Pro sports leagues should learn to love marijuana legalization

Zach Randolph — formerly of the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies, now a Sacramento King — was arrested late Wednesday night for felony possession of marijuana with intent to sell. According to a TMZ report, Randolph allegedly had two pounds of pot in a backpack.

In the immediate aftermath, Randolph was denounced by an enthusiastic group of sports pundits who used words like “disappointed” and “disgusted” (in the case of ESPN yelling head Stephen A. Smith) to describe their feelings on the subject.

Now, I don’t want to let Randolph off the hook; not at all. He’s a 36-year-old man with millions of dollars, and regardless of his ultimate guilt or innocence of the charges levied against him, there’s simply no reason for him to put himself in the sort of compromising position he did — reportedly at a party in the middle of the street in Los Angeles, drinking and smoking with loud music playing.

Randolph has a history of being implicated in the selling of marijuana. I have no doubt Randolph occasionally — or perhaps regularly — engages in use of the substance, which is banned by the NBA and is something he might do well to consider abandoning as long as he’s in the league.

It’s hard to believe Randolph is a kingpin, or even a dealer. That would be galactically stupid and I would certainly change my tune on the case. But I think it is far more likely that Randolph is a guy at a party where there was an awful lot of marijuana that he may have paid for.

In California, where Randolph now plays and was arrested, it is incredibly difficult to be charged with a marijuana-related felony (which was the charge on his arrest report). According to CA-NORML, “cultivation of over six plants, transport of over an ounce, illegal sale or distribution for compensation, possession with intent to sell, etc., are downgraded from felonies to misdemeanors except in certain aggravating circumstances.” It’s hard not to wonder if the aggravating circumstance in this case was, “He’s Zach Randolph, NBA player.”

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: There is probably a whole additional column to be written about the other details of the incident in question, which began with a party in the streets of Watts and ended with some vandalized police cars and two arrests. That piece would address issues like race and policing in America, and Los Angeles specifically; it would cite statistics on senseless incarceration and searches or seizures of questionable legality. This is not that piece.]

However it turns out, this case draws a spotlight to the relatively new issue of marijuana laws and workplace rules in a country where more and more states are legalizing recreational weed.

Washington, D.C. and eight states (possibly soon-to-be 9 with legislation in the works in Illinois) have legalized recreational pot; 36 states — including Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia — have legalized some form of medical marijuana; throw in Nebraska’s decriminalized possession, and marijuana is hard-line illegal in only five states. Not one of the teams in the NBA, NFL, MLB or NHL plays in any of those five states (both the Chiefs and Royals play in Kansas City, Mo.)

Given the right medical condition, almost any American professional athlete could be legally prescribed some form of marijuana — often the low-THC, high-CBD strains and edibles that are non-psychoactive and have pain-relieving and recovery-promoting effects. Given that, the fact that all four of those aforementioned leagues still have a marijuana prohibition is as dumb as Zach Randolph moving weight.

There is abundant evidence that marijuana — especially the CBD variety that has been legalized medically across most of the country — would be a valuable tool not only as a palliative remedy but potentially even dealing with some of the frightening sports-related medical problems.

There are ongoing studies researching the treatment of CTE — the horrifying brain disease that has been found to afflict many former football players and professional fighters. The U.S. government issued a patent for the use of cannabinoids (CBD and THC being the most prominent of those) as antioxidants and neuroprotectants in 2003.

(For a lot more on this, here’s a great Sports Illustrated piece)

The anecdotal tales of marijuana’s benefits to former football players, specifically, are easy to find — start with Kyle Turley or Ricky Williams.

There is some promise on this front recently — in April, Cowboys’ owner and meeting-room heavyweight Jerry Jones reportedly threw his considerable influence behind the NFL dropping its prohibition on marijuana. This would be a huge step for the organization that is probably the most in need of the drug’s benefits.

Countless reports have emerged over the last decade about the serious, long-term side effects of the sorts of “pain management techniques” the NFL has traditionally gone with. Brett Favre’s Vicodin addiction, and other opioid horror stories come to mind. It’s even common knowledge that players lined up for weekly shot of Toradol, a powerful anti-inflammatory traditionally used for severe post-surgical pain.

Based on what is known — on what science has shown — these practices are far more dangerous and damaging to the human body than use of marijuana, especially CBD, would be. There’s really no argument for the other side besides historical prohibition and senseless stigma.

If the neuroprotective, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of marijuana can benefit football players, there’s no question those same qualities could be applied to similar issues in other sports that feature violence — most notably professional boxing and MMA, but even hockey or soccer, in which collisions and head trauma have become concerns.

By the same token, it follows logically that some of those benefits could be useful to athletes in basketball or baseball, where a natural, anti-inflammatory substance that promotes recovery would be incredibly helpful.

From a scientific perspective, this is just the beginning — as legality spreads, research will only increase, and the clearly innumerable uses for Bob Marley’s favorite plant will continue to be illuminated. For our athletes’ sakes, let’s hope their respective leagues catch up with the law.

There may be no saving Zach Randolph from the weight of the law (regardless of how unfairly that’s doled out), but a timely shift of philosophy from the power brokers of America’s pro sports leagues could literally save lives.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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