On June 19, Canada became only the second country, after Uruguay, to legalize the use and sale of recreational marijuana. The new law, which goes into effect Oct. 17, isn’t expected to have much impact on the NHL and its drug-testing policies, but the debate on whether marijuana should be used to ease players’ day-to-day maladies is beginning to stir.
Riley Cote is one who’d like to see it made available to players. For the former Philadelphia Flyers enforcer, every night in the NHL was a battle. Game after game, he was expected to face an opponent who wanted to exchange blows. According to hockeyfights.com, in 156 NHL games, Cote dropped the gloves 51 times. That was on top of his 133 fights in 526 minor-league and junior games. Tally it up and Cote fought on average once every three games from the time he was 16 years old until he retired at 28.
To help deal with the pain, inflammation and anxiety that came with his chosen profession, Cote turned to marijuana. “It was a very therapeutic and healing tool for me,” Cote said. “I was able to not worry about fighting a 6-foot-6 human being the next night. Where I could actually calm my nerves and sleep, versus some of the stories I’ve heard with guys that would literally (not) sleep and sweat all night. They just can’t shut down their brains because you’ve got the anxiety of fighting someone that’s big and bad. It’s not a normal state to be in.”
When Cote made the NHL, however, he began leaving marijuana behind on road trips to avoid work and legal ramifications. In its place, he started using opioids, such as muscle relaxers, pain pills and sleeping pills, to manage his ailments – the same destructive pattern that claimed the life of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard in 2011. “After games, the trainer would come through the plane or the bus, saying, ‘How you feeling? How’d the game go? Can I get you anything?’ ” Cote said. “Depending on what you were feeling or whether it was a sleep issue or a muscle-relaxing issue or a pain issue, you could request virtually anything.
“That’s when I kind of got swallowed up into that cycle.”
Cote, who first tried marijuana recreationally as a 15-year-old growing up in Winnipeg, retired in 2010 and has since become an advocate and full-time businessman in the marijuana industry. He has stakes in two marijuana companies and is a founding member of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, which supports the use of marijuana, specifically cannabidiol (CBD). That’s the part of the plant that doesn’t contain Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects, and has the same anti-anxiety, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties as marijuana. Cote founded the Hemp Heals Foundation and co-founded Athletes for Care with fellow former athletes, a non-profit that aims to assist athletes after their career and supports the use of marijuana. “Every day (guys reach out to me for assistance),” Cote said. “Every day, I get blown up from guys I played with, random people I played against.”
In Canada, marijuana will be made legal across the country. In the U.S., however, it’s classified as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, even though some states have legalized it for personal, recreational and medical use. According to the DEA, this classification means that marijuana is considered a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other drugs that fall under this classification include heroin, LSD and peyote. Currently only nine states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington (as well as D.C.) – allow recreational use. In total, 30 states allow medical marijuana. “I can confidently say my cannabis use during my playing career, and my CBD cannabis use now, have not only protected my brain but actually helped neurogenesis, brain-cell growth and helped contribute to my mental health,” Cote said. “I know that’s a little hard for a lot of people to understand, but I was punched in the face for a living over 1,000 times. I probably had more head trauma, repeated head trauma, then most…I know the science. It validates my belief system now.”
Marijuana is tested by the NHL, as per the collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA, but isn’t on the banned substance list since the league doesn’t consider it a “performance-enhancing” drug. If a player is found to have a dangerously high level of cannabis in his system, he is examined by doctors with the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program to assess whether or not the player requires further review. (Cote admits he would’ve been suspended tenfold during his playing days if the drug had been banned.) However, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the governing body the NHL and NHLPA use to base their list off of, lists natural cannabinoids such as cannabis, hashish and marijuana, as well as synthetic cannabinoids, as banned. CBD is not. “I believe that the NHL is quietly aware that THC or cannabis really has zero negative side effects,” Cote said. “They’ve quietly turned a blind eye to anybody that tests positive for THC. I’ve never heard anybody go to the substance-abuse program for specifically THC alone…They still test for it, so the media isn’t all over them for, ‘Why aren’t you testing? Are you actually promoting cannabis use?’
“I know there have been players (who have played) high. To tell you the honest truth, I have no problem with it. That’s on the player. If he’s going to over-consume where he’s going to sacrifice his performance, well, shame on the player.”
It was a very therapeutic and healing tool for me. I was able to not worry about fighting a 6-foot-6 human being the next night
– Riley Cote
Will there come a day when trainers give marijuana to players after games? Cote hopes so. He stresses marijuana usage isn’t always about getting high. He points out that marijuana is a non-synthetic drug, and he considers it a powerful healing tool to assist in recovery. He believes the misnomer of what it brings to the table needs to be changed. The use of marijuana, specifically the use of non-psychoactive cannabinoids, could assist in recovery from lowering inflammation, easing anxiety and dulling the pain caused by the physicality of hockey – but in a healthy, plant-based formula as opposed to pharmaceuticals. For his part, Cote is dedicated to not only helping former players transition from the game but also providing them with a safe alternative to the opioids and alcohol to which some turn to cope. “A lot of these guys are old-school, self-medicating with alcohol and opioids, and they’re just following protocols,” Cote said. “They’re just following what the doctor’s orders are, ‘Take your pills as prescribed, and alcohol really isn’t that destructive. Just drink that because it’s OK and it’s legal.’ All of a sudden, you see these guys go down this really dark downward spiral…physical disabilities, physical injuries, mental health issues, addiction issues. They’ve got a lack of purpose and lack of identity, and then these guys are totally scrambled potatoes.
“So, it’s starting with managing your life…and then it’s managing your ailments with sustainable cannabinoids versus the destructive nature of these other things.”