The NBA’s Drug Testing Must End

NBA players and other athletes have repeatedly faced bans for their use of recreational drugs. These policies are a racist holdover from the war on drugs. It’s time we scrapped them.

Jalen Harris of the Toronto Raptors during a game against the Charlotte Hornets, 2020. (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

In early summer, Olympic sprinter and gold-medal hopeful Sha’Carri Richardson received a one-month ban from the sport due to a positive cannabis test. As punishment for her use of recreational drugs, the United States Anti-Doping Agency disallowed Richardson from competing in the Tokyo Olympics. The incident drew attention to the unfairness of drug testing policies in sports.

A similar though less prominent story broke several weeks earlier. In July, the NBA dismissed rookie Toronto Raptors guard Jalen Harris for violating the league’s anti-drug program. Harris wasn’t accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to gain an unfair advantage over fellow players. Instead, the NBA targeted him for his use of recreational drugs. This is about America’s regressive approach to drugs and the league’s history of racism much more than any attempt to promote fair competition.

Class, Race, and Cocaine

In the 1970s and ’80s, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, black athletes became more vocal and self-assured about their status in the NBA. Harry Edwards, who inspired the famous protest by African American athletes in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, anticipated and analyzed this cultural shift in his seminal 1969 book The Revolt of the Black Athlete.

However, social progress during this period in the world of sports coincided with Richard Nixon’s launching of the “war on drugs.” Liberal and right-wing media outlets alike whipped up a moral panic about drug trafficking in inner cities and black communities.

Black athletes, who had risen to prominence during these decades, became the targets of the white panic encouraged by the media. As Matthew Schneider-Mayerson notes, black athletes were “seen as stereotypically ‘black’ as a result of their alleged drug abuse, on-court fisticuffs, and public union struggles.”

The 1970s saw the NBA go from being a majority-white to a majority-black league, a shift which racists used to associated the league with illegal drug-taking. In line with centuries of pervasive white fear around the moral degeneracy of black people, various newspapers claimed, with scanty evidence, that the number of players on drugs ranged anywhere from 75 to 90 percent.

The ’70s and ’80s were also a period of remarkable labor militancy in the NBA. The persistent threat of strikes meant that the player’s union made enormous gains for racial equality and improved conditions for athletes. In this context, drug use became a political issue. Cocaine, the drug that the media was most concerned with, came to be a symbol of conservative unease about black upward mobility.

As Schneider-Mayerson observes:

By using cocaine, NBA players implicitly signaled that their wealth and power allowed them to ignore racial boundaries. Historically, African Americans who amass economic or social capital and/or rise in status — individually or collectively, as personal fortune or political movement — threaten the status quo that has privileged white Americans. During the 1970s, a decade of relative scarcity, young black men who crossed the interrelated boundaries of color and class via their economic position posed a threat to the social order of white privilege.

In 1986, two days after being drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics, college basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine-induced heart attack. Conservatives used his death to justify the intensification of the war on drugs. They defended carceral drug policy, aggressive neighborhood policing, and zero tolerance policies on college campuses and universities by appealing to the need to protect young black men and women from meeting the same fate as Bias.

Although Bias was a member of the emergent black middle class, then DEA chief John C. Lawn described him as a victim of the ghetto. The Nixon administration used his death as a spur for mass incarceration policies. Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law four months after the college star’s death. Known as the “Len Bias Law,” it carried a mandatory minimum prison term of twenty years and a maximum life sentence as well as a fine of up to $2 million.

Popular and academic discussions of Bias’s death has paid insufficient attention to the way it was used to justify policies that disenfranchised and penalized black athletes. In the wake of Bias’s overdose, league scrutiny of drug use shifted away from team-wide PED usage and instead focused on the individual misdeeds of players using recreational drugs.

A “Colorblind” Drug Policy

Throughout the 1980s, the NBA insisted that it did not apply bans and fines on violators of its drug policy in a discriminatory way. But the five bans and suspensions applied in that decade all involved black players. The first white player permanently suspended due to use of a banned substance was Chris Andersen in 2004.

Right-wingers continued to invoke Bias’s death as a pretext for violence in day-to-day DEA activities and the institution of three-strike policies regarding drug use. “Scared straight” tactics of permanent suspension in the NBA, driven by former commissioner David Stern, were the start of a series of policies that targeted black players.

In his book Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field, David J. Leonard discusses the different ways that various sports manage drug use. As Leonard notes, white-dominated sports in which drug use is an open secret, such as lacrosse and swimming, are largely free of comparable scrutiny.

This level of freedom from surveillance is unheard of for black athletes. During his steroid use scandal in 2004, fans and the media hounded Barry Bonds, despite it being well-known that the use of this PED was rampant within Major League Baseball.

Many of these attacks had explicitly racial overtones. One radio host exhorted the MLB to “hang him,” and fans cheered when a pitcher beaned Bonds. The MLB’s response to drug use within the sport only made matters worse. Summed up in Commissioner Bud Selig’s imperative to “root out steroids from the game,” the MLB simply deflected criticism from owners to players.

Just Saying No to Careers Before They Even Start

The war on drugs has ruined the careers of players before they even had a chance to make it into the NBA. Serving a forty-five-day sentence for possession of cannabis derailed Jonathan Hargett’s plans to play collegiate and professional basketball. There are countless other examples like Hargett’s, all of which affect the fortunes of black athletes more than white ones. Jalen Harris is simply the latest victim of this anti-drug crusade.

Unlike the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which passed the suspension for Sha’Carri Richardson, the NBA’s current drug policy has evolved to the point where it excludes marijuana testing. Despite this progress, the player’s collective bargaining agreement still prohibits multiple substances that are not PEDs.

Under the NBA’s drug policy, Harris’s ability to return is based on his having

…satisfactorily completed a treatment and rehabilitation program; the player’s conduct since his dismissal, including the extent to which the player has since comported himself as a suitable role model for youth; and whether the player is judged to possess . . . good character and morality.

It’s patently absurd for the NBA, a league which has continually employed alleged domestic abusers both on and off the court, to demand that drug users demonstrate “good character and morality.” While a drug-treatment program may be laudable, the jury is out on the effectiveness of compulsory treatment. There is significant evidence to suggest that compulsory treatment and abstinence-based approaches to “rehabilitation” are counterproductive and often dangerous.

Recent research by Ryan McNeil on the interplay between housing eviction and methamphetamine use suggests that substance abuse is an adaptive response to material conditions. Material and mental stresses can sometimes make stimulant use a logical form of behavior. This insight is completely contrary to the view that underpins NBA drug policy.

The dismissal of Jalen Harris — a late second-round draft pick facing an enormous amount of pressure and a very precarious employment position in the league — is a case in point. We should ask whether the NBA’s cutthroat pressure and inadequate mental health supports for players pushes athletes to use substances.

There is also the ethical question of whether the NBA should even be concerned with an individual player’s personal drug use. Harris was performing well enough for the Raptors to draft him and was, according to reports, a good fit as a teammate. It simply should not be the business of the league what substances Harris chooses to use in his own time.

Across all sports, progress on the issue of addiction has been slow or nonexistent. For a league that is widely considered the most progressive in major sports, the NBA is failing its players by adopting such a conservative approach to addiction. We need a complete revision of NBA drug policies.

The league must adopt contemporary harm-reduction methods. This could go some way toward making amends for the NBA’s complicity in the war on drugs. Until that happens, black players will continue to suffer most under these regressive policies.

Jalen Harris recently signed with a team in Italy so he can continue playing basketball. Whether or not he ever returns to the NBA, Harris has still become another victim in the unwinnable drug war.