The National Football League is about to lighten up on pot. To a point.
According to reports, the league and its players have agreed in principle to liberalize the NFL’s marijuana policy, which for years has existed somewhere between “Reefer Madness” and a 1980s winners-don’t-do-drugs public service announcement. Under the new rules, players still will be screened and punished for using marijuana, which remains a designated “substance of abuse,” akin to cocaine. However, pot-induced suspensions and banishments will require a higher number of failed tests than other substances, and the threshold for a positive marijuana test—how much of the drug needs to be in a player’s urine to trigger a red flag—will more than double, though remain lower than thresholds used by Major League Baseball and the World Anti-Doping Association.
It’s a small win for common sense. The NFL’s War on Weed—a struggle that famously cost former All-Pro running back Ricky Williams a season-long suspension and caused top talents like Randy Moss and Tyrann Mathieu to slip in the league’s annual player draft—is increasingly out of step with both medical science and the culture at large. By relaxing its marijuana policy, the NFL is better aligning itself with contemporary America. It's also lessening the odds of repeating an embarrassing summer that saw the public ridicule the league for handing Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon a longer suspension for multiple failed pot tests (an entire season) than the one former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice initially received for coldcocking then-fiancé Janay Palmer in a hotel elevator (two games).
All of that said, if the NFL truly wanted to be progressive—or just plain smart—it would be better off ending its marijuana prohibition entirely. Just Say Yes? An enthusiastic embrace of weed to rival the sports world’s longstanding love affair with alcohol? That might be premature. But a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell attitude coupled with the careful adoption of medical marijuana? That would be better for the league’s public image, and better for the health of the athletes who make professional football possible.
In general, sports organizations adopt and enforce drug bans for three intertwined reasons: (a) the substance in question acts as a performance-enhancer, giving users an unfair on-field advantage; (b) it unduly threatens athlete health and well-being, via dangerous side effects or addiction; (c) use and abuse unduly threatens an organization’s bottom line, via negative fan perception. At first glance, marijuana arguably checks at least two of those boxes. It’s largely illegal. It leaves users stoned. Weigh all of the available evidence, however, and a much stronger case can be made that pot checks none of those boxes—and that by continuing to crack down on its use, the NFL is only hurting itself.
Start with health harm. Marijuana isn’t a completely innocuous drug. Side effects can include increased heart rate, dizziness, greater appetite, paranoia, and disorientation. On the other hand, all drugs—including alcohol and caffeine—have side effects, and marijuana’s are relatively safe. No one in recorded human history has ever died from a pot overdose. It isn’t physically addictive. Withdrawal symptoms are mild or nonexistent. Vaporizing the drug and/or ingesting edibles can eliminate the respiratory toxins associated with smoking it. After a six-year study, the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission likened the risk of using cannabis to that of eating junk food. Should pro football ban Chicken McNuggets, too?
On to performance enhancement. Unlike anabolic steroids or other goodies from the Tony Bosch pharmacopeia, marijuana won’t make an athlete bigger or stronger. It won’t help them run faster, jump higher or produce the extra red blood cells needed to conquer the Pyrenees. According to doping expert Gary Wadler, the drug could help an athlete by decreasing performance anxiety— but if that’s enough to put something on the verboten list, sports leagues out to prohibit massages, smooth jazz, and afternoon tea with lemon and honey as well. More likely, pregame toking has performance de-hancing effects. As Wadler himself has written, marijuana impairs concentration, motor coordination, tracking ability, perceptual accuracy, all while making time appear to move more slowly. None of which is helpful if you’re trying to make a tackle, and/or avoid getting concussed. And that, in a vacuum, is a perfectly legitimate reason for the NFL to ban pot.
Only: Said side effects aren’t the long-term result of smoking weed at some indeterminate point in time, the way repeated hits to the head cause lasting brain damage. No, they’re the acute results of being high in the here and now.
This matters. Matters because Moss is a weed dabbler and a surefire future Pro Football of Fame inductee. Because receiver Santonio Holmes was charged with marijuana possession during the same season he was named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. Because former NFL lineman Mark Stepnoski admitted to smoking during his career and became a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws following his 2001 retirement—yet also was a college football All-American, a two-time academic All-American, a five-time Pro Bowl participant, a two-time Super Bowl-winner and a member of the league’s 1990s All-Decade second team.
How did he do it? How did they do it? More than half of the NFL’s players may smoke pot, at least according to a recent informal survey of 48 current and former players, front-office execs, head and assistant coaches, agents, medical professionals and marketing professionals conducted by sports writer Robert Kelmko of the MMQB.com. How do they manage to balance pot and on-field performance?
