Inside NFL’s Backwards Marijuana Policy
Ross Benes reports in Rolling Stone:
At the conclusion of North Dallas Forty wide receiver Phil Elliott, played by Nick Nolte, gets blackballed by his team owner for “smoking a marijuana cigarette.” After being presented with a photo that shows Elliott toking up, the team owner patronizes Elliott and says, “Illegal drugs are forbidden by the league rules Phil, you know that.” To which Elliott replies: “Jesus, smoking grass, what are you kidding me? If you nailed all the ballplayers who smoked grass, you wouldn’t even be able to field a punt return team. Besides that, you give me the hardest stuff in Chicago just to get out of the goddamn locker room. Hard drugs!”
Though North Dallas Forty is technically fictional and came out nearly 40 years ago, its story is a classic example of the same-shit-different-day phenomenon. In recent weeks, Bills linemen Marcell Dareus andSeantrel Henderson were each suspended four games for using marijuana. And Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott caused a scandalby simply walking into a legal weed-friendly establishment. Meanwhile, the NFL was busy knuckling players into “cooperating” with a doping investigation based on scant and recanted evidence.
Given America’s growing acceptance of cannabis, the bad press the NFL gets when it punishes marijuana use more harshly than domestic abuse, and the personal tragedies and lawsuits that have stemmed from team doctors overprescribing opioids, it seems a little peculiar that the NFL continues to retain an authoritarian stance on marijuana use while team doctors simultaneously dole out powerful and addictive painkillers. Especially considering that the league is mired in concussion suits and there’s a possibility that cannabis could reduce the impact of head trauma.
To get a better grasp of this dissonance, let’s take a look at the changing national perception of marijuana, possible incentives the NFL has for maintaining its marijuana policies, upcoming football-related cannabis research initiatives, and what it might take to get the NFL to stop punishing players for using marijuana.
As Kevin Seifert of ESPN pointed out, during the hysteria of the War on Drugs in the 1980s it was “politically and socially necessary” for the NFL to discipline marijuana users. But after the war on drugs proved to be a massive failure, people began viewing certain drugs more tolerantly, and now polls show that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana. As public support increased so did legalization, and today more than 60 percent (20 of the 32 teams) of NFL teams play in states that allow medical marijuana. Come November that percentage could grow as there are a plethora of state ballot initiativespushing for medical and recreational marijuana legalization.
There are also bills in the Senate and House aimed specifically at cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD), which is a compound found in cannabis that doesn’t get people high. CBD is typically taken orally and it includes only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis. A group of vocal ex-players are pushing the league to allow players to use CBD as a pain reliever. Because as the league’s policy currently stands, a player taking CBD could potentially surpass the league’s testing threshold and test positive.
“The risk [of testing positive for using CBD] is very low compared to the people using high-THC cannabis,” said Joel Stanley, CEO of hemp extracts producer CW Hemp. “But there certainly is a risk. But when you have something that you know is non-toxic, non-psychoactive, and non-addictive, and if you are in those high-impact situations, why not [allow players to] take that product?”
The NFL declined interview requests for this story. But a league spokesperson sent over the following statement:
Independent medical advisors to the league and the National Football League Players Association are constantly reviewing and relying on the most current research and scientific data. The league will continue to follow the advice of leading experts on treatment, pain management and other symptoms associated with concussions and other injuries.
It went on to say: . . .