NHL Takes Lead Again on Marijuana Front

Cannabis cited as potent player painkiller

By Kevin Allen and Erik Brady


Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in Canada. The National Hockey League 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.

That pipe dream may come to pass, 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 than dangerous opioids for former players. 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 being suspended or fined. Meanwhile, multiple infractions can lead to suspensions in the National Football League and National Basketball Association and fines in major league baseball.

“We still consider marijuana a drug of abuse,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. “And our program allows for intervention in appropriate cases.”

NHL Players’ Association spokesman Andrew Wolfe said by email, “We are going to respectfully decline comment.”

Healy 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. They say cannabidiol, or CBD, is a cannabis compound that offers relief from inflammation and pain as a non-addictive alternative to opiates.

Healy said he hopes CBD can someday safely replace opioids for pain management.