How Cannabis is Changing the Game for Professional Athletes

How Cannabis is Changing the Game for Professional Athletes

Table of Contents

There has been a noticeable shift in the conversation about cannabis in sports. Although many professional athletes made headlines during the 2000s for failing a drug test, these very same athletes have evolved into fierce pro-cannabis advocates. 

The idea that cannabis is unfairly performance-enhancing has been thrown out, with many athletes esteeming the plant instead as a recovery tool. If the NBA and the UFC are any indication, major sports leagues are following suit in recognizing cannabis' potential beyond the field. This plant's role in sports just got a lot more interesting, but where did this evolution start?

History of Cannabis Use in Pro Sports

UFC: Mixed martial arts or MMA fighters in the cage

It may come as a surprise, but up until 2004, only a few professional sports organizations had any policies regulating cannabis. A handful of pros got in trouble for enjoying cannabis before then, and most of the time, it was off the field.

But in 2004, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) got involved. They assumed total responsibility for which substances were prohibited in professional sports

One of the first changes WADA made was a total ban on cannabis. Even at the time, the inclusion of cannabis on the prohibited substances list was extremely controversial. Many argued that the plant wasn't a performance enhancer — it was just a social issue (at this point, cannabis, no matter the concentration of Delta-9 THC, was still widely illegal). 

Despite the pushback, WADA's anti-cannabis policy remained in place throughout the 2000s, with all major sports organizations, leagues, and competitions adopting it. This strict policy meant athletes were subjected to constant random drug testing, often hundreds of times a season.

In many cases, testing didn't go well for the athlete. The headlines were endless: Ricky Williams, an NFL running back, failed in 2006Nick Diaz, an MMA welterweight, was banned from the UFC in 2015 in 2015; and Sha'Carri Richardson, a track superstar, was suspended in 2021

Thankfully, with the changing public opinion and legislation, official sports policies surrounding cannabis are also changing. In January of 2024, the NCAA Division made waves by proposing to remove cannabis from its banned substances list.

Plus, we have gained a greater scientific understanding of how cannabis impacts performance (and newsflash: it doesn't enhance it). Now, we are witnessing a cascade of professional sports leagues reassessing their anti-cannabis stance.

The Evolution of Cannabis and Pro Sports

Close up of male athlete getting ready to start running on track . Focus on sneakers

With much more cannabis research, there is a greater understanding of its role not necessarily as a performance enhancer but as a recovery tool. This has helped some of the world's largest pro sports associations shift opinion and, in some cases, completely stop testing athletes for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Here are just a few of the highlights in the last few years of sports leagues that have updated their drug policies on cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD): 


In 2023, the NBA agreed to stop testing its players for cannabis under the new collective contract.


While still banned for use by players, the NFL and the players associated have recently joined forces to fund research into alternative pain management, with a focus on CBD.


Unless a player shows signs of intoxication during a game or practice, the MLB no longer tests its players for cannabis.


As of 2021, the UFC has decided that positive test results will no longer result in punitive action against their fighters.

A Note on the Anti-Doping Agency's Opinion

Despite these rapidly evolving policies on CBD and THC use by athletes, WADA remains firmly against it. Importantly, after a year-long review in 2023, the organization concluded cannabis wasn't a performance enhancer. But, interestingly, they still determined it failed "the Spirit of Sport" criteria.

Until WADA changes its stance, athletes competing in the PGA, ATPand WTA, as well as in any Olympic programming, will be tested (and punished) simply for enjoying the effects of this plant.

4 Quotes from Pro-Cannabis Professional Athletes

Michael phelps

Agência Brasil Fotografias, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Remember in 2009 when Michael Phelps's career was almost ruined because he was caught smoking at a party? In a statement after the scandal, Phelps apologized to his fans, saying, "I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me."

But these days, athletes are a far cry from apologizing for enjoying THC and CBD—they are celebrating it. Here are just a few big names proclaiming their love of this plant and detailing how it's helped their careers and recovery.

Please keep in mind that these are just perspectives from athletes on cannabis, not advice from a licensed physician. As of this writing, cannabinoids are not approved by the FDA to treat any type of medical condition. If you are curious about cannabis in conjunction with athletics and recovery, please consult your doctor. 

1. Ricky Williams

Ricky Williams, a now-retired professional football player, built a name for himself in the NFL as a powerful running back. He played for teams like the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins. 