Simple: They don’t get blazed before or during games and practices. The same way players who drink tend not to down 12-packs of beer while on the job. Tony Villani, a trainer who has worked with 70-some NFL prospects over nearly a decade, once told the Wall Street Journal that he has seen "no correlation" between players' marijuana use and on-field work habits. Granted, some athletes will end up using marijuana irresponsibly if the league lifts its ban—but again, athletes already use non-banned alcohol irresponsibly, and it’s arguably more harmful than pot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drunk driving kills someone in America every 48 minutes and costs society more than $51 billion annually. Between June of 2012 and September of last year, Time magazine writer Sean Gregory noted, more than 20 NFL players were arrested on DUI-related charges—a number that doesn’t account for two Denver Broncos front-office executives who were arrested for drunk driving.
Prior to this year’s Super Bowl, the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project sponsored billboards around MetLife Stadium depicting a man passed out with a bottle and a football player on the ground that read, “Marijuana: Safer than alcohol … and football.” When I asked MPP director of federal polices Dan Riffle about the campaign, he told me the following:
When you watch a NFL game on Sunday, you can almost get drunk just watching. It’s every other commercial — Bud Light, Coors Light, hot girls and cheerleaders, everyone having a good time glamorizing alcohol. The NFL is obviously in bed with alcohol. If they think it’s an acceptable drug for adults to use and its players to use, why in the world would they think marijuana is unacceptable, and why in the world would they want to punish their players for it when it’s objectively safer?
Speaking of player safety, the NFL’s biggest and most dangerous drug problem doesn’t involve banned substances. Rather, it involves substances that are both allowed and provided by team doctors: prescription painkillers. Injectable numbing agents. Oxycontin and Vicodin. Marcaine and Toradol. Drugs that act less as performance enhancers than performance enablers. Football is a violent collision sport. Chronic pain and frequent, grisly bodily harm are inescapable. When I spoke to league retiree Nate Jackson about his injuries last year, he described separated shoulders, swollen joints, strained muscles and a hamstring nearly torn from the bone. "You never live pain-free in the NFL,” he told me. “You don't discuss it. But you manage pain on a daily basis. Every morning there's this moment—especially when you wake up in training camp—when you're like, what the fuck am I doing? How am I going to make it through this practice? Even getting out of bed is hard.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2011 survey of retired NFL players conducted by ESPN and researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that more than half of the respondents had taken opioids during their pro football careers; that nearly three-quarters of that group had misused the drug; and that seven percent of all players said they had misused prescription painkillers within the last 30 days, an abuse rate more than four times higher than the general population. Earlier this year, eight retired players filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the league, accusing the NFL of "intentionally, recklessly and negligently creat[ing] and maintain[ing] a culture of drug misuse, substituting players' health for profit."
Team doctors, the lawsuit claims, would “cocktail” dangerous combinations of drugs, hand out medications in plain manila envelopes without additional warnings or instructions, and administer injections that allowed injured players to remain on the field, producing irreversible long-term damage. Moreover, the suit alleges, the NFL’s drug culture turned some players into addicts—former Chicago Bears quarterback ended up taking as many as 100 Percocets a month, while retired league receiver J.D. Hill:
… received hundreds, if not thousands, of pills from trainers and doctors, including but not limited to NSAIDs, Codeine, Valium and Librium. No one from the NFL ever talked to him about the side effects of the medications he was being given or cocktailing. He left the League addicted to painkillers, which he was forced to purchase on the streets to deal with his football-related pain, a path that led him to other street medications. He eventually became homeless and was in and out of 15 drug treatment centers for a period of over 20 years until overcoming his NFL-sponsored drug addiction …
While playing in the NFL, Jackson smoked marijuana. He told me it helped him—both with pain, and with limiting his prescription drug use. Amanda Reiman, a policy manager the Drug Policy Alliance, told me last year that she noticed a similar phenomenon while interviewing medical marijuana patients in Berkeley, California while writing her doctoral dissertation in 2002. "A lot of people were consciously using marijuana for pain instead of prescription drugs,” she said. “They kept saying, 'I don't think I'll get addicted to this like my Vicodin. I'm not worried about overdosing like with my Oxycontin.' I probed further and they were even using it as a substitute for alcohol. The side effects were a lot less."
