Last year, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was crippled by back pain so severe he missed half of his team’s record-breaking regular season. He was so desperate for relief, he told the Warriors Insider podcast on Friday (as picked up by ESPN), that he even tried smoking pot.
“A lot of research, a lot of advice from people, and I have no idea if I would — maybe I would have failed a drug test,” he said on the podcast. “I don’t even know if I’m subject to a drug test or any laws from the NBA, but I tried it, and it didn’t help at all. But it was worth it, because I’m searching for answers on pain. But I’ve tried painkillers and drugs of other kinds, as well, and those have been worse. It’s tricky.”
Then Kerr laid out why he thinks the NBA’s, and other sports leagues’ policies on this, are silly and potentially harmful to players: “I tried it a few times, and it did not agree with me at all. So I’m not the expert on this stuff. But I do know this: If you’re an NFL player, in particular, and you got lot of pain, I don’t think there’s any question that pot is better for your body than Vicodin,” he said. “And yet, athletes everywhere are prescribed Vicodin like it’s vitamin C, like it’s no big deal. And there’s like this perception in our country that over-the-counter drugs are fine but pot is bad. Now, I think that’s changing.”
The story quickly picked up steam online. Warriors players Draymond Green and Klay Thompson subsequently “applauded their coach for being brave enough to speak out on this issue,” according to ESPN. The league, on the other hand, decided to sidestep a substantive response:
But Kerr’s story isn’t “irrelevant,” because there’s no way for an individual to know whether pot will work as an analgesic unless they try it, and once they try it they risk failing one of the NBA’s overzealous drug tests. So the only way a story like Kerr’s is irrelevant is if the league has a policy of being willing to retroactively overlook a positive drug test if the player subsequently explains that it was the result of medical marijuana. But it’s unclear the league actually grants such “exceptions” — as far as I know, there are zero known cases of the league allowing a player to use medical marijuana (I’ll update this post if I find out otherwise), and just a year and a half ago High Times, jumping off of TMZ Sports’s reporting, highlighted the fact that many NBA players are frustrated that even in states where medical marijuana is legal, they can get in trouble with their employer for using it.
Either way, the broader story here is important. While many states have legalized and decriminalized pot in recent years, helping to unwind the devastating drug war authorities have long waged on those who use the substance, there’s still a ways to go before the U.S. can be fairly said to have sane policies on this front. That’s why an observation Green made to to ESPN is so astute: “It usually takes a guy like Steve to do something like that to where it even starts the conversation,” he said. Kerr made a similar point himself in a follow-up interview with NBA.com, explaining how surprised he was that a serious conversation about marijuana policy turned into the sexy headline “Kerr Smokes Pot.” He predicted that “it’s only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana is allowed in sports leagues because the education will overwhelm the perception.”
Both men are talking about the messy politics of destigmatization. Because marijuana has been the subject of so much scaremongering, and because so much of that scaremongering has been racialized — it goes back at least a century, now, to stories about black jazz musicians — figures like Kerr might have a disproportionate impact nudging public opinion in a more reasonable direction. Kerr, after all, is a clean-cut white professional at the top of his field. He is not the stereotypical pot smoker. He can get people to think, Huh, if Steve Kerr thought this stuff could help, maybe we shouldn’t be locking people up for it.
This response is based on the lie that it’s only or mostly minorities who smoke pot, of course, when in fact a sizable chunk of the population does. It would be nice if we didn’t need figures like Steve Kerr to complete the process of destigmatization. But at the moment, insanely, marijuana is still a Schedule I substance — the DEA most recently knocked back an attempt to reschedule it just this past August — and, despite all those state victories, the federal government continues to wield a huge amount of power to control marijuana research and punish those who use or grow it. So while all the coverage of Kerr’s admission reflects the prevalence of backward beliefs on pot, it’s still a good thing that he spoke out the way he did.