In June 2018, the BIG3, a professional 3-on-3 basketball league featuring former NBA players, announced that it would permit its players to use cannabidiol (CBD) for pain treatment and recovery. In doing so, the BIG3 became the first major professional sports league to allow its athletes to use cannabis as a means of treatment. Notably, CBD forms the non-psychoactive component of cannabis and is growing increasingly popular in the sports medicine industry as a means of pain management. The BIG3’s decision follows on the heels of a decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in early 2018 to remove CBD from its list of banned substances.
The BIG3’s decision raises important questions – most notably, with regards to its implications for other major sports leagues in North America. As more states move towards legalization of cannabis, league offices will find themselves grappling with the reality of legalized substances becoming readily available to athletes and yet remaining a prohibited substance. Amid growing concerns about the over-use of opioids and public outcry for alternative medicines, league offices have undoubtedly begun examining the viability of CBD as a sanctioned treatment. The next round of negotiations between each of the major sports leagues and player associations or unions will be telling in terms of evaluating the appetite for CBD.
Increased use and access to CBD could also impact the market for CBD products, leading to new opportunities in the cannabis sector for partnerships and affiliations with the major sports leagues and forays into sports medicine. Given the recent investments made by the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) into advertising, sponsorship and legalized gambling, the attitudes towards private sector involvement may provide an avenue for those in cannabis sector that did not previously exist.
On the legal side, regulators in Canada and the United States have not yet drawn a clear distinction between CBD and the other components of cannabis (notably, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)). Should more leagues choose to pursue CBD as an option, it may soon become a necessity for regulators to adopt a position and offer guidelines, echoing much of the sentiment emanating from the cannabis sector.