As we were all highly anticipating, recreational cannabis was legalized on October 17 across the Great White North. While this was an exciting event for a lot of us, it has larger implications for the world of sport.
The NHL was quick to make headlines stating that it would not be changing its cannabis policy to accommodate Canadian teams. Although cannabis is generally banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and thereby the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP), the NHL has the most lenient rules toward its usage out of all major sports leagues.
The NHL has never suspended players for having weed in their systems, and an anonymous ex-player interviewed by Sportsnet estimated that 60–70 per cent of current players already smoke the drug regularly. With that being said, is it ethical to regulate cannabis usage for NHL athletes?
This is a question that has already been asked by nutritionists and sports therapists, but the debate rages on about whether or not weed actually has benefits as a painkiller. Most evidence is anecdotal at best and there is little to no conclusive data from independent clinical studies.
Zack Smith, an 11-year NHL veteran, has also expressed the potential for cannabis as a sleep aid, since athletes are often under intense travelling schedules and need to find time to get a good night’s rest.
Riley Cote, a retired player for the Philadelphia Flyers, has gone on record touting weed’s benefits for sleep, reduced anxiety, and overall increased moods. Even if these benefits are not empirically proven, the step that Canada has taken by legalizing cannabis chips away at the ever-present stigma of its use and opens up the floor for Canadian institutions to examine the effects of the drug in sport.
While the restorative value of weed remains up in the air, I believe that the larger ethical issue resides in the distribution of and access to the drug among players in the NHL.
As we know, a majority of teams in the NHL are based in the United States, where cannabis is still illegal. Not only would there be logistical issues — as Canadian teams would not be able to bring any weed over the border — but it would also present issues of fair play, as American teams do not have access to treatments that utilize cannabis.
In the case where cannabis does improve the sleep, recovery, and overall mood and anxiety levels of NHL athletes, American teams should have the same access to these resources that Canadian teams do, or else this could be seen as an unfair advantage.
Regardless of legalization, U of T’s varsity hockey athletes still have to follow the same rules. Ryan Medel, Varsity Blues men’s hockey head coach, reminds us that weed is still prohibited by U SPORTS. “All student-athletes are not permitted to use during their season. That is league-wide and we are in line with that,” Medel says.
Although cannabis has been legalized in our country, it isn’t feasible for the NHL to change its policy because of the variation in laws between countries.
This being said, I believe that the CADP’s decision to maintain cannabis as a banned substance for athletes was an ethically sound judgement, based largely on fairness in access to the drug by athletes. This decision is not a moral one and, if one day the US decides to legalize cannabis federally, then the NHL and WADA may have to change their policies and decide how the drug can be used as an aid or therapy for athletes.
But for now, Canada’s favorite pastime cannot, and should not, go green.