any of the risks linked to them.
Barker, J. (2018, September 16). How will the legalization of cannabis affect athletes? It’s hard to say. Retrieved from https://montrealgazette.com/health/diet-fitness/how-will-the-legalization-of-cannabis-affect-athletes-its-hard-to-say
Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://cces.ca/cannabis#anchor1
Does Marijuana Treat Stress, and What Effect Does THC Have on Anxiety? (2018, May 01). Retrieved from https://inhalemd.com/blog/does-marijuana-treat-stress/
Dunn, T. (2018, September 11). He shoots, he smokes: Former NHLer pitches pot to hockey players | CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/hockey-cannabis-medical-1.4818055
Marijuana use in the NHL: The times they are a changin’ – Sportsnet.ca. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/marijuana-use-players-story/
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Marijuana. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana
Noik, S. (2017, June 22). Alcohol responsible for more hospital admissions than heart attacks last year: Report | CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/alcohol-hospital-admissions-1.4172091
The Effects of Alcohol Use. (2018, October 02). Retrieved from https://drugabuse.com/library/the-effects-of-alcohol-use/
Young, L. (2018, June 20). Nearly 4,000 Canadians died of opioid overdoses in 2017, a new record. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4282699/canada-opioid-death-statistics-2017/