The NBA changes course: marijuana yes, betting too

The 2023-2024 season is full of incentives in the best league in the world. And not only because of the coincidence of Wembanyama and Holmgren, the two new unicorns in the NBA. Also for the entry into force of the new collective agreement of the NBA. The threat of lockout returned to hover over the League, although this time it did so more timidly, and the collective agreement until 2030 has two aspects the less striking: free rein to marijuana and sports betting.

From now on, players can invest/bet on bookmakers, something that the current collective agreement prohibited. Also, promote them. The same goes for cannabis companies or franchises. This opens the door to LeBron James’ dream of having his team in Las Vegas. A new expansion is getting closer, and Sin City is a firm candidate to add a team to the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, the NFL’s Raiders, or the NHL’s Golden Knights


But without a doubt, the most striking thing is the liberalization of the use of marijuana in the NBA. It was a cry from the players, who have finally seen their demand met. Marijuana use in the NBA is well known, and in many states of the United States, it is legal to do so. Now, the NBA goes a step further by placing itself at the level of other major leagues and competitions such as MLB baseball or the UFC. Although all that glitters is not gold.

Let’s go in parts. The current agreement, signed in 2017, established a five-game suspension if a player tested positive for marijuana three times. Now, both these sanctions and the controls to detect their consumption disappear. The NBA will maintain anti-doping controls, but simply stop looking for marijuana in them. Logically, the use of prohibited products or other narcotics will remain prohibited in the NBA. In reality, random checks were already suspended in 2021.

It all started in the Orlando bubble
To understand the reason for these changes, we must go back to the Orlando bubble, amid the coronavirus crisis. The Lakers won that NBA decided at DisneyWorld, which opened the doors to the play-in. Jimmy Butler set up the most lucrative coffee business in history… and recreational drug controls were suspended. Interestingly, “there the stigma that you could not play if you smoked was broken” in the words of J.R. Smith, one of the great defenders of its consumption who was crowned champion with the Lakers in Orlando

The ever-controversial J.R. Smith isn’t the only marijuana proponent among gamers. From superstars like Kevin Durant to legends and Hall of Fame like Steve Nash, Allen Iverson or Kareem Abdul Jabbar have positioned themselves in favor of allowing its consumption among NBA players. Not to mention Steve Kerr, the architect of the four-time champion Warriors, who has recognized on countless occasions his consumption to alleviate his back problems. “It’s better than drugs,” said the Team USA coach.

The bubble ended, and the NBA returned to normal with the end of the collective bargaining agreement getting closer and closer. While the lockout was not a 100% real threat, there were more and more voices that positioned themselves in favor of liberalizing marijuana consumption in the League. All levels were in favor of a change that is already a reality. It is estimated that more than half of players consume it, and as Joe Dummars said 25 years ago “if they make controls the league has to be suspended”.

Conflict with WADA and FIBA?
It is no surprise that this decision clashes head-on with the regulation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). And we will see what happens with FIBA, as many NBA stars play in summer with their national teams: Jokic, Anteto, Embiid, Sabonis, Team USA or the Spanish NBA have on the horizon the World Cup and, above all, the Olympic Games in Paris 2024 next summer. What will happen if WADA tests positive for marijuana?

While cannabidiol (CBD) is allowed — it was removed from the list of banned substances in 2018 — THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, is not. Of course, WADA itself has also introduced modifications in recent times. It is considered positive when the amount of THC in urine is greater than 150 nanograms per liter, a figure significantly above the limits established in 2013. And whenever we talk about consumption in competition.

When the athlete demonstrates that the consumption has occurred out of competition and did not affect his performance, the sanctions have been reduced to three months – one if he enters a treatment program. Until 2021, penalties ranged from two to four years. Thus, the universal tendency is to reduce pressure and punishments on marijuana use… although the NBA has gone a step further, allowing its recreational use.

At this point, why does WADA keep cannabis – or rather, HCT – on its list of prohibited substances? There are three reasons for this. First, it could enhance sports performance. Second, it poses a risk to the health of the athlete. And third, it goes against the spirit of sport. We’ll see if WADA or other major U.S. leagues follow in the footsteps of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement when it comes to marijuana use. Perhaps in Spain, we are surprised by this type of measure, but let’s not forget that in American states such as California, Oregon, or Alaska the consumption of marijuana is completely legal. Of course, there are also states with significant restrictions. In any case, the debate is on the table and the NBA has positioned itself.


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