As sports and cannabis culture intersect, leagues and leaders rethink relationship with weed.
Local boxing promoter Lee Baxter says he didn’t know the significance of April 20 when he booked the date to stage a fight card at the Danforth Music Hall.
But when friends informed him that 4/20 is like Christmas for cannabis culture, Baxter ran with the theme. He titled the card “Light Em Up,” designed promotional posters emblazoned with green leaves, and enlisted a cannabis-friendly vape lounge as his chief sponsor.
Where Baxter used the unorthodox holiday as a marketing vehicle, marijuana’s role in the sports world and society as a whole continues to evolve as the drug becomes less taboo.
Still, Baxter knows he can’t cross certain lines. So no smoking, and no selling on fight night.
“I’ve been approached by 15 or 20 dispensaries for advertising, and I had to turn them all down,” Baxter said. “I’m not even a smoker myself. I just wanted to do something creative. I’m obviously going to abide by any rules outside of boxing.”
Medical marijuana advocate and retired NFL offensive tackle Eugene Monroe maintains his stance on the drug helped prompt the Baltimore Ravens to release him, but earlier this month Cowboys owner Jerry Jones urged fellow owners to soften their stance on weed.
The ambiguity around marijuana hasn’t abated, however.
Last week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed his proposal to legalize the drug for Canadians older than 18.
But that proposal isn’t local law yet, and as Baxter chatted with a reporter at the Queen St. E. gym he operates, police were raiding a marijuana dispensary a few blocks west.
The NFL has sent similarly mixed signals, even as players such as Monroe maintain the drug is a lower-risk alternative to the painkiller use permeating the league.
Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon received a year-long suspension for flunking a drug screening, his penalty levied during the same year Ravens tailback Ray Rice received a six-game suspension for knocking his fiancée unconscious.
Last season, Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson was suspended 10 games for a second positive test for marijuana. Henderson said he used the drug at a doctor’s direction, citing its effectiveness at mitigating the symptoms of Crohn’s disease. The league’s substance-abuse policy granted him no leeway.
“I’ve got doctors telling me this is the No. 1 medicine that would help your disease,” Henderson told the Buffalo News last year. “You try to tell that to the league, and it seems like they didn’t care too much.”
But by an April meeting of NFL owners, Cowboys owner Jones urged his peers to drop the league’s marijuana prohibition, according to a report in Pro Football Weekly.
While drug policies in pro sports are collectively bargained, combat sports such as boxing rely on a patchwork of guidelines. Most large jurisdictions make their drug policies clear, but Ontario’s Athletics Control Act, the rulebook for pro boxing, doesn’t have a banned substances list and the province doesn’t mandate post-fight drug screening. Instead, the commission says it will carry out testing if asked by a promoter.
While promoters are happy to avoid the added cost that drug testing would impose, critics say the policy threatens both safety and integrity.
“It goes without saying that a regulator allowing a promoter to call the shots on performance-enhancing drug use creates a conflict of interest,” said combat sports lawyer Erik Magraken in an email to the Star. “It basically delegates an important regulatory aspect to the body supposedly being regulated.”
The Ultimate Fighting Championship bans marijuana in competition, and imposes steep penalties for violators. Former contender Nick Diaz received a five-year ban after his third positive marijuana test following a 2013 bout in Las Vegas. But Magraken points out the Nevada commission is considering dropping its ban on marijuana.