On Election day, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana use. Rather predictably, social media lit up with jokes about the Mile High City, Rocky Mountain High, the Denver Nuggets and the Spaced Out Needle. Even Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was not immune to the light hearted ribbing, with references to his two million pizza giveaway promotion and his plan to become a pizza franchisee with twenty-one locations in the Denver area.
Although the ballot results in Colorado and Washington state has provided fresh fodder for late night comedians, there is nothing comical about how the legalization of marijuana will affect the sports world. Almost immediately after the results were tabulated, the major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NCAA, MLS and NASCAR) all chimed in and announced the cannabis plant will continue to be on the leagues’ list of banned substances for athletes. In essence, sports drug policies have remain unchanged.
Assuming the legalization trend for marijuana continues and the Federal Government is unable to suppress this democratic movement by individual states, what would be the ultimate ramifications for America’s sports institutions? To attempt to answer this question, we will look at three European countries which have decriminalized marijuana and determine how this approach has affected their sports leagues.
The countries of Spain, Portugal and The Netherlands have decriminalized the possession and personal use of cannabis in one way or another. What effect has this had on their professional soccer organizations, which are the equivalent of American sports leagues? Let’s take a closer look.
Since implementing decriminalization legislation, all three of the aforementioned European countries have had few, if any, high profile incidents involving professional athletes and marijuana use. In fact, compared to narcotic incidents involving American professional and college athletes, marijuana is a non-issue in these European countries. Certainly, from this perspective, it would appear that cannabis prohibition may lead to more problems than decriminalization. European soccer is notorious for scandals involving game fixing. There are very few scandals which involve illicit drug use by athletes.
Furthermore, all three European nations have had very successful national soccer programs. Spain, who is the cream of the crop, won the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Euro Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo, who is arguably the best soccer player in the world, is Portuguese. As for the Netherlands, their national team has been a perennial fixture on the international scene since Johan Cruyff was named the top player of the 1974 World Cup.
Relaxation of marijuana laws in Spain, Portugal and Holland has in no way hindered the performance of their athletes on the national and international stage. In addition, the more permissive drug laws have not led to any noticeable increase in criminal activity by athletes from these nations. By using the European model as a frame of reference, it can be surmised that legalization of marijuana would have no adverse affects on American athletes from a performance standpoint.
Since drug addiction is widely believed to be a disease, individuals who abuse narcotics will continue to do so (unless they seek proper treatment), regardless of the drugs’ legality and availability. By legalizing marijuana, it is highly doubtful that usage and addiction rates will increase, since the product is already easily accessible. In the United States, for many who are under the drinking of twenty-one, it is easier to find a joint to smoke than a beer to drink.
The American sports leagues have very little, if anything, to worry about if the cannabis legalization trend continues. This should not affect the athletes, nor the game, in any adverse way. If anything, for those who partake in the consumption of marijuana, legalization will remove the unsavory and potentially dangerous scenario of dealing with a criminal element when seeking to obtain the product. As any insurance underwriter will tell you, minimizing risk is always the way to go.
So it may be time to chill out a bit, because judging from the European model, relaxation of marijuana laws does not mean America’s cherished sports institutions will soon be turning to pot. If anything succeeds in taking down the sporting world, it will be pressing financial concerns. And for those who have doubts, check out the NHL, who is currently grappling with a much more serious and ominous green issue than marijuana legalization.