Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in Canada. The NHL has the most lenient pot policies of North America’s major team sports. But those facts, taken together, do not add up to Hockey Night in Cannabis.
Though they might someday, if Glenn Healy gets his way. He’s executive director of the NHL Alumni Association and he hopes certain compounds of cannabis can become a better painkiller for former players than dangerous opioids. Healy said his organization is working with two neurologists to study whether such compounds are safe.
“Give me the science first and last because you can’t refute science,” Healy told USA TODAY. “You can disagree with me on politics or whether you like bagpipes, but you can’t disagree on science.”
The NHL tests for cannabis but doesn’t apply penalties for positive results. When a significant amount is detected, players are referred to a behavioral health program, rather than suspended or fined. Meanwhile, multiple infractions can lead to suspensions in the NFL and NBA and fines in Major League Baseball.
“We still consider marijuana a drug of abuse,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “And our program allows for intervention in appropriate cases.”
NHL Players' Association spokesperson Andrew Wolfe said by email, “We are going to respectfully decline comment.”
Healy, of the alumni association, said he regularly hears from the wives, children and teammates of former players who have lost themselves to the thrall of opioid painkillers. Sometimes he hears from the ex-players themselves.
“I’ve had players call me and say, ‘I wish you knew me when I was me,’ ” Healy said. “That’s hard to hear.”
Proponents of cannabis say while opioids are synthetic, marijuana is a natural plant. And they say cannabidiol, or CBD, is a cannabis compound that offers relief from inflammation and pain as a nonaddictive alternative to opiates.
Healy hopes CBD can someday safely replace opioids for pain management.
"If it is Vicodin or OxyContin and I can take him from four (pills a day) to two, and he gets 50% of his day back, I win,” Healy said. “If I get him to zero, then order the rings. But it has to be based on science. It can’t be based on profit. It can’t be based on, ‘Someone told me it works.’ It can’t be based on there could be money. It has to be based on science telling me we can get people functionally integrated again.”
No less an eminence than Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, who is careful in the things he says, thinks it’s time at least to listen.
“I say this more talking about the CBD side of it, obviously: You’d be stupid not to at least look at it,” McDavid told the Associated Press. “When your body’s sore like it is sometimes, you don’t want to be taking pain stuff and taking Advil all the time. There’s obviously better ways to do it. … You’re seeing a lot of really smart doctors look into it. If all the boxes are checked there and it’s safe and everything like that, then I think you would maybe hear them out.”
Daly said the NHL reviewed its existing policies in consultation with the NHL Players Association over the summer in anticipation of Canada’s new law and determined “no changes to our current policies were necessary at this time.” He said the league issued a memorandum for all clubs to post in their dressing rooms to make players aware of the laws in Canada and in the U.S.
NHL players frequently cross the border – 24 teams are based in the U.S. and seven in Canada – and the league wants them to remember that Canada’s legalization does not change U.S. federal prohibitions.
Ben Curren is CEO of Green Bits, which produces the software that helps roughly 1,000 cannabis retailers across 12 states process more than $2.2 billion in annual sales. He thinks the NHL is a model for the other major team sports leagues in terms of pot policy.
“The NHL is ahead of the curve,” he said. “I think the other leagues should really look at that.”
Curren said cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug. “It is actually helping people and it is actually getting people off of opioids,” he said. “They can live a more sane life and manage their pain at the same time.”
That’s what Healy is hoping for.
“I’m not just talking about OxyContin or Vicodin,” he said. “It could be depression. It could be anger. It could be anxiety. It could be joint pain. It could be a lot of things. Or, after repeated blows to the head, it leaves you not in functional agreement with your world. And pretty soon, your world will not be in agreement with you. …
“I don’t want to paint a sad-sack picture of the alumni association – ‘Whoa is us.’ What I want to paint is hope. This is hope. If there is a player who is not functionally integrated, he has hope. That’s what I want to give him.”
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