Opioids such as Vicodin and Percocet are essentially medicalized heroin, addictive and potentially fatal. The anti-inflammatory drug Toradol—a post-surgical anesthetic that is banned in some European countries but has been used in NFL locker rooms for nearly two decades—can cause kidney damage, ulcers and brain bleeding. By contrast, a review of 18 randomized controlled trials of medical cannabis published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology in 2011 found that the drug was at least moderately effective in treating neuropathic and arthritic pain—and more importantly, it was “safe,” with “no serious adverse effects.” Other studies have found that marijuana helps patients sleep better—an important part of recovery from athletic strain and injury— and that it can be an effective treatment for headaches, light sensitivity, and loss of appetite, all of which can be symptoms of a concussion.
(Along those lines, Israeli researchers are working on a cannabis-based drug that could help protect the brain following head trauma. Think the League of Denial is paying attention?)
Frank Lucido, a Berkeley-based physician who has former NFL players as patients, told the Journal that he thinks marijuana was practically designed for football ailments. “The most common thing I see in NFL players is chronic orthopedic pain," he said. “I say marijuana should not be a banned substance [in the league]. It has too many medical benefits.” Some involve mental health. Williams once told ESPN that marijuana was "10 times better for me than Paxil," a drug he had been taking to treat social anxiety disorder. A 2011 paper in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that considered marijuana use by athletes found that cannabis plays “a major role in the extinction of fear memories by interfering with learned adverse behaviors,” leading scientists to speculate that "athletes who experienced traumatic events in their career could benefit from such an effect.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, misuse of painkilling opioid medications resulted in 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008—more than cocaine and heroin combined—and more than 475,000 emergency room visits the next year, a number that nearly doubled from 2004. A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, however, found that states that have legalized medical cannabis have 25 percent fewer deaths from prescription pill overdoses than states that haven’t. Given the ESPN retiree survey numbers and the allegations in the painkiller lawsuit, can a responsible, humane NFL afford to not allow marijuana use?
“I’ve said before that maybe we should consider granting [therapeutic use exceptions to the NFL's drug policy] for marijuana use for guys who prefer to manage pain more naturally as opposed to using synthetics,” former league linebacker Scott Fujita told me last year. "That always gets a laugh. But again, I think there's no harm in at least having the discussion. And as long as something like that is managed by a health-care professional, just like with everything else we're prescribed, then perhaps it can be governed and administered responsibly."
When the NFL began testing for and punishing marijuana use in the 1980s, it did so as part of an overall drug policy that was designed as much for public-relations purposes as athlete health and well-being. America was in a moral panic over substance abuse, expanding its War on Drugs and producing insane pop-culture artifacts like this; at the time, appearing to condone pot might have offended football fans and corporate sponsors, in turn damaging the league’s bottom line. No longer. As is the case with same-sex marriage, social attitudes toward weed are rapidly liberalizing: Four years ago, an ABC News poll found that eight of 10 Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use, while last year a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of the country favors legalization for recreational use as well—the first time ever that a majority of the country has supported legalization, and a 10 percent rise from 2012.
Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Recreational pot use is permitted in Washington and Colorado—home to the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, respectively, the two teams that squared off in this year’s Super Bowl, and two teams whose fans can light up without repercussions. Should players be held to a different, more punitive standard? Does the NFL realize that it received no favorable press for suspending Gordon for a marijuana policy violation, and plenty of unfavorable press for his suspension being longer than the first one given to Rice? It’s one thing for league commissioner Roger Goodell to fine or suspend a player convicted of an actual marijuana-related crime under the league’s personal-conduct policy; it’s another to blindly continue with the NFL’s in-house urine policing, essentially creating negative headlines, scandalous suspensions and fractured fantasy football lineups where none need exist in the first place.
The good news is that league attitudes may be shifting. In 2012, Houston Texas owner Bob McNair said that while he would never have a “persistent user of drugs” on his team, he wasn’t “talking about someone who has smoked marijuana.” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll recently said the league owed a duty to its players to explore medical marijuana use regardless of social stigma. Even Goodell conceded earlier this year that the league “will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage [of marijuana] in any context, we will consider that.” Of course, the commissioner added that “our medical experts are not saying that right now.”
Still, why wait? Cannabis was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia until 1942, used as an active drug ingredient and prescribed for ailments ranging from migraines to menstrual cramps. When the drug was criminalized in 1943, federal lawmakers did so against the advice of the American Medical Association. “American physicians [gave] three million [marijuana] prescriptions per year in the 1920s,” California physician and medical marijuana expert David Bearman told me last year. “[Professional] baseball seemed to get along okay." It's high time the NFL went back to the future.