NGSC Sports

Football Fabulosa – Smoke em if ya got em? Has marijuana testing run it’s course?

This week’s installment of Football Fabulosa takes a look at the issue of the drug testing policy on marijuana in the National Football League and whether it’s time to quit drug testing for it. For the record I have long been critical of the NFL’s drug policies in large part because they are arbitrary and often make little sense. In fact, I am critical of all drug testing in sports for the same reasons and because it makes billions of dollars for those who are heavily invested in profiting from and moralizing the issue.

First, let’s differentiate between the two different types of drug testing. The issue of pot smoking would fall under the umbrella of the substance abuse policy which is different from the policy against the use of performance enhancing drugs. Frankly, there are issues with both in my opinion but let’s focus this week on the former and not the latter. The NFL really needs to comprehensively redo it’s entire drug policy but that issue is for another day.

In terms of drug testing, the distinction is important. Under the performance enhancing drug portion of the policy, random drug testing can occur all year. Under the substance abuse policy, random drug testings for players not in the program only occurs during the offseason. The reason for the distinction is because the NFL continues to push the farce that it’s performance enhancing drug policy is a preventative measure designed to eliminate a competitive edge.

The issue of marijuana and the NFL was brought to the forefront by a number of things colliding at once but primarily due to the Super Bowl being hosted by two teams located in states where pot has now been legalized. Both teams had players suspended for alleged pot use. For Seattle, the issue is brought even closer to home with the in season suspension of cornerback Brandon Browner.

Browner’s case is interesting and relevant here because he has the distinction of being suspended the past 2 seasons for violating both the substance abuse policy and the policy against performance enhancing drugs. In Browner’s case, his substance abuse suspension arises allegedly from the use of marijuana. I use the word allegedly because the drug policy is supposed to carry confidentiality but like much of the drug policy that is a farce too. Leaks are not only common they are pretty standard.

Browner’s case also contains this twist. He first tested positive while playing for the Denver Broncos in 2005. He then allegedly missed some NFL mandated tests while he wasn’t even playing in the league but was in Canada playing from 2007-2010. The NFL placed him in Stage 3 of it’s policy. The details of Browner’s case are not known, but the substance abuse policy contains 4 levels.

A first violation (either a failed test or a related issue such as a DUI) will put the player in the program. A second violation will put him at Stage 1. In Stage I, the player is subjected to additional testing subject to the discretion of the Regional Medical Director. The time frame for a Stage I violation is supposed to be 90 days but at their discretion the Regional Medical Director can extend that time up to six months.

A third violation puts the player in Stage 2 and can subject them to a fine of up to three week’s salary. Under the Stage 2 plan, a player can be tested without notice up to 10 times a month. A violation in Stage 2 can result in a 4 to 6 game suspension and a fine of up to 4 game checks. Players are subject to Stage 2 monitoring for the lesser of two full seasons or twenty-four consecutive months.

The final level is Stage 3 and if a player makes it thus far he will remain in this level for the duration of his professional career. For those keeping score at home, you can climb the peaks to Stage 3 via two positive tests or a positive test and a failure to comply with the program. This is supposedly how Browner got to Stage 3. A violation while in Stage 3 will subject the player to a minimal suspension of one calendar year.

All this brings me to my larger point. Is it time for the NFL to stop testing for marijuana? The policy can be best described as a “we look the other way so long as you aren’t stupid” one. While it may seem easy to escape the clutches of the policy once you are in the clutches the process is a complicated one. It also begs the larger issue of whether it is all worth it.

New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie recently said and said the league might as well quit testing since players would smoke anyway. Cromartie would later clarify his statement on twitter:

He also makes it clear he doesn’t smoke. Many current and former players are going on record saying players smoke pot. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark went on ESPN’s First Take and said players were going to use marijuana regardless of what the NFL mandates and it’s clear that is the case. Currently, 20 states have legalized medical marijuana along with the District of Columbia.

