Former NBA forward Matt Barnes is a noted cannabis at the forefront of the campaign to allow medical marijuana in sport. A battle he says is more about racism and stigma than anything else.
Before Matt Barnes was sinking threes, he was smoking weed. "I started smoking when I was 14," Barnes told Civilized. "I had a tough upbringing, and it always relaxed me, always allowed me to sleep, made me feel better." Barnes, who over his 13-year career played for the Lakers, the Clippers, and the Golden State Warriors (with whom he won an NBA Championship against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017), announced his NBA retirement in December 2017.
Now out of the league and truly a free agent at last, Barnes is using his celebrity and platform to speak on behalf of the cannabis plant, which he believes has long been integral to his success and wellness.
"Being able to use my platform and put more of a positive message about cannabis out there was something I wanted to do. Finally retiring after last year, I just really feel like it needed help. It needed a voice. It was still such a negative stereotype."
"For the first time ever, those professional athletes were on television talking about their use. Why they used it. There’s such a negative stigma attached to it that people don’t ever take the time to figure out why these guys are using it," Barnes said, of the documentary.
"Professional athletes across all sports—we have crazy lives. We take care of a village. We have no privacy. We travel. Our schedule is crazy. Injuries. There’s a lot going on. I’m pretty sure a majority of professional athletes have some sort of vice."
In Barnes’s view, cannabis offers athletes a way to help with focus. He himself favored an afternoon joint and a nap a few hours before games to get in the zone. It also affords players a way to sleep or work through injuries without relying on alcohol or dangerous prescription medications. Access to cannabis would, in his view "eliminate the stuff you hear athletes constantly getting in trouble for."
While Barnes himself was in the NBA, his own cannabis use was something that required constant maneuvering around the league’s strict testing standards—players are randomly tested four times a year, and can be reprimanded for testing positive more than three times over the course of their careers.
"I was at, like a 2.75," Barnes recalled with a chuckle. "Even though I got caught a couple times, I learned to smoke within the system. I would just eat really clean, drink a lot of water, stay in the steam room to sweat it out. For the most part, that got me through my whole career."
A 'minority drug'
In Barnes’s view, the NBA’s testing standards—unparalleled across professional sports—are indicative of the racial issues underlying cannabis laws nationally.
"Cannabis is stereotyped as a minority drug, and I think it really stems from that. The NBA is majority black, and we’re the only professional sports league that tests for it four random times during the season."
Barnes feels, however, that there is hope for the NBA to take a more progressive stance in its view of players who consume cannabis responsibly. He has a meeting set with league commissioner Adam Silver to discuss this issue, and says Silver is open to a dialogue on the issue.
"The NBA paves the way when it comes to culture and changing things," Banes added, noting that progress in his own league would be "a big step for professional sports as a whole."
In addition to speaking with Silver, Barnes has plans this summer to work with a team at UCLA launching the first-ever "athlete-driven fund to provide and to conduct research for the positive outcomes from cannabis use." He hopes that teaming up with a prestigious academic institution like UCLA will lend more widespread credibility to the plant, and its valid and varied uses by professional athletes.
"People have no problem with athletes drinking alcohol out in the club or taking painkillers for pain. People have no problem with that. That leads to DUIs and death, and the opioids lead to addiction and all other kinds of bad things. Let someone smoke a joint, though, and they’re the worst person on earth. So I just think, the research at the palm of your hand. The power is there. Before you sit back and judge someone, just do a little bit of research."