Todd Subritzky, PhD

Thanks for this question, it’s a great one, and really interesting. As with all issues associated with cannabis or its compounds, there is a lot of ambiguity around it – particularly after the recent passing of the Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives at the federal level, while marijuana and its derivatives remain prohibited. What this means is that there may differences in drug policy according to whether CBD was extracted from hemp or marijuana, and this is particularly confusing when we remember that many scholars consider these both to be the same species (e.g. ElSohly & Waseem, 2014).

We wanted to get as much clarity as possible around this topic so we took the time to examine the specific policy of several major sporting bodies in the US. Not surprisingly, the results were, well, ambiguous. Here’s what we came up with.

National Hockey league

Is CBD allowed in the NHL? The short answer is yes most likely, although from our research this was not established with 100% certainty. The NHL is widely reported as being among the most liberal of codes when it comes to drug policy. According to NHL.com (2005), the league has two policies, one relating to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and the other concerning the use of substances recreationally, generally considered as abusive consumption. Given that CBD is a largely non-psychoactive substance and its reported benefits pertain to recovery and reduced inflammation among others (El-Remessy et al., 2003; García-Arencibia et al., 2007), it seems logical that CBD would be considered in the PED category.

So is CBD considered a PED by the NHL? Well, it seems that the NHL does not make its list of prohibited substances publicly available so we can’t be entirely sure, however, according to NHL.com (2005), their policy is based on (with the flexibility to make changes if deemed appropriate) recommendations by the World Anti-doping Agency or WADA. CBD is no longer on the WADA prohibited list because “cannabidiol is not a cannabimimetic and has no psychoactive activity” (WADA, 2019a) (which, as you may be aware from a previous segment is not quite accurate as CBD does contain some psychoactive properties but is considered a non-euphoriant). However there are some caveats to the WADA list, most notably: “Any pharmacological substance which is not addressed by any of the subsequent sections of the List and with no current approval by any governmental regulatory health authority for human therapeutic use (e.g. drugs under pre-clinical or clinical development or discontinued, designer drugs, substances approved only for veterinary use) is prohibited at all times” (WADA, 2019b, p.2).

According to the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA), while CBD is not on their list of banned products (following WADA) it remains a high-risk activity as CBD may contain trace amounts of banned cannabinoids such as THC (USADA, 2018). There’s that ambiguity again, although as stated, on balance we think that NHL athletes are on pretty firm ice when it comes to the use of CBD, particularly if it is derived from hemp. In saying that it is recommended athletes who are in any doubt should seek confirmation from their regulatory bodies.
While the NHL seems to be more open to the potential medicinal benefits of CBD for its athletes this does not appear to be the case in other major US sports where it is apparent that policy has not evolved and CBD is considered to be ‘chemically related’ to marijuana and THC, and therefore remains banned (Made by Hemp, 2018).

National Collegiate Athletic Association

The NCAA regulates over 1200 organizations, conferences and institutions and is known to have the strictest cannabis policy threshold. Although CBD is not specifically included in the NCAA’s 2017-18 Banned Drugs List, it is assumed to be banned due to its chemical relation to the expressly stated THC. According to their rules regarding the use of banned substances any substances related to those included in their list, even though not mentioned as an example are also banned (Fast Sports, 2018; NCAA, 2019).

National Football League

While there have been reports that the NFLPA is ‘actively studying’ the potential benefits of medical cannabis (NFL.com, 2019, May 20), and former players have openly advocated for change due to the potential for decreased opioid dependence (Eugene Monroe, 2019), the current status seems to be that the use of CBD remains prohibited in the NFL as a marijuana product despite not being specifically listed.

National Basketball Association

Similarly, in the NBA, CBD appears to be considered as a chemical relative to THC and therefore prohibited. Again there are indications that change may be afoot, for example, the recent announcements by Big3 League to allow CBD for pain relief and recovery may be a sign of things to come in the NBA (Denver Post, 2018, Jun.27).