In his professional NFL career, Williams frequently relied on cannabis to cope with the heavy physical repercussions of football. He was also just as regularly getting caught. But this journey eventually led him to become a passionate advocate for cannabis as a recovery option for athletes

"If we're on the plane ride home, the trainer is walking down the aisle and has two capsule cases — one of Ambien, and the other one of Vicodin. And the truth is, for football players, we do need something because it hurts, and you're all revved up, and it's hard to calm down and go to sleep. And I'd love to see cannabis as being one of those things that the trainer is walking down the aisle and offering to those players." -Ricky Williams

2. Liz Carmouche

A mixed martial artist, Liz Carmouche has, quite literally, fought her way to the top, first with Invicta, then with the UFC, and now with Bellator. 

After more than a decade in the ring, Carmouche won the Bellator Women's Flyweight World Championship and continues to hold the belt. She relies on CBD to recover from her bouts in the Octagon and uses her voice to normalize its use in sports.

"I think that most people see me as being this professional person, not just in how I train in my career field in MMA, but also as a gym owner and an instructor. I pride myself on professionalism and I think that they see that very clearly; I'm not the person who is using recreationally, and that's why I'm using CBD. That is not what it's for, and so I think that they trust what I have to say. So I just try to speak out in that way and be a representative the best way I can." -Liz Carmouche

3. Darren McCarty

Throughout Darren McCarty's NHL career spanning more than 15 years, he constantly managed sports-related injuries but also the side effects of conventional prescriptions. McCarty's initial foray into the world of cannabis helped him overcome his internal stigma about the plant because it so effectively controlled these challenging side effects. It was this first experience that completely changed his life's trajectory. 

"My body was like, 'What the hell? Wait, hold on, somebody is lying to you.' So the fact that I put my mind to something, then I got educated because it saved my life. I came to it later, but the education is there. It's always been there. I'm glad everybody's sort of catching up to the reality of it." -Darren McCarty

4. Ross Rebagliati

Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati made waves when he took home the gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics, but not in the way he wanted. After the win, he tested positive for cannabis use, which (temporarily) stripped him of his medal. 

Because of this experience, Rebagliati became a spokesperson for cannabis in sports. He has made it one of his life's missions to push for changes at WADA.

"It's irresponsible to keep cannabis a part of the list of banned substances… It's a natural product, it grows from the ground… and you can use it in a healthy way. CBD was taken off the banned substance list from WADA which is super positive.. But, THC is not something they should be concerned with… The list of banned substances is about a fair playing field and that's it…" -Ross Rebagliati

With so much adamant athletic support behind cannabis as a post-game tool, it only made sense to create our ORCA Max Strength Recovery THC Roll-on. We designed it to encourage rapid, targeted recovery for your joints and muscles, thanks to a harmonious blend of hemp-derived Delta-9, Delta-8, full-spectrum CBD, and the cooling touch of menthol.

Examining the Evidence: THC and Athletic Performance

First things first, cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug. While research suggests that cannabinoids help you activate your natural "Runner's High" faster, it doesn't make you a super-athlete. Not only is there increasing scientific evidence on the matter, but even WADA agrees with this statement. 

In fact, a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, notes "There is no direct evidence of performance-enhancing effects in athletes. The potential beneficial effects of cannabis as part of a pain management protocol, including reducing concussion-related symptoms, deserve further attention."

In essence, researchers are starting to reach a consensus that cannabis doesn't make you faster, stronger, or increase your endurance. Instead, THC and CBD may have beneficial therapeutic effects after game day.

Cannabis— A Potential Tool for Recovery

Shifting attitudes and better research mean major sports leagues like the NFL and NBA are reevaluating their stance on cannabis. It's no longer seen as a performance enhancer on par with steroids and testosterone. Instead, it gives athletes an alternative option to recovery.

Of course, we only have to look at the Olympics and WADA to see there is still a lot more to come in the evolution of cannabis in sports. Until then, keep your mind (and body) in mind. 

FDA Disclaimer: The statements made regarding these products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The efficacy of these products has not been confirmed by FDA-approved research. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. All information presented here is not meant as a substitute for or alternative to information from health care practitioners. Please consult your healthcare professional about potential interactions or other possible complications before using any product. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires this notice.

Related Posts

Elevate Your Fitness Routine: Unlocking the Potential of THC and Exercise

July 23, 2023

Elevate Your Fitness Routine: Unlocking the Potential of THC and Exercise
THC, CBD, & Exercise Recovery: A New Study Sheds Light

August 14, 2023

THC, CBD, & Exercise Recovery: A New Study Sheds Light


All Body and Mind

Related Products

ORCA Recovery Bundle
ORCA Recovery Bundle
ORCA Runner's Bundle
ORCA Runner's Bundle
ORCA Discovery Set
ORCA Discovery Set
Previous post Back to blog Next post