Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The public perception of marijuana is changing, and with more and more athletes accepting the idea of cannabis as medicine, professional sports leagues — and their drug policies — are being put under the microscope.

Why it matters: Of the 123 teams across the four major sports, 45 play in states or provinces where recreational marijuana is legal (36.6%), and another 56 play in jurisdictions where medical marijuana is legal (45.5%), per ESPN.

  • That's 82% of teams (101 of 123) that play in areas where players can legally buy pot — and that number will only increase as more states move forward with legalization.

What's happening: In the the face of this dramatic shift, some leagues — worried about what "endorsing weed" might do to their image — are hesitant to change their marijuana policies. Others, like the NHL, are completely rethinking their approach.

NFL policy: Players with no previous violations are tested just once in the offseason. During the regular season, 10 players per team are randomly selected each week.

  • Punishment: 1st positive test: Enter substance abuse program. 2nd: Fined two game checks. 3rd: Fined four game checks. 4th: Four-game suspension. 5th: 10-game suspension. 6th: Banned for a year.

NBA policy: No offseason tests. During the regular season, players are subject to four random tests.

  • Punishment: 1st positive test: Enter substance abuse program. 2nd: $25,000 fine. 3rd: Five-game suspension, and five more games are added to each ensuing positive test.

MLB policy: Use of marijuana is prohibited, but the league only tests for it if they have "reasonable cause" to do so.

  • Punishment: "If a player tests positive, he might be subject to a treatment plan that can include progressive fines of up to $35,000 for one test," writes ESPN's Emily Kaplan.

And then theres' the NHL, which doesn't punish players who test positive for marijuana (which it no longer classifies as a banned substance). Instead, the league focuses on identifying those who need help and ensuring that they get it.

  • If a player has "abnormally high levels" of THC, league physicians will flag it and recommend treatment. But again, there's no punishment — and neither the NHL nor the NHLPA needs to know about it.

What they're saying:

"We are elite athletes and as long as it's not performance-enhancing or illegal, we know what's best for our own bodies. I find that a couple hits of weed at night is good for me. It's legal, it's natural, I don't see anything wrong with it."
— Anonymous NHL player (via ESPN)

What's next: "The NFL's CBA expires after the 2020 season, and it's believed the drug policy will be a major discussion point," writes Kaplan.

  • "The NFLPA probably will argue for something similar to the NHL's policy — test for marijuana, but don't punish it — and it will be worth monitoring if the NFL agrees."

P.S. ... Suspended Cowboys DT David Irving quit the NFL yesterday — while smoking a blunt.

Go deeper: Marijuana and sports betting could shine in 2019

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