Major League Baseball

The MLB has a more lenient approach to cannabis (and assumingly extracted compounds such as CBD) with testing only triggered by probable cause of use due to a player’s collective agreement. Nonetheless, marijuana has yet to be removed from the list of banned substances. Similar to most sports listed above, we were unable to identify any policy specifically relating to CBD in MLB.

To sum up, from our research into what professional sports in the US allow for the use of CBD two themes consistently emerged. First, there remains a lot of ambiguity, particularly in regard to whether CBD is extracted from hemp or marijuana (and therefore considered legal and illegal at the federal level respectively). Second, it seems clear that as marijuana policy in the US has evolved quickly, major professional sports organizations have not kept pace with these changes. In the vast majority of cases, no distinction is being made in policy between THC and CBD, this is despite the compound being removed from the WADA list of banned substances in 2018. However, there were indications that this is starting to change. We recommend that all athletes considering the use of CBD consult with administrators to ensure that they are informed with the latest developments.

Anecdotally there was a wide range of evidence that despite these restrictions, CBD is widely used by professional sportspeople in the US major leagues particularly for perceived benefits around pain relief, decreases in opioid use, and for anxiety (Leafly, 2019, Apr.24).

References

Denver Post. (2018, Jun.27). BIG3 basketball league allows players to use CBD for pain relief, recovery. Retrieved 8/18/2019 from https://www.denverpost.com/2018/06/27/big3-cbd-pain-relief-recovery/.
El-Remessy, A., Khalil, I., Matragoon, S., Abou-Mohamed, G., Tsai, N., Roon, P., . . . Liou, G. (2003). Neuroprotective effect of (−) Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol in N-methyl-D-aspartate-induced retinal neurotoxicity: involvement of peroxynitrite. The American journal of pathology, 163(5), 1997-2008.
ElSohly, M., & Waseem, G. (2014). Constituents of cannabis sativa. In R. Pertwee (Ed.), Handbook of Cannabis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Eugene Monroe. (2019). Eugene Monroe CBD & Chronic Pain. Retrieved 8/18/2019 from http://eugenemonroe.com/.
Fast Sports. (2018). CBD and Sports – what most organisations say. Retrieved 8/18/2019 from https://www.fast-sports.com/cbd-and-sports-what-most-major-organizations-rules-say/.
García-Arencibia, M., González, S., de Lago, E., Ramos, J., Mechoulam, R., & Fernández-Ruiz, J. (2007). Evaluation of the neuroprotective effect of cannabinoids in a rat model of Parkinson’s disease: importance of antioxidant and cannabinoid receptor-independent properties. Brain research, 1134, 162-170.
Leafly. (2019, Apr.24). Keeping Score: Major League Sports’ Stance on Cannabis. Retrieved 8/18/2019 from https://www.leafly.com/news/health/major-league-sports-cannabis.
Made by Hemp. (2018). CBD Regulations for Six Top Sports Organizations. Retrieved 18/8/2019 from https://madebyhemp.com/cbd-and-sports/amp/.
NCAA. (2019). 2019-20 NCAA Banned Substances. Retrieved 8/18/2019 from http://www.ncaa.org/sport-science-institute/topics/2019-20-ncaa-banned-substances.
NFL.com. (2019, May 20). NFL, NFLPA joint agreements address player health. Retrieved 8/18/2019 from http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000001031351/article/nfl-nflpa-joint-agreements-address-player-health.
NHL.com. (2005). NHL/NHLPA Drug Testing Policy. Retrieved 8/19/2019 from http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=26397.
USADA. (2018). Athletes: 6 Things to Know About Cannabidiol. Retrieved 8/18/2019 from https://www.usada.org/six-things-know-about-cannabidiol/.
WADA. (2019a). Cannabinoid. Retrieved 8/19/2019 from https://www.wada-ama.org/en/questions-answers/cannabinoid.
WADA. (2019b). The World Anti-Doping Code International Standard Prohibited List January 2019. Retreived 19/8/2019 from https://www.wada-ama.org/sites/default/files/wada_2019_english_prohibited_list.pdf.