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For the 2020-2021 season, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has chosen to freeze random cannabis testing on players, limiting their potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) announced they will stop testing players for cannabis use during the 2020–2021 season in response to the stress and quarantining brought on by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
In 2020, the NBPA sought to resume their 2019-2020 season but were met with the challenges brought on by the pandemic. To keep the players, coaches, reporters, medical personnel, and other staff safe, the NBA formed an isolation zone at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida (1). There players were able to play behind closed doors and were tested for COVID-19 every other day to prevent further infections. Other sports such as the National Hockey League (NHL) formed similar isolation zones in “hub cities” (2).
The isolation zone soon became known as the Orlando “bubble.” In the bubble, the NBPA temporarily suspended random recreational cannabis tests but continued testing for performance-enhancing drugs. On December 3, 2020, freelance journalist Ben Dowsett reported that the NBA and NBPA reached an agreement to continue the policy of not testing for cannabis. Currently, this joint agreement will remain for at least the 2020-2021 season. “Sources say this decision is largely based on COVID safety—just another way of limiting unnecessary contacts,” said Dowsett (3).
The no-testing cannabis policy was aimed at preventing unnecessary close contact and to relieve players’ stress levels while they trained and continued quarantining in the bubble. NBA spokesman Mike Bass, mentioned that the NBA and NBPA chose to extend the policy due to the “unusual circumstances” the world is experiencing right now. Health experts believe that the COVID-19 virus might be circulating for at least two years. Although cannabis testing is paused for the time being, random testing for performance-enhancing drugs will continue.
The decision to halt cannabis testing comes not long after the United Nations Commission for Narcotic Drugs (CND) held a momentous vote to remove cannabis from Schedule IV (4), a category containing drugs such as cocaine and heroin, which was spurred on from a recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO). In November 2020, five states in the US had passing cannabis legalization measures on their election ballots (5). Successively, a month later, the US House of Representatives voted on two bills to federally legalize cannabis and expand medical cannabis research (6). Thus, highlighting a growing view of acceptance for cannabis.
Under pressure for some time now to remove random cannabis testing, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, has not rejected the idea of making the current pause on cannabis testing policy permanent or hinted at introducing newer policies. Silver has mentioned that the NBA will be handling the topic with a “careful approach” to prevent sending the wrong message to young basketball fans who look up to NBA stars (7).