Professional Athletes Leading the Way on Marijuana Reform in United States

Guest Post by Derek Helling

Individual citizens and groups all over the United States are taking part in petition campaigns, legislative hearings and other forms of lobbying to decriminalize the possession and commerce of Cannabis and its by-products. Current and former professional athletes are included in these groups.

The most notable example of this legal advocacy is former NFL player Marvin Washington, who is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions. The suit seeks relief for the plaintiffs against federal laws penalizing Cannabis possession and transportation that the suit argues violate the United States Constitution.

In July of 2017, Washington and four other plaintiffs filed suit in the southern district of New York against Sessions, the US Department of Justice, Chuck Rosenberg (the director of the Drug Enforcement Agency), the DEA and the United States government.

The main arguments of the suit were that the plaintiffs “suffered harm" and "are continuously threatened with additional harm, by reason of the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act.” The suit calls the criminalization of cultivation, distribution, sale and possession of Cannabis “unconstitutional.”

To support its argument that including Cannabis in the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional, the original complaint makes two claims. The first is that classifying Cannabis as a Schedule I drug violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. The second is that such a classification violates the fundamental right to travel protected in the Constitution as well.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, refuting all of the plaintiffs’ claims in October of 2017. In December, the plaintiffs filed their response. The case is currently awaiting Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein’s ruling on the motion to dismiss.

While Washington’s interests in the suit revolve largely around his investment in a Cannabis cultivation and distribution business, the reasons why current and former professional athletes are interested in changes in the current legal landscape regarding the plant are obvious.

Many current and former professional athletes deal with chronic, severe pain incurred in the course of their professions. Unable to find satisfactory relief in over-the-counter drugs and other therapeutic interventions, many are forced to rely on prescription medications. Many such athletes find that the dependency and other effects inherent in that strategy of pain management are as undesirable, if not more so, as the pain.

Because of undesirable side effects like drug dependency, many professional athletes choose to forego prescription pain relievers in favor of Cannabis for pain management. By doing so, they not only risk arrest under federal law, but also risk the loss of their livelihoods. Most leagues have drug policies written into their collective bargaining agreements which provide for testing for Cannabis usage. Positive tests carry penalties including fines and suspensions. With several violations, an athlete can reasonably expect her/his career in the respective league to end because no teams would be willing to carry the player on the roster.

Such is the case of former NFL player Eugene Monroe. Monroe was one of the most outspoken advocates of using Cannabis for pain management during his career. Monroe has stopped short of stating that his advocacy for change in the NFL’s policies regarding Cannabis was the reason he was released by the Baltimore Ravens and unable to secure a contract with another team since, but Monroe did say the Ravens distanced themselves from him on the matter. The timing of his release in concert with his public advocacy is at the very least intriguing.

While penalties for positive tests for Cannabis are not mandated upon the leagues by the federal government, the attitude of the federal government can be said to contribute toward the attitude toward the same in the world of professional sports.

As is proven by the proliferation of prescription opioids for pain management present in leagues like the NFL, maintaining a perception of compliance with the law is of greater importance to professional sports franchises than providing effective, safe remedies for players’ pain management. If Cannabis had never been classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA and thus the commerce involving the plant not criminalized, it could be argued that the leagues would not even test for the drug, much less penalize those who test positively.

A final reason why professional athletes could be interested in change to current Cannabis regulations is very similar to the rest of the population. Two of the other plaintiffs in the aforementioned lawsuit are parents of minors with medical conditions whose symptoms are relieved by Cannabis usage. It’s possible that professional athletes could find themselves in similar situations, if they haven’t already.

It’s the rest of the population that could stand to benefit from this type of intervention by professional athletes. Professional athletes possess varying degree of celebrity status in United States society and the most high-profile ones have the potential to raise awareness about issues to millions of people.

Whether Washington’s case is dismissed or not, it has opened a door for professional athletes openly challenging federal laws in the United States regarding Cannabis. Washington and others have their own reasons, but their efforts may benefit many more individuals.