Now granted, it’s pretty easy to smoke pot and get away with it so long as you aren’t in the program. Using that as an argument against dumping the anti-pot policy seems specious. Clearly there is a changing environment regarding the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. While it may be hard to separate recreational use from medicinal use that doesn’t mean you automatically condemn it’s use entirely.

Clark mentioned that many players use pot to eliminate stress and to deal with the pain that comes with playing the game. To be sure, players who speak openly about the topic make it clear they don’t smoke pot which is hardly surprising. No one wants to put a big bulls-eye on their back. Estimates over how many NFL players actively smoke pot have gone as high as 50 to 60%.

Roger Goodell was asked prior to the Super Bowl whether the league had any intentions of dumping drug testing of it’s players. Predictably, he fell back on the CBA and said it was collectively bargained and the players agreed to it. He also wandered into the tired old argument that marijuana smoking carried with it concerns about addiction.

I find the CBA argument to be largely laughable. The NFLPA had bigger concerns in its dealings with the NFL during the negotiation of the last CBA than the issue of pot smoking with players. The union was fighting a big battle over money and benefits that carried much larger implications. The owners were determined to gain concessions from the players to make up for perceived “losses” they were seeing in revenue sharing and the union was fighting a battle over misleading profit information that was being largely leaked since the league refused to turn over its books.

There is no way the union was going to sacrifice any monetary benefits over the issue of pot smoking. It’s not even clear the time was ripe for that discussion to take place. This issue needed to be won first in the court of public opinion which is where we are now.

Goodell also pointed out that marijuana use was still illegal on a national level which is certainly true. Also true is the increasing recognition that the war on drugs was doomed from the start and possibly a misconceived idea from the get go. Again, however, we venture into the court of public opinion where the tide appears to be turning.

The NFL is ever careful with it’s public image so it’s safe to say the drug policy over pot use likely won’t change while pot use is illegal on a national level. Here too the tides are changing. There is a growing consensus that the current federal prohibition toward pot usage has run it’s course. It seems clear that the court of public opinion is weighing heavily in support of the legalization of marijuana.

That leaves me to the issue Goodell raised regarding the addictive nature of marijuana. While it’s true that marijuana can be addictive it’s also true that in the larger sense the addiction issue is a psychological issue and not one confined merely to pot. The vast majority of pot smokers do not become addicted and those that do fall into a larger category of individuals with an addictive personality disorder. There is overwhelming medical evidence that marijuana is not a gateway drug.

There is increasing knowledge and understanding of the legitimate benefits of marijuana use for a number of medical problems. Among those relevant to professional football players are some already mentioned. The THC ingredient in marijuana has long been known to be effective in treating anxiety, depression and chronic pain. There are certainly medications being prescribed for these conditions that clearly have far more concern to users than pot usage including side effects and addiction.

Consider any of these medications and you will instantly note they come with a laundry list of warnings. There is much medical evidence that marijuana carries with it less concern than what is already quite commonly prescribed. In America, someone dies every 19 minutes from an overdose of a prescription drug. There isn’t a single documented example of anyone dying from an overdose of marijuana and it isn’t likely to happen either. Not even the most dedicated pot smoker could consume 1500 pounds of weed within 15 minutes to produce a lethal response.

Even more importantly for the NFL, there is growing evidence that marijuana has another use outside of what had already long been known. The non THC ingredient in marijuana, or Cannabidiol, appears to have valuable benefits in treating brain issues. With increased awareness of the concussion issue, and more attention now than ever before on the lingering effects of head trauma, these latest developments in the therapeutic use of pot on brain recovery and prevention of damage mean the NFL will have even less reason to want to enforce the current prohibition on marijuana usage.

In sum, the time is rapidly approaching when the league will be more squarely in the cross-hairs of this issue but that time isn’t right now. While a federal prohibition remains intact regarding the use of marijuana for any use, the NFL is certain not to budge on it’s prohibition policy. It seems likely the nation is headed toward an abolition of the federal policy. If and when that happens, then the league will be forced to address the issue squarely.

When that time comes, the league should abandon it’s drug testing policy toward marijuana and never look back